Research paper: affect (i.e. mood or emotion) and decisions

“The most important decision you can make is to be in a good mood”  Voltaire (b.1694-d.1778)

Voltaire’s aphorism sounds like good sense, but perhaps being in a good mood can lead us to make bad decisions, and being in a bad mood can help us make good ones.

This paper will explore the various ways in which an individual’s mood and emotion (“affect”) might impact decision-making. Firstly the paper will define what is meant by affect, and what decisions it will consider. Secondly, it will explore what roles affect could play in decision-making. Thirdly, it will suggest that the valence of affect could be the basis on which decisions are made and/or it could determine the way in which decisions are made. Fourthly, the paper will go on to explore whether particular types of affect might have differing roles in decisions.

Understanding why and how we make choices and judgments is in some senses the original philosophical question: Are we the playthings of the gods? Are we driven by the balance of our “humours” (earth, air, fire, water)? Are we possessed by spirits? Modern (i.e. post-Enlightenment) thought has generally assumed a rational view of man; the entire construct of economics has (until very recently) been founded on that idea. But if affect has a significant and predictable role in decision-making then politics, marketing, economics and financial analysis will all need dimensions of affect to be integrated into their disciplines, not just advertising and marketing.


Affect is a valenced feeling state - a mood or emotion that feels good or bad, positive or negative. Moods (as opposed to emotions) are long lasting, broad and vague. They tend not to have a specific trigger, nor do they involve coherent thought or analysis, (Forgas, 2013). They might be described as a general feeling of gloom or anxiety, (negative valence), or a sense of happiness, or that all is well in the world (positive valence). Emotions, by contrast, are brief in duration, narrow in focus and specific in their content. They tend to have a particular trigger, and can involve explicit thought-processes and analysis. Examples of emotions include fear and anger (negative valence) or joy and pride (positive valence). Emotions can be split into primary and secondary types. Primary types are those emotions that have a survival instinct at their heart, (fear, for example; a response to a threat which stimulates the flight / fight / freeze response). Secondary emotions are functions of self-consciousness, and are more connected to being part of society. Examples of secondary emotions are guilt, shame and pride.

Affect is also characterised by “activation”, (Barret & Russell, 1998), i.e. the degree of arousal or intensity. Barrett and Russell suggest that activation is orthogonal to valence; for a given positivity of affect, for example, activation can be high or low. So affect can be mapped in two dimensions; valence (good/bad, pleasant/unpleasant, positive/negative), and activation (activated / deactivated, arousal / sleepiness, high intensity / low intensity).


The decisions, judgments, beliefs and choices we will consider are those made by individuals (rather than groups, teams or committees). Decisions broadly fall into two types; “system 1” and “system 2” decisions, (Stanovich & West, 2000). System 1 decisions, whether they lead to actions, decisions or conclusions are instinctive, heuristic and swift. By contrast, system 2 decisions are analytical, thoughtful, contemplative and ponderous. System 1 decisions are swiftly made because we have unwittingly, or through study, built some sort of heuristic or an ingrained expertise. Whether engaging system 1 or system 2 we can make good or bad decisions; but for the purposes of this paper, we need to consider whether the impact of affect may be different on the two processes.

The roles of affect

There are four roles affect could play:

1.None; it could be that we are wholly rational.

2.Consequential; we may make decisions with the aim of achieving a differently affected state in the future.

3.Informational; affect may be the basis, or part of the basis, on which we make a decision, just as data or experience can be.

4.Processing. It may be that affect changes or indeed becomes the way in which we make a decision.

No role for affect.

In the 1950s a challenge to rationality emerged as academics observed firstly the mistakes people made in appraising the likelihood of uncertain events, and secondly the way in which heuristics seemed to trump analysis in the face of complicated decisions. However, these challenges were simply viewed as weaknesses in cognition (sometimes termed “bounded rationality”, (Lerner, Li, Valdesolo, & Kassam, 2015)), rather than as suggesting that something other than rational decision-making was going on. It was in the mid-to-late 1990s that there was an upsurge in theories and experimentation to explore the role of affect in decision-making, (Loewenstein & Lerner, 2003). The evidence produced seems incontrovertible: affect plays a significant role in decision-making to the point of being the main determinant, (Lerner, Li, Valdesolo, & Kassam, 2015).

Affect as a consequence.

“Nobody loves me, everybody hates me. I’m going outside to eat worms.” (Traditional)

Going out into the garden to eat worms may not be the best way, but this is an example of doing something to ameliorate negative affect. How good we are at achieving a desired affected state as an outcome is questionable, but consequential affect drives decisions; indeed, this idea is the bedrock on which behavioural economics is founded. Economists are starting to factor in expected emotion alongside the classic notion of “utility” in analyzing how decisions are made, (Rick & Loewenstein, 2008).

Affect as information.

Our “immediate” affected state may be the basis on which we make a decision, (affect-as-information), or may influence the way in which we make a judgment (affect–as-process). We will first explore affect-as-information theory.

“Pleasure and revenge / have ears more deaf than adders to the voice / of any true decision”

(William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, Act II Scene ii)

Thus Hector counsels his brothers on their decision-making, warning them against “the hot passion of distempered blood”, (ibid.). So how might affect be the basis on which decisions are made? We will consider three ways:

Somatic marker.

The well-known Iowa gambling task experiment (Anderson, Bechara, Damasio, & Damasio, 1994) suggests that affect can help decision-making by providing a physical, (i.e. somatic), stimulus identical to the physical manifestation of emotion. The individual unconsciously responds to this stimulus in the face of complex and uncertain data that would otherwise overwhelm cognitive processing ability. The somatic stimulus appeared to help gamblers use their instinct or “gut feel” to make loss-limiting choices. Those with pre-frontal cortex injuries seemed to lack this instinct. As a damaged pre-frontal cortex creates difficulty expressing and managing emotions, the gambling task results led the research team to conclude that it was the somatic markers of an affective state that supported the successful gamblers. They posited that there is an evolutionary logic to this mechanism: if we waited for our conscious brain to determine that a snake was about to strike we would be too late. So the body’s response short-circuits the brain, and triggers reaction before we know it.

The somatic market hypothesis has an intuitive appeal; a “gut feel”, “hunch” or instinct is a way we often make a decision. But recent criticisms of the hypothesis casts doubt on the extent to which conclusions about affect can be drawn, (Dunn, Dalgleish, & Lawrence, 2006).

Affect heuristics.

In a similar vein it has been argued we build up a bank of images, sounds, smells, words, tastes, concepts and impressions. These memories have an affective tag. The feel of one’s old soft toy can immediately convey a sense of comfort and security, or the smell of leeks boiling can transport one to the loneliness of a boarding school. But these tags don’t only connect memories to affect, they also influence current decisions. Is my choice of car rational, based on appraisal of fuel economy, safety ratings, performance data and price? Or is it based on the fact I like it? And maybe I like it because the image of the car is tagged with positive affect – maybe because of priming, experience or even “mere exposure”. A number of researchers have tested the impact of affect on preference by experiments where unconscious priming techniques are used, and then participants’ choices are observed. Affect plays a large part in shaping our choices, whether knowingly or not, (Slovic, Finucane, Peters, & MacGregor, 2007).

There are some interesting observations on how affect’s role changes significance in different contexts. If decision-makers appraise a choice in isolation – e.g. “how much would you pay for seven-ounces of ice cream?” - the affective response is muted. But if the seven-ounces are placed in a cup with ten-ounce capacity it looks disappointing; in a cup with five-ounce capacity it looks generous. (Hsee, 1998). The existence of implicit or explicit proportions or probabilities triggers a strong affective response. Another interesting area is the role of affect in judging risk. It seems that that if we like something, we judge its risk very differently to if we don’t, (Slovic, Finucane, Peters, & MacGregor, 2007). Slovic cites an experiment with toxicologists who were asked to rate common chemicals as good or bad. Then they were then asked to assess the risk of very low-level exposure to those chemicals. The risk ratings correlated with the affective score, rather than with the crucial fact that the exposure was very low.

A different slant on affect is to see it as more consciously part of a decision. When confronted with a choice we ask ourselves: “How do I feel?” If the affect is integral to the choice being made, then we pay full attention to its valence and arousal. If, by contrast, affect is incidental (e.g. caused by the weather), we are likely to try to ignore it. This will be more easily accomplished if there are sufficient data available about the decision. Curiously, there is some evidence that we consciously try to ignore incidental affect to the extent that we may actually over-correct. It is worth adding that if affect is an emotion (rather than a mood) it tends to be focused on a particular event and thus is easier to categorise as incidental or integral to the decision in hand. (Schwarz, 2010).

Incidental affect can play out differently depending on the nature of the choice. Participants in an experiment were asked to list names of birds, having been primed with either negative or positive affect. Part way through the exercise they were asked if they had finished the task. Those primed with positive affect replied they were, and stopped. Those primed negatively said no, and continued the work. By contrast, if the participants were asked if they were enjoying the task, the group with positive affect said they were, and carried on listing birds. Those with negative affect said they were not, and stopped, (Martin, Abend, Sedikes, & Green, 1997). It seems as if affect has s subtle impact depending on the context of the decision or choice being made.

Fluency and ease of retrieval.

People enjoy tasks that they find they can complete fluently or easily. And that sense of enjoyment generates a positively affected state. By contrast, a task we find difficult or disfluent to execute engenders negative affect. The affect created then influences the decision; fluent choices seem to present themselves as truer, more authoritative and less risky, (Schwarz, 2010). If it rhymes, it must be true!

Affect as process

Red and green lights.

Affect can alter the way in which judgments are made, irrespective of the data. Negative affect, it has been hypothesized, is akin to a “proceed with caution” warning. It’s a signal that all is not well in the world, so our cognitive processes change. On the other hand, positive affect is a cheerful sign to crack-on, full speed ahead – the environment is benign, and all is well in the world. Again cognitive processes will adapt to this state. (Kahnemann, 2012).

We will explore these ideas further, and then go on to look at an alternative construct about how affect alters the way in which we make decisions.

“Proceed with caution”. If negatively affected our cognitive processes, it is argued, operate with vigilance and suspicion. They become more analytical and require increased effort, (ibid.), employing a system 2 approach. There are benefits; memory seems to improve, and we more readily discard misleading information. Our judgment improves, as we seem to ignore the primacy and halo effects and we become less susceptible to fundamental attribution error. We are less gullible, and less likely to rely on stereotyping. We seem to persevere more, and are more cautious and considered in our approaches to others (Forgas, 2013). Furthermore, we pay more attention to strong arguments, and less to weak ones, (Schwarz, 2010).

“Full speed ahead”. If positively affected our cognitive processes change to a benign and relaxed approach. We become more reliant on intuition, heuristics and stereotypes, (Kahnemann, 2012), employing a system 1 approach. We are more creative in problem-solving, (Sen, Daubman, & Nowicki, 1987) and are better able to see the wood not the trees, (Gasper & Clore, 2002). In a literature review A.M. Isen listed the following results of positive affect, (Isen, 2001):

So there is a compelling amount of experimentation and research into the stop/go role of affect in decision-making.

But there is a different view:

Style reinforcement / denial.

An alternative view suggests that the valence of affect does not change cognitive process to global, broad thinking if positive, and to narrow, local thinking if negative. Rather, positive affect confirms the validity of whatever cognitive style we are currently using, and negative affect stimulates us to change style. So if we are thinking in a narrow, analytical way with positive affect, we will continue to do so. It is as if our benign view of the world says we should carry on as we are. If, on the other hand, we are thinking in a narrow analytical way and become negatively affected we will change about and start to think broadly, (Huntsinger, 2012).

Affect dimensions and decision-making.

So far we have explored the role of affect in decision-making as if all types of positive or negative affect had the same result.

But might it be that different types of, say, positive affect (joy and pride, for instance) play differing roles in decision-making? Is the information or process effect of anger, for instance, different to that engendered by disgust, both negatively valenced but very different?

To analyse the way in which different emotions or moods may impact judgment and choice it is helpful to have a systematic classification of affect. One approach is to categorise affect by its “appraisal tendency”: The dimensions of affect appraisal centered on an event are as follows, (Smith & Ellsworth, 1985; Dunn, Dalgleish, & Lawrence, 2006):

In states of differing appraisal, decisions may change. If we see someone queue-barging, the event is very certain and predictable, it is not in the least enjoyable, the event is salient, it is not the individual’s responsibility, a response will require significant effort (an argument, or self-control in order not to have an argument), and lastly it was clearly human agency at play. These dimensions will likely be accompanied by anger. Fear, by contrast, is also negatively valenced. If we fear a volcano whilst erupting in front of us there will be significant uncertainty, high salience, huge effort to escape, but no personal responsibility or human control. Decisions may well be made very differently than under anger. Indeed, in an experiment to review risk assessment under conditions of fear and anger (both examples of negatively-valenced affect) judgements did turn out to be different; the angry were more optimistic than the fearful, (Lerner & Keltner, 2000).

Summary, conclusion and further steps

Emotion plays a big and not yet fully understood part in our decision. Plato in The Republic splits the soul into three parts: reason, emotion (sometimes translated as spirit or energy), and appetite. (Popper, 1980). Plato sees reason and emotion as sometimes in conflict, and sometimes working together. Affect’s role is still the subject of great speculation and experimentation 2,500 years later.

We have looked at affect-as-consequence, affect-as-information and affect-as-process. The first of those is becoming influential in behavioural economics. The latter two are interesting in their conclusions on the valence of affect and its impact on decision-making; affect can serve as a heuristic, and/or affect can impact the way in which we engage our cognitive processes. Lastly, we looked beyond simply the valence of affect and into the roles different types of affect may have on decision-making. It is this area that would seem to offer a rich seam of research for the future. Merely looking at the valence of affect is limited in what it can offer, but looking into the cognitive, social, and evolutionary roles of different types of affect may well offer more insight into their helpful or unhelpful roles in decision-making. Hamlet’s desire for revenge, Othello’s jealousy, Macbeth’s ambition, Lear’s vanity – these tragic flaws played out very differently for their possessors.


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