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3Qs: Judgment impaired by emotion

Jolie Baumann, a Northeastern University graduate student pursuing a PhD in psychology, is conducting research about the chronic impact of emotion on a person’s judgment. Baumann, who won a 2011 Outstanding Graduate Student Award for Research, works with Professor David DeSteno and had her findings published last summer in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Among other outcomes, that research has shown that angry people are more likely to identify a gun in a photograph, even if one is not present.

In your research, you asked subjects to write essays to elicit a particular emotion, such as happiness, anger, sadness or disgust — then had them identify threats in photographs. How did a test subject’s emotions affect their identification of a threat?

We’ve consistently found that angry participants demonstrate a pronounced bias on the threat-detection task; angry individuals more often misidentify everyday objects (like wallets and cameras) as guns. Interestingly, the response bias appears to be driven by differences in subjects’ expectancies of encountering threats. Compared to neutral subjects, those experiencing anger actually expect to see more guns. Not surprisingly then, the other emotions we’ve investigated, like happiness and disgust, have had no impact on threat-detection performance because they are not related to differences in people’s expectations to encounter guns.

Test subjects almost always knew they had made a mistake. Why do you think that was the case?

In one of our studies, we demonstrated that participants given a second opportunity to respond on the threat-detection task were able to identify and correct their mistakes, even when they did not see the photos for any additional length of time. While this does not necessarily suggest that participants are aware of their mistakes as they are making them, it does suggest that participants are at least aware of these mistakes after the fact. On its own, this finding is not particularly surprising because we used relatively clear, straightforward photographs as stimuli, and obviously people can easily identify simple objects in a photograph. What makes this finding so interesting is what it suggests about the original mistakes. That is, when participants did make mistakes under time pressure, it was because they were being forced to respond with only the limited amount of information they were able to extract and process from the image before time ran out.

Why do people carry over their emotions from one instance to another?

Even though emotional states are thought to be short-lived, they frequently last long enough to carry over from the situation that caused them to another. However, people’s “carried over” emotions do not always impact their behavior or decisions in subsequent situations. Notably, the situation or decision must somehow seem relevant to the emotion being experienced. If the individual can readily misattribute their current feelings to the new situation or new decision, then the “carried over” emotion is likely to impact their behavior. Essentially, the emotional system is tricked into thinking that the current emotional state is caused by and thus is informative for the situation at hand. If an emotion does not seem relevant to a new situation, it is far less likely to impact one’s behavior in it.