When Tired Politicians Are Called On To Make Important Decisions

10 Jul


On June 26, European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker declared that he was exhausted. “I don’t like this way of working, which leaves me sleepless,” he said. “We can’t make the right decisions when we are tired.” Since then, the meetings, conference calls, Eurogroup meetings and press conferences have continued unabated, even after midnight.

We have become witnesses to tired — even exhausted — politicians who, under conditions of intense stress, are being called upon to make historic decisions that will influence the direction of the country. Alexis Tsipras, Angela Merkel, Wolfgang Schaeuble and Jean Claude Juncker are just some of those responsible for making important decisions for Greece, as well as for the eurozone.

Psychologist Eleni Tarvara explains to us how fatigue and intense stress can influence the decision-making process.

One of the many definitions of the word “stress” is demand. According to this definition, stress results from a clash between the demand for something and the possibility of meeting the demand. To the extent that an individual is unable to meet the demand, stress increases — bringing abnormal reactions to the fore. These reactions can be especially knee-jerk, so that the individual can leave his internal “struggle” behind.

Jean Claude Junker at a press conference relating to the European Union and Greece.

A number of studies have connected the lack of sleep with reduced brain activity and lack of concentration. A study conducted by the University of Texas on two groups of soldiers showed that lack of sleep makes it difficult to reach a logical decision and influences an individual’s judgement.

The most up-to-date studies focus on the consequences stress can have on making important decisions. Some studies have shown that stress-producing factors, such as increased noise and time constraints, negatively affect people — putting them into situations with a lot of pressure, and without the ability to plan and examine alternative choices that might be available to them.

angela merkel
Angela Merkel in Paris, getting ready to meet Francois Hollande to discuss the Greek referendum.

To study precisely what influence this stress-producing demand has on an individual’s judgement, scientists designed an experiment in 1993. They asked 40 participants to take part in an electronic game involving a gunfight in a forest. For half of the participants, stress-producing conditions, such as an annoying noise, were employed. For the other half of participants, there was no stress-producing condition. Then, the stressed-out group and the composed group competed in the game. The researchers found important differences in the ways the two groups overcame difficulties. The stressed-out group concentrated more on the overall view of the operation, without giving much thought to the consequences of their decisions, in an attempt to “get this over with.” The calmer group, on the other hand, concentrated on a greater analysis of the problems, examining choices and dividing up responsibilities. The stressed-out group had difficulty coping with the game, but the other group was able to control the movements of the game.

Studies subsequently based on this data point to the presence of three basic behaviors in the movements of individuals experiencing stress. Individuals can assert themselves, attack or be passive. Individuals who exhibit assertive behavior are those who negotiate for what they need, what they desire and for their opinions without trying to impose them on others or thinking it self-evident that they’ll get their way. In the second category of reaction, we find the “aggressive” individuals. Here, while the individuals systematically defend their rights, they disregard or are indifferent to the rights of others. They easily anger, want to dominate the discussions and continue to attack and criticize even when others back down. Conversely, because they feel anxiety and guilt, passive (non-assertive) individuals find it difficult to ask that their demands be met, while they very often meet the demands of others. They often assume an apologetic stance, feel melancholy and judge themselves in the same negative way.

merkel schäuble
Angela Merkel and Wolfgang Schaeuble in discussion.

The aforementioned studies link the decision-making process within those groups that act under intense stress (anxiety, fatigue, pessimism) with a mainly aggressive or passive manner.

Thus, it seems that individuals who act under stress aren’t unaware that the most balanced choice is being assertive, which gives them the chance to defend their rights in a more systematic, non-directional and independent way. On the contrary, they resort to aggressive or passive behavior so they can to get out of the impasse they have fallen into, with a desire to return to a balanced state of calm as quickly as possible.

In collaboration with Helen Tarnaras, FIGHTSTRESS.

This article originally appeared on HuffPost Greece and was translated into English.