A recently published article seems to lend new information as to the way in which emotions influence our decision-making process. While emotions and reasoning are considered inherently separate by some, new experiments are challenging that perception. A series of studies done by experimental psychologists now show us that emotion plays a very natural role in decision-making situations. The experiments, ranging in type from neuroimaging to simple classical conditioning, suggest that emotions can affect everything from simple judgments of other people to severe behavioral disabilities seen for example in sociopathic individuals. Emotion is now acknowledged as possibly the most basic of human operations and the basis for personal judgments. Fear especially has been studied extensively and is proving to be a very unconscious and automatic cognitive reaction.
One fear-related study was conducted using simple classical conditioning: subjects were shown a picture of a person exhibiting stereotypical properties along with a frown used to convey a feeling of social threat (Mineka, 2002). Once the subjects were adequately conditioned, simply seeing that type of person would cause an increase in heart rate, suggesting fear, as well as provoke responses attributed to anger. The experimenters used these findings to infer that social fears are easily instilled in people simply because they for some reason have a negative image of them implanted in their head. Extensive studies of the relation between emotion and decision-making are also performed concerning the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This is the region that affects learning, reasoning, and the intentional control of behavior.
The purpose of these experiments is to show that when damage is done to this region, the ability to judge a certain situation noticeably declines. The experimenters focused on the prefrontal cortex’s ability to judge future situations based upon feelings during similar past experiences. Individuals with some sort of prefrontal cortex damage were observed. The experimenters found that these individuals’ high-level decision making had a clear emotional influence; the damage to their prefrontal cortex caused them to make personally detrimental decisions.
The experimenters also found that the damage seemed to have no effect whatsoever on the subjects’ intellectual function. This shows that while these individuals were still able to think logically, they were unable to produce situation-appropriate emotions beneficial in decision-making situations (Dolan, 2002). Individuals with antisocial personality disorder were studied to strengthen the findings involving the prefrontal cortex. Twenty one such men were examined and all were found to have slight abnormalities in their prefrontal cortex. The men also showed reduced physiological responses in a stressful situation compared to normal people (Goode, 2000).
When they were asked to prepare and deliver a speech about their personal faults in front of a video camera, they had lower heart rates and less sweating during the exercise than subjects in other groups. This suggests the possibility that antisocial personality sufferers may at least have some sort of genetic predisposition to deceitfulness, impulsivity, and other features of antisocial behavior. Further studies involved individuals with lesions to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Neuroimaging and neuropsychology have shown that, in normal individuals, this region is used in preventative states and during decisions having to do with reward or punishment (Dolan, 2002).
However, the damaged patients show an inability to predict reactions in tests where they chose between risky choices. This shows that emotions are present in memories and that they influence future decisions in similar situations. However, individuals with brain damage were not the only test subjects. Experimenters also used individuals on the opposite side of the spectrum: those who were better than normal at sensing their own feelings. The experimenters found that these individuals performed better on a prediction test.
It was determined from this that individuals who have a greater awareness of their bodily states will tend to judge better what will happen in a certain situation. This suggests that awareness of one’s emotions coincides with better decision-making when trying to judge future events based on past ones. From this, one can assume that emotions like fear and joy can provide the essential groundwork for important decisions. Overall, the new evidence shows that emotion and decision-making seem to be inherently tied together. The findings in these studies lend great insight into how human emotions influence decision-making.