Our emotional state
As you may have figured out, “you’re not you when you’re hungry”, and we are not always consistent in how we make choices. There is an assumption in Economical models; that people are consistent, i.e. don’t let emotions sway a rational choice, but it turns out that we are not very consistent. The top three reasons for being inconsistent are;
1. How the alternatives a presented (framing – explained in the previous post),
2. If we are excited or calm (our emotional state – explained in this post)
3. what others are doing or expecting us to do (social pressure – explained in the next post)
Whereas a rational machine wouldn’t care about these three things, we as humans do.
Part two of this three-part post is about our emotional state.
The role of emotion in western thought
In western thought there has been a negative view towards the role of emotion in decision making but there have been a few pioneers exploring this role. David Hume (1738), for example argued:
“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”
Many psychological scientists today assume that emotions are the dominant driver of most meaningful decisions in life. We are programmed to avoid negative emotions and desire positive ones. This guides our decisions and when the effects of our decisions materialize, new emotions like elation, surprise or regret emerges.
(See Ekman 2007, Frijda 1988, Gillbert 2006, Keltner & Lerner 2010, Keltner et al. 2014, Lazarus 1991, Loewenstien et al. 2001, Scherer & Ekman 1984)
A collective conclusion from Judgement & Decision Making studies from the past 35 years show that emotions and decisions go hand in hand, powerfully so and also predictably so (Lerner et al. 2014).
Acting on emotions is like shooting from the hip. What it lacks in precision it gains in speed, and many times speed trumps precision. Emotional decision making tends to get a bad reputation but emotions have evolved over thousands of years to help us. For example, anger instills confidence and generates action which will get you “in the game”. But anger is also trigger happy and simplifies our thinking. So, once you are in the game, you need to find a way to grab a hold of yourself and think.
Over the years, researchers have tested different strategies to “grab hold of yourself” and reduce emotions effect on decision making. In general, two forms of strategies have evolved:
a) Strategies to reduce emotion (suppression, time delay, reappraisal, two state solution)
b) Strategies to separate the decision from the emotion (financial incentives, increase awareness of misattribution, choice architecture)
a) Strategies to reduce the emotion
SUPPRESSION = DON’T THINK ABOUT THIS = DIFFICULT AND DOESN’T REALLY WORK
Suppressing an intense emotion demands a lot of will power and may turn out to be counterproductive and intensify the emotional state you wanted to control. Suppression might reduce the harmful effect of your emotionally charged behavior but it has little or no impact on your emotional state, i.e. you’re still mad, sad, worried etc. Suppression does not only demand a lot of will power. It also demands a lot of cognitive power which impairs the memory of what actually triggered the emotion in the first place. So trying to fight an emotion may take so much effort that all you know is that you’re still mad and can’t remember why.
(See: Wenzlaff & Wegner 2000, Gross & Levenson 1993, Gross 2002, Richards & Gross 1999)
TIME DELAY = WAIT A FEW MINUTES = DIFFICULT BUT WORKS
Emotions can be intense but are short lived. Time can help bring our emotional state back to a base line. When something causes you to be angry (hot state), it may have an immediate effect on the decisions you make but research shows that if you allow yourself as little as 10 minutes, your emotions can be brought back to your emotional base-line (cold state).
We usually underestimate the effect of arousal. In fact, when we are detached from the situation and in a “cold state” we have a hard time remembering or imagining the feeling of being in a hot state which may lead us to say “How could I be so stupid”. Time does not heal all wounds but humans revert to an emotional base-line surprisingly quick.
Waiting for 10 minutes is a difficult strategy since emotions are designed to trigger immediate action. The immediate effect of emotional states can render us out of control.
(See: Levenson 1994, Keltner et al. 2003, Mauss et al. 2005, Wilson & Gilbert 2005, Gneezy & Imas 2014, Gilbert 2006, Loewenstein 2000 and Loewenstein 1996)
REAPPRAISAL = THINK ABOUT THIS DIFFERENTLY = SEEMS TO WORK
This is when you reframe the event that caused the emotion. Training yourself to see the event in a different light or from another point of view seems to be a superior strategy to minimize emotional response. This strategy also leads to more positive emotional experiences.
Halperin et al (2012) studied the responses of Israeli citizens when Palestine made a plea for United Nations recognition. The natural response from an Israeli citizen would be something close to outrage but participants who had reappraisal training i.e. trained to reframe the event and see it in a different light, were more open towards conciliatory policies and less supportive of aggressive policies towards Palestinians. This effect was still measurable 5 months after the training.
The problem with this strategy is the same as for time delay. Your emotions are designed to trigger immediate action and might render you out of control.
(See: Gross 1998, Gross 2002, Jamieson et al. 2012, Oschner et al. 2002, Gross & John 2003, Aldao et al. 2010, Halperin et al. 2012)
TWO-STATE SOLUTION = REPLACE EMOTIONS = GOOD IN THEORY, NOT WELL TESTED. MIGHT WORK
This is when you introduce a counteracting emotion to cancel out the undesired one. For example replacing sadness with gratitude or impatience with gratitude or anger with curiosity. The purpose is to break a destructive pattern. In the few studies I’ve read, this seems to work and I’m looking forward to a neat template or a list of emotions that can be used to replace unwanted emotions.
(See: Lerner et al. 2013, DeSteno et al. 2014, Loewenstein et al. 2012)
b) Strategies to separate the decision from the emotion
FINANCIAL INCENTIVES TO SEPARATE EMOTIONAL STATE FROM DECISION= DOESN’T WORK
When an incident makes you mad, sad, worried etc, this emotion tends to affect other unrelated situations. This is called the carryover effect. Studies have systematically tested ways to reduce the carryover of emotion from one incident to another unrelated situation. This is very difficult and financial incentives are of little use.
Studies show that sadness increases impatience which leads to decreased value of future cash flows. It also leads to a reversed endowment effect, meaning that things you own decrease in value when you are in a sad state. Studies show that subjects would rather decrease the financial value of future cash flows than snap out of the damaging emotional state, meaning that emotions matter more to us than money.
(See: Lerner et al. 2013, Lerner et al. 2004, Loewenstein et al. 2001)
INCREASED AWARENESS OF MISATTRIBUTION = WORKS IN A LABORATORY SETTING BUT NOT IN GENERAL
Educating the decision maker on cognitive biases and how decisions are made appears to be a good strategy. For example, when subjects in a study were affected by adverse weather, causing a negative emotion, were reminded of the weather, their judgement improved and the effect of the negative emotion decreased. Also, when angry subjects of another study were told that they would need to justify their decisions to an expert audience, their emotional state had less effect on their decisions BUT they were still as angry, they just used better judgement cues.
So, in these experiments, participants have shown tendencies to separate their emotions from their decisions but this is rarely the case in a non-controlled environment. When we are in real life situations, we rarely find motivation on our own to remind ourselves of “the weather” or that we can be held accountable for our decisions. Remember, it’s really hard for us to remember what out “out of state” selves feel like. This suggests that if we want to help decision makers reminding them about their emotional state and their accountability might do the trick.
There are however examples where these reminders don’t work, even in a controlled environment and participants are motivated and made aware Han et al. (2012) show an example where participants throw away their possessions even when they were warned to avoid the carry over effects from disgust. And on a personal note, my own experience is that when my wife acts strange, pointing out that it’s a certain time of the month does more harm than good…
(See: Ekman 1992, Lazarus 1991, LeDoux 1996, Han et al. 2007, Schwarz & Clore 1983, Lerner et al. 1998, Wilson & Brekke 1994, Han et al. 2012)
CONTROLLING THE EXPOSURE TO WHAT CAUSES THE BIAS RATHER THAN THE BIAS ITSELF = PROMISING
De-biasing the decision environment may help the decision maker more than encouraging him to control his biases. This is called choice architecture
The strategies mentioned above are all effortful and therefore unlikely to be successful on a broad scale in helping busy decision makers. People prefer the path of least resistance so, it would be helpful if that path was lined with the best choices.
Without reducing the amount of choices, choice architecture reframes the available choices and rearranges options in a way that aligns with our understanding of people’s decision process.
Examples: putting the healthy food alternatives first in the cafeteria lines will encourage a healthier diet more than a lecture would, setting good defaults helps those who don’t bother making choices at all and delaying a hot headed choice can reduce the influence of immediate emotion (waiting period to buy guns, waiting period to get married after receiving a marriage license).
An example of this is when an outraged Homer Simpson wants to buy a firearm. The clerk informs him that there is a 5 day waiting period to buy a gun whereon he replies – “Five days!? But I’m mad now!!”
It is difficult and effortful to reduce the effects of unwanted emotional influence through will power. Less effortful strategies like choice architecture, is a promising avenue.
(See: Thaler & Sunstein 2008, Thaler & Sunstein 2003, Madrian & Shea 2001, Tiedens & Linton 2001)
A third reason for inconsistent choices is found in our surrounding. What we choose is affected greatly by what others around us are doing. More about that in my next post.
- Posted by Anders Stenkrona
- On March 1, 2017
- 0 Comments