Emotion and Decision Making

emotionThis post is based on a paper: “Emotion and Decision Making,” that is to appear in the 2014 Annual Review of Psychology. It was written by Jennifer S. Lerner, Ye Li, Piercarlo Valdesolo, and Karim Kassam. It is a review article. This post will set out seven themes that Lerner et al set out from the literature. I will be examining the remainder of the review article in a post to follow. Previous posts have dealt with stress, regret, feeling is for doing, etc. but this post looks at the topic in a general way. I have made the mistake of thinking of emotion as just feeding intuition, but this paper reemphasizes that this is a big mistake.

Theme 1: Integral emotions influence decision making
Lerner et al start with emotions arising from the judgment or choice at hand. For example, a person who feels anxious about the potential outcome of a risky choice may choose a safer option rather than a potentially more lucrative option. A few philosophers pioneered the idea that integral emotion could be a beneficial guide. David Hume, for example, argued that the dominant predisposition toward viewing emotion as secondary to reason is entirely backward: “Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

According to the authors, compelling scientific evidence for this view comes from those with vmPFC injuries (ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a key area of the brain for integrating emotion and cognition)  who repeatedly select a riskier financial option over a safer one, even to the point of bankruptcy—despite their cognitive understanding of their choices. Physiological measures of galvanic skin response suggest that this behavior is due to these participants not experiencing the emotional signals—“somatic markers”—that lead normal decision makers to have a reasonable fear of high risks.

Despite arising from the judgment or decision at hand, integral emotions can also degrade decision making. Once integral emotions attach themselves to decision targets, they become difficult to detach.

Theme 2: Incidental emotions influence decision making
Researchers have found that incidental emotions pervasively carry over from one situation to the next, affecting decisions that should be unrelated to that emotion.  For example, incidental anger triggered in one situation automatically elicits a motive to blame individuals in other situations even though the targets of such anger have nothing to do with the source of the anger.

The affect infusion model predicts that the degree of affect infusion into judgments varies along a processing continuum, such that affect is most likely to influence judgment in complex and unanticipated situations.

Theme 3: Beyond valence: Specific emotions influence decision making                         Lerner and Keltner proposed examining multi-dimensional discrete emotions with the Appraisal-Tendency Framework (ATF). The ATF systematically links the appraisal processes associated with specific emotions to different judgment and choice outcomes. The general approach predicts that emotions of the same valence (such as fear and anger) can exert distinct influences on choices and judgments, while emotions of the opposite valence (such as anger and happiness) can exert similar influences. The ATF rests on three broad assumptions: (a) that a discrete set of cognitive dimensions differentiates emotional experience; (b) that emotions serve a coordination role, automatically triggering a set of concomitant responses (physiology, behavior, experience, and communication) that enable the individual to quickly deal with problems or opportunities; and (c) that emotions have motivational properties that depend on both an emotion’s intensity and its qualitative character.  In this view, emotions save cognitive processing by triggering time-tested responses to universal experiences (such as loss, injustice, and threat). For example, anger triggers aggression, and fear triggers flight.

Theme 4: Emotions shape decisions via the content of thought
Given that discrete emotions are grounded in cognitive appraisals, the ATF helps identify the effects of specific emotions on judgment and choice, breaking down emotions into cognitive dimensions that can be mapped onto the content of decision making processes.

Theme 5: Emotions shape the depth of thought
In addition to the content of thought, emotions also influence the depth of information processing related to decision making. Numerous studies have shown that people in positive (negative) affective states were more (less) influenced by heuristic cues, such as the expertise, attractiveness, or likeability of the source, and the length rather than the quality of the message; they also relied more on stereotypes

Similarly, negative affect reduced the accuracy of thin-slice judgments of teacher effectiveness except when participants were under cognitive load, suggesting that the accuracy decrease for sad participants was caused by more deliberative processing.

Theme 6: Emotions shape decisions via goal activation
Emotion-specific action tendencies map onto appraisal themes. For example, given that anxiety is characterized by the appraisal theme of facing uncertain existential threats, it accompanies the action tendency to reduce uncertainty. Sadness, by contrast, is characterized by the appraisal theme of experiencing irrevocable loss and thus accompanies the action tendency to change one’s circumstances, perhaps by seeking reward. Consistent with this, a set of studies contrasted the effects of incidental anxiety and sadness on hypothetical gambling and job-selection decisions and found that sadness increased tendencies to favor high-risk, high-reward options, whereas anxiety increased tendencies to favor low-risk, low-reward options.

The view that discrete emotions trigger discrete implicit goals is consistent with the “Feeling is for doing” model, a theoretical framework asserting that the adaptive function of emotion is defined by the behaviors that specific states motivate. According to Zeelenberg and colleagues, these motivational orientations derive from the experiential qualities of such emotions, as opposed to, for example, the appraisal tendencies giving rise to their experience. Thus, the behavioral effects depend only on the perceived relevance of an emotion to a current goal, regardless of whether the emotion is integral or incidental to the decision at hand.  Lerner et al suggest that the appraisal tendency framework and feeling is for doing models make similar predictions.

Theme 7: Emotions influence interpersonal decision making
Emotions are inherently social, and understanding their adaptive utility requires an understanding of their influence on other people. As an example of how complex such influences can be, people derive happiness merely from opportunities to help and give to others with no expectation of concrete gains. Emotions help optimally navigate social decisions.

Lerner et al derive from the research that emotion may serve at least three functions in interpersonal decision making: (a) helping individuals understand one another’s emotions, beliefs, and intentions; (b) incentivizing or imposing a cost on others’ behavior; and (c) evoking complementary, reciprocal, or shared emotions in others. For example, expressions of anger prompt concessions from negotiation partners and more cooperative strategies in bargaining games because anger signals a desire for behavioral adjustment.  As compared to anger, disappointment also engenders more cooperation.


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