Happiness is a person’s greatest aim in life. Tranquility and rationality are the cornerstones of happiness. – Epicurus
There are a lot of “invisible,” psychological factors that influence our evaluations and behavior. For example, maybe you’re certain that this is the consumer product you want. Or you just know this is the right romantic partner for you. But could you have been “tricked” into thinking this? And if so, how?
Today, I’m going to teach you some of the “watch-outs” for when your own mind is trying to mislead you. In particular, I’m going to describe four common scenarios where your feelings and emotions – even if they’re unrelated to the current situation – can secretly influence your thinking and reasoning.
ONE OF PSYCHOLOGY’S MOST FAMOUS THEORIES
In one classic study on these “invisible influences,” researchers called participants and asked them how well their life was going overall. But here’s the twist. Some people were called on beautiful sunny days, while other people were called on gloomy rainy ones.
And although researchers were asking participants about how well their life as a whole was going, people reported that they were living worse lives on rainy (vs. sunny) days.
Ultimately, this study would be one of the first in helping to develop one of psychology’s most influential theories: feelings-as-information theory.
In general, people like to believe that their opinions and beliefs are based on their consideration of the facts and relevant information. But decades of research have found that we often treat our gut feelings and emotions as “rational information,” too. Which can be a real problem.
According to feelings-as-information theory, we often feel the same emotion in similar situations. For example, when someone denies that you’re right, we often feel angry.
As these situations happen to us over and over again, our brains start to associate that specific feeling with that specific thinking. For example, because we’re so used to thinking we’re in the right when we feel angry, feeling angry for unrelated reasons (we’re tired) can still make us think we’re in the right.
In fact, one classic study showed that when people were led to unknowingly feel angry, they were more likely to endorse racial stereotypes. Because they’re used to thinking “anger = I’m right,” whatever opinion they form when they’re angry (even if that thought is untrue) is treated as the correct opinion.
So, when should you be on the lookout for this “invisible influence” of your emotions?
THE MOST LIKELY CULPRITS
Although the information attached to an emotion can and at times is accurate, there are also plenty of instances where our emotions bias our opinions. Here are four key ones:
- When making decisions for the present, rather the future. We are more likely to rely on our emotions when making decisions about our current (vs. future) situation. In contrast, when we’re thinking about decisions in the future, we tend to rely on more rational, situation-based information. As one piece of advice, then, if you’re worried about how your emotions might be biasing your judgment, ask yourself how you would respond to this same question if it were presented to you six months from now.
- People with a sense of power. If you are feeling powerful, research suggests you could be more susceptible to using your emotions for your judgments. A sense of power infuses confidence into our thoughts, so when we feel an emotion while in a powerful state, we are often very confident in it. In fact, power’s likelihood to increase people’s use of feelings in their opinions might be part of the reason the world has a history of erratic dictators and leaders.
- Judging your level of risk. When trying to determine how risky a specific choice is, we are prone to letting our feelings dictate our judgments. For example, even if a bad outcome has a very low risk of turning out to be true, we might still believe that it’s high risk. Because the information conveyed by our emotions is given greater weight than our thoughts and reasons when evaluating risks, we have to be particularly careful when forming risk-based opinions.
- When your expertise is low. In areas or on topics for which we don’t have much experience, knowledge, or skills, we often tend to let our emotions guide our opinions. Although “any guess is better than no guess” (and what else do you have beside your emotions if you don’t know anything?), this can prevent people from seeking out relevant information. For example, if your emotions are communicating that you’ll never figure something out, they can prevent you from actually working to secure a solution.
Above are just a small number of the different situations when we’re more likely to use our “feelings as information” in forming our judgments and decisions. But hopefully, just knowing a few more helps you be on the watch-out for some common ones. However, there is one more useful tactic you can employ…
ASKING YOURSELF THE QUESTION
Earlier, I told you about the study where researchers called people on either sunny or rainy days and asked them about their lives overall. Although they found the weather could bias their opinions, they also found something else.
Simply getting people to recognize the biasing influence of weather was enough to get them to correct their opinions. So, in your own life, one of the best ways to reduce the influence of your emotions is to ask yourself, why am I feeling this way? If you can pinpoint the source of the emotion, there’s a good chance it will have less impact on your evaluations and behavior.
Everyday Psychology: As noted above, there are lots of other factors that can influence how likely we are to use our emotions. And interestingly, there is an important individual difference between people that contributes to it. A person’s ability at “mental visualization.” Research finds that the more people have a tendency to engage in mental visualization, the more likely they are to rely on their emotions for information. So, as a final tip, when trying to remove the influence of emotion from your opinions, try not to visualize relevant imagery!
Greifeneder, R., Bless, H., & Pham, M. T. (2011). When do people rely on affective and cognitive feelings in judgment? A review. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 15(2), 107-141.