What to do about emotion?

passionThis is the second post 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.

David Hume: “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.”

Still, most of us have made some bad decisions under the influence of emotion. There are unwanted effects of emotion on decision making, but as Lerner et al note, they can only sometimes be reduced.

The strategies to reduce unwanted effects broadly take one of two forms: (a) minimizing the magnitude of the emotional response (e.g., through time delay, reappraisal, or inducing a counteracting emotional state), or (b) insulating the judgment or decision process from the emotion (e.g., by crowding out emotion, increasing awareness of misattribution, or modifying the choice architecture).

Delay. In theory, the simplest strategy for minimizing emotional magnitude is to let time pass before making a decision. Emotions tend to be short-lived, and physiological responses quickly fade.  Anyone who has ever observed a family member nurse a grudge for years may question the boundary conditions of time delay, but according to Lerner, humans revert back to baseline states over time, an effect we typically underestimate. Unfortunately, delay is difficult to employ, because it is fundamentally at cross purposes to the function of many emotional states, which motivate behavioral responses to immediate adaptive concerns.

Suppression. Although suppression is often touted in the popular literature (e.g., “control your anger”), Lerner et al suggest that research indicates that it is often counterproductive, intensifying the very emotional state one had hoped to regulate. Attempting to avoid feeling an emotion will typically reduce one’s expressive behavior, but have little or no impact on one’s subjective experience of the emotion.  Specifically, attempts at suppression are cognitively costly, impairing memory for details of what triggered the emotion. This effect has important practical implications for how individuals might best respond to unexpected accidents that trigger intense emotion.

Reappraisal. According to the authors, reframing the meaning of stimuli that led to an emotional response, i.e., reappraisal, has consistently emerged as a superior strategy for dissipating the emotional response . Reappraisal includes such behaviors as reminding oneself “it’s just a test” after receiving a poor exam grade, adopting the mindset of a nurse or medical professional to minimize the emotional impact of viewing someone’s injury, or viewing a job layoff as an opportunity to pursue long-forgotten dreams. In contrast to suppression, reappraisal not only reduces self-reported negative feelings in response to negative events but also mitigates physiological and neural responses to those events.

Those who employ strategic reappraisal typically have more positive emotional experiences and show fewer incidences of psychopathology. Lerner et al note that there are few studies applying reappraisal techniques to emotion effects on JDM.  Halperin and colleagues examined the responses of Israelis to the recent Palestinian bid for United Nations recognition. Participants who were randomly assigned to a reappraisal training condition (compared to a control condition) showed greater support for conciliatory policies and less support for aggressive policies toward Palestinians at planned assessments both 1 week and 5 months later.

Crowding out emotion. Saturating the decision maker with cognitive facts about a particular decision domain and making the domain relevant might also seem like useful ways to diminish the carryover effect. Unfortunately, neither strategy appears promising. For example, although U.S. citizens paid close attention to matters of risk and safety in the wake of 9/11, incidental emotions induced shortly after the attacks shaped citizens’ global perceptions of risk and their preferences for risky courses of action.
Increasing awareness of misattribution. Based on the idea that emotion-related appraisals are automatic, the “cognitive-awareness hypothesis” posits that appraisal tendencies will be deactivated when decision makers become more cognitively aware of their decision-making process. Schwarz and Clore  pioneered this approach, discovering in a seminal study that ambient weather effects on judgments of subjective well-being disappeared when people were reminded of the weather.  Lerner and colleagues showed that inducing decision makers to monitor their judgment processes in a preemptively self-critical way, via the expectation that they would need to justify their decisions to an expert audience (i.e., accountability), reduced the impact of incidental anger on punishment decisions. Lerner suggests that these examples of deactivation of emotional carryover may be more the exception than the rule. First, people often lack the motivation to monitor their decision-making process. Moreover, even when people are motivated, attaining accurate awareness of their decision processes is a difficult task. For example incidental disgust led participants to get rid of their possessions even when they were directly warned to avoid this carryover effect of disgust.

Choice architecture. The burgeoning literature on choice architecture offers an alternative set of tactics that affects behaviors automatically without restricting choices. It does this by changing the framing and structure of choices and environments in a way that relies on JDM’s understanding of people’s sometimes faulty decision processes to counteract more pernicious errors. For example, Thaler and Sunstein suggest that cafeterias should be organized so that the first foods consumers encounter are healthier options, thus increasing the chance that the combination of visceral hunger and mindless consumption does not derail their health goals.
The cafeteria example illustrates that one of the most powerful yet simple forms of choice architecture is setting good defaults. Setting good defaults is especially important when emotions such as happiness or anger reduce the depth of cognitive processing. That is, when people rely on easily accessible cues and heuristic processing, a good default is especially likely to improve average decision quality.

By involving relatively unconscious influences, choice architecture provides a promising avenue for reducing the impact of unwanted emotions in a way that can actually benefit the general public. Yet, most choice architecture is designed with only cognitive decision-making processes in mind, overlooking emotion, and this omission may limit its effectiveness.

As a person prone to occasional panic attacks, I can attest to the power of thinking about emotions to control them–to avoid emotions spiraling out of control.  This does not work so well on rationally appropriate emotions, but maybe appropriate emotions are not so bad for decision making.


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