Freeze to decide

A threat! One person runs away while the other faces the fight. How do we decide what to do? Research shows that our body’s freeze reaction plays a role in these types of decisions.

This post is also available in Dutch.

You want to ask your boss for a raise; after all, you’ve been working really hard lately and deserve more recognition. But just when you’ve mustered the courage to knock on your boss’ door, you hear them yelling and screaming, and you know that they’re in a very bad mood. You freeze – now what? Are you still going to try to get that raise – with all associated risks – or do you feel like running away as quickly as possible?

Cost-benefit analysis

A common way to explain how people make such decisions is by seeing it as a cost-benefit analysis. The idea is, as I described in this previous blog, that people decide what to do by considering the potential positive and negative outcomes of their actions. However, recent studies show that when there is some threat in the environment – like the angry boss – more is going on.

Stopping to prepare for action

When you are first confronted with an acute threat, your body initially goes into a defensive mode that we call ‘freezing’. Your heart rate slows down and your body becomes immobile. It almost seems as if your body temporarily shuts down. There are, however, strong indications that this shutdown is just on the surface, and that a lot is happening under the hood: while you freeze, your senses sharpen and your body prepares for action (for example, fight or flight).

Freeze to decide?

We’ve known for a while now that freezing plays a role in action preparation, but a question remains: which action? It is unclear whether this freezing response also affects the decision itself, and if so, how? This is what I investigated in my recent study.

In this experiment, participants had to make decisions about whether to approach or avoid a circle-shaped figure. If they approached it, they had a large chance of winning money (the benefits), but an equally large chance of receiving electrical shocks instead (the costs). If they instead avoided, they had a large chance of not receiving the shocks, but the same chance of not gaining any money either.

The results first showed that a stronger heart rate reduction (i.e., stronger freezing) coincided with faster response times, which supports the idea that freezing helps with preparing for action.

But what we also found, was that the extent to which participants froze was related to the effect of the cost-benefit analysis on their decisions. This could mean that when you freeze, you use a different strategy to weigh the outcomes of your choices before making a decision. This finding shows that freezing plays a role not only in whether you’ll do something, but also in what you decide to do.

But how does this work?

We are currently performing a follow-up study in which we use the MRI scanner, because we want to know how this exactly works in the brain. We are still looking for participants, so if you want to participate, click here!

Author: Felix Klaassen
Buddy: Floortje Bouwkamp
Editor: Ellen Lommerse
Translation: Felix Klaassen
Editor translation: Rebecca Calcott

Featured image courtesy of Tristan Hess via Unsplash

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