Inflexible behavior may be a byproduct of stress

This 2015 German human study found:

“15-mo-old infants exposed to stress thereafter kept performing a previously effective action, even after the action suddenly became ineffective.

Infants in a no-stress control group flexibly adjusted their behavior by disengaging from the newly ineffective action in favor of exploring an alternative action.

This finding demonstrates that stress impairs infants’ ability to adjust their behavior to changing circumstances.”

The primary measurement of stress levels was cortisol. The stressful conditions were:

  • A stranger sat down next to them;
  • A dancing robot played loud music and moved around;
  • The infant’s caregivers left the room for up to four minutes.

The study’s news coverage stated that the study’s design was an adaptation of experiments that produced the same findings in adults. But would adult humans be stressed by being left alone for four minutes? It’s likely that animal studies were the basis for some of this study’s experiments, as in the If research provides evidence for the causes of stress-related disorders, why only focus on treating the symptoms? study:

“Maternal separation in rodents is a useful model of early-life stress that results in enduring physiological and behavioral changes that persist into adulthood.”

A limitation of the study was that it involved just 26 infants.

http://www.pnas.org/content/112/41/12882.full “Stress impairs cognitive flexibility in infants”

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