Seizing a unique opportunity for neuroscience research

Hilke Plassmann
Hilke Plassmann, The Octapharma Chaired Professor of Decision Neuroscience

In the early weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic, as health systems struggled and economies slowed, another problem emerged. Around the world, people’s stress levels were skyrocketing.

For Hilke Plassmann, INSEAD’s Octapharma Chaired Professor of Decision Neuroscience, this scenario presented a rare opportunity to study something that was normally hard to capture: how stress affects decision-making in a real-world setting. “We understand how stress affects decision-making when people are stressed by, say, putting their hand in an ice bucket,” says the decision neuroscience researcher. “But that obviously doesn’t reflect a real-life situation. This was a chance to look at a real kind of long-term shock to our stress system.”

Plassmann needed to act fast. “There were so many temporal dynamics; I had to do this quickly,” she explains. Because of her chair—established in 2019 by pharmaceutical company Octapharma to support research in biology, psychology and economics—Plassmann had immediate access to funding. That allowed her to extend the contract of a post-doctoral student who could help with the study and start the data-collection process before additional funding kicked in. “I’m really grateful and thankful for this,” she says.

Plassmann’s study involved collecting hair samples from people to measure their cortisol levels, followed by online experiments that looked at participants’ decision-making behaviour and risk-seeking behaviour. Her experiments measured for example the participants’ ability to make healthy food choices, resist alcohol or smoking, or save money for the future while under stress.

Beyond testing theories about the impact of stress on decision-making, the study offers relevant insights for public health during Covid-19. “Behavioural science has a very important role in fighting Covid-19, because a vaccine is only useful if people take it,” says Plassmann. “We have to understand people’s behaviour and specifically how we can nudge their behaviour in the right direction. That requires a more holistic picture, and that is what our research has set out to do.”

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