Emotional Decision-Making



I have emphasized the strength of type 1 reasoning – the beast within - especially when it came to one of the most basic instincts. However, sexual desire is hardly the only primal emotion we have. Humans have six basic emotions that we are born with. In this post I am going to dive into what it means to let these six emotions guide your decision-making process.

Fear I have already outlined the role of fear in a previous post. It activates our fight-or-flight mode. Often, however, we can experience a third “F.” Freeze. When we panic, all our systems not immediately necessary for survival shut down to give priority to the systems that could potentially save our lives. It means that system 2 reasoning also shuts down. I have outlined with the example of migration what the halting of system 2 can lead to, especially when carefully manipulated by politicians.


Anger Being angry, or frustrated or my biggest nemesis: hangry, can lead to interesting decisions as well. Lerner and Tiedens (2006) review evidence that anger has specific impacts on both the outcome and the process of decision-making. Anger affects outcomes by leading to increased risk taking and optimism. Anger affects decision-making processes by selectively processing information.

But don’t think anger is necessarily a bad emotion to experience. Lerner and Tiedens suggest that anger may in fact be a positive emotion, especially in the sense of motivating future behaviour. While the event causing anger may be negative, the effects on subsequent experience (feelings of increased energy and control) and thus behaviour may lead to the conclusion that anger (sometimes) can be a positive emotion. I know this isn’t exactly scientific evidence, but I always manage to produce most and my best work when angry. So there’s that.

When it comes to being hangry, Ditto et al. (2006) showed that our desire for food is used as information in risk perceptions. Within their study, participants who could see and smell a chocolate chip cookie prize reported being more likely to draw a winning card than did participants for whom the cookies were merely described. So the increased desire for the cookie made people more optimistic about their chances of winning. Interesting.


Disgust Have you been ever truly disgusted by something? If you have, and you are picturing that instance in your mind you probably shivered and cringed away. That is quite common, we want to actively remove ourselves from anything disgusting. This is not an urge we have much control over. Han et al (2012) found that incidental disgust led decision makers to dispose of their possessions even when explicitly warned to avoid that urge.

Research by Morales and Fitzsimons (2007) is consistent with the avoidance found within people when experiencing disgust. They found that when testing for product evaluation, that when any product that had been touched by a pre-determined “disgusting” product (even when still inside packaging), dropped in value.

This teaches us that when anyone or anything is perceived as disgusting, it (or the person) will be actively avoided.


Sadness Whereas we try to actively avoid something when experiencing disgust, when we experience sadness we will actively try to change our circumstances. It has been hypothesized that feelings of sadness revolve around a sense of loss (Lazarus, 1991). And as such motivates us to compensate for that loss by (trying to) change our circumstances, perhaps by seeking rewards (Lerner et al, 2004).

Research showed that this changing of circumstances can be reflected in willingness-to-pay. Participants in their study who were made sad, paid more to acquire an experimental commodity (one example of this can be a water bottle), than they otherwise would when not feeling sad, or experiencing any other emotion (Cryder, Lerner, Gross, & Dahl, 2006).

In another example, Small and Lerner (2008) studied the effects of sadness on welfare policy preferences. They found that sad participants recommended significantly greater welfare support than did neutral or angry participants unless the participants’ capacity to process information was constrained. Apparently when sad, we do not actively wish to change our own state, but also that of others. Well, that could be worse.

Happiness Funnily enough, happiness as a fleeting emotion has often been compared to anger. Tiedens and Linton (2001) predicted that incidental emotions such as anger and happiness would result in heuristic processing. This heuristic processing would result in overconfidence, increased energy and focus on short-term consequences. Which is exactly what happens when you are angry. But also when you’re happy?!

Now most research on happiness studies its longitudinal effects in which happiness is a frame of mind, or a (mental) state rather than a fleeting emotion. Research that focusses on extreme and short-lived moments of happiness often look into the extremes such as mania and hypomania, which are associated with bipolar disorder. The experiencing of a manic episode can provide so much energy that its sufferer is unable to sleep for days, becomes incredibly productive (if you’re lucky), but can also completely backfire. One of my tutors in undergraduate was also a clinical psychologist, and the stories she’d tell us about manic episodes were insane. Sufferers would “flip” from a depressive state into a state of mania, in which they’d be able to write entire book chapters in hours, buy three cars or give all their money away to whomever asked for it. Not great.

So happiness, much like anger, or more reasonably extreme yet short-lived happiness does not allow for our decision options to be properly processed. We become too optimistic, too risky and don’t pay enough attention to the long-term consequences of our decisions. So much for being happy.


Surprise When it comes to emotions I am always surprised to find that surprise is qualified as such. Because surprise, when looked at hormonally and neurologically, resembles acute stress (shock) a lot, which is not what I think of as an emotion. Now, its effect on decision-making resembles fear quite a bit as well, as it tends to shut down all systems unnecessary for survival. When in a state of surprise, system 1 takes over to provide us with the opportunity to escape or fight our way into safety. For example, you can be surprised by a bear in the woods. Everything shuts down besides system 1. Surprise then turns into fear and our fight-flight response activates.

When the surprise is a happy one, we go from disbelief and a lack of information processing, into activating system 2 to be able to cope with the information given. Often, however, after we have processed the information and the initial state of surprise, we move into an emotion of elation that can be called happiness. As such, the effects on decision-making are outlined above.

This does not just work for happiness and fear. Surprise is often a precursor to the other five emotions, which then determines how we deal with the choice/decision at hand.


Conclusion All in all, the six emotions affect us a bit different. Fear sends us running, or just shuts us down. Anger makes us more risk-taking and optimistic about our chances of success, but as a result of that gives us a surge of energy and could make us more productive. Ironically, happiness and anger are much alike in their effect on decision-making. Disgust makes us want to get away from whatever disgust us, and lowers our evaluation of outcomes, so does sadness. However, when it comes to sadness we are just looking to change our lives generally, whereas disgust is rather specific. Lastly, we have surprise, the experience of a shock which can be both negative and positive.

Whichever emotion you are experiencing, try to keep in mind that emotions are temporary. They are not moods nor states of mind. They come as easy as they go, and should therefore not impact our decision-making process too much. Because a decision we make when angry, can lead to consequences we don’t want to deal with when experiencing a different emotion, or being in a neutral state. The over-valuing of your current emotional state with regards to decisions impacting your future is called the projection bias. I’m sure I will write more on that, later.




References Cryder, C. E., Lerner, J. S., Gross, J. J., & Dahl, R. E. (2008). Misery is not miserly: Sad and self-focused individuals spend more. Psychological Science, 19(6), 525-530.

Ditto, P. H., Pizarro, D. A., Epstein, E. B., Jacobson, J. A., & MacDonald, T. K. (2006). Visceral influences on risk taking behavior. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 19(2), 99–113.

Han, S., Lerner, J. S., & Zeckhauser, R. (2012). The disgust-promotes-disposal effect. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, 44(2), 101-113.

Lazarus, R. S. (1991). Progress on a cognitive-motivational-relational theory of emotion. American psychologist, 46(8), 819.

Lerner, J. S., & Tiedens, L. Z. (2006). Portrait of the angry decision maker: how appraisal tendencies shape anger’s influence on cognition. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 19(2), 115–137

Morales, A. C., & Fitzsimons, G. J. (2007). Product contagion: Changing consumer evaluations through physical contact with “disgusting” products. Journal of Marketing Research, 44(2), 272-283.

Murphy, F. C., Rubinsztein, J. S., Michael, A., Rogers, R. D., Robbins, T. W., Paykel, E. S., & Sahakian, B. J. (2001). Decision-making cognition in mania and depression. Psychological medicine, 31(4), 679-693.

Small, D. A., & Lerner, J. S. (2008). Emotional policy: Personal sadness and anger shape judgments about a welfare case. Political Psychology, 29(2), 149-168.

Tiedens, L. Z., & Linton, S. (2001). Judgment under emotional certainty and uncertainty: the effects of specific emotions on information processing. Journal of personality and social psychology, 81(6), 973.


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