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How Feelings Can Deliver Misinformation

Emotions such as love and anxiety can lead you astray.

  • Our emotions can mislead us, as when sadness in response to real losses descends into depression that misleads us into believing life has no hope.
  • A new theory of information suggests that misinformation occurs when a set of neural mechanisms break down.
  • To convert feeling-based misinformation into reliable information, one must think consciously about whether the information was derived from reliable processes.

Misinformation usually consists of false beliefs: Vaccines are dangerous. Climate change is a hoax. Donald Trump won the 2020 election. But social psychologists have argued that emotional feelings can be information, too, not just beliefs. So the question arises of whether feelings are sometimes misinformation. Examination of emotions such as anxiety, love, and sadness shows that feelings are often misinformative.

Norbert Schwarz (2012) developed the influential theory that psychological information consists not only of beliefs but also of moods, emotions, bodily sensations, and experiences about cognition. These feelings make valuable contributions to judgments, decisions, and assessments of current situations. But Schwarz acknowledges that feelings can also lead us astray as the following examples of misguided emotions show:

  • Love can indicate a valuable attachment to a good person, but infatuation based on excitement can lead people to overlook serious flaws in a budding relationship.
  • Anxiety and fear are useful when they alert people to dangerous situations such as pandemics, but they can be debilitating when false beliefs and physical overreactions generate phobias that limit people’s lives.
  • Anger sometimes works as a signal that someone has blocked your important goals, but it can also be an impediment to resolving important issues.
  • Sadness often valuably points to real losses, but it can descend into severe depression that fails to recognize that life still has value and hope.
  • Happiness usually signals that one’s vital needs are being satisfied, but it can be bogus and perilous when derived from drugs such as cocaine, amphetamines, or alcohol.
  • Disgust valuably steers people away from putrid food, but it can be socially destructive when directed for purely cultural reasons at social groups or nonstandard behaviors.

To understand how emotions can be misinformation, we need to connect a theory of emotion with a theory of information. Psychological theories are not just statistical associations between variables but can go much deeper by specifying mental and neural mechanisms.

A new theory of emotions explains them by neural mechanisms that combine representations of situations, appraisals of those situations concerning their relevance to personal goals, and physiological changes such as heart and breathing rates (Thagard, Larocque, and Kajić, forthcoming). Emotions are informative when the appraisals accurately assess the impact of the situations on personal goals; for example, whether an anxiety-producing situation really is dangerous. Moreover, the physiological changes should also be proportional to the situation rather than the result of defective genetics or body-altering drugs. Misinformation in emotions results from defective appraisals, distorted physiology, or both.

This analysis fits well with a new theory of information that explains it as resulting from 8 neural mechanisms for representation, collection, storage, retrieval, evaluation, transformation, sending, and receiving (Thagard, forthcoming). Misinformation occurs when these mechanisms break down, just as disease occurs when the biological mechanisms that support health break down. Emotions as information fail primarily through breakdowns in the mechanisms for evaluation including both appraisal and physiology. For example, grief resulting from the loss of an important relationship is an informative kind of sadness because it is based on natural physiological changes and realistic appraisal of the loss. But clinical depression is usually misinformative because it results from faulty estimations of the hopelessness of life and from faulty physiology such as neurotransmitter problems.

This account of emotions as misinformation easily adapts to other kinds of feelings such as bodily sensations. Pain is usually informative about damage to body parts, but breakdowns occur when pain is referred from one part to another; for example, when a heart attack produces jaw pain. In the extreme case of phantom limbs, pain seems to occur in body parts that no longer exist. Then pain is misinformative because of breakdowns in the neural mechanisms for collection and transformation of information. Similarly, taste often provides good information about the value of a food, but enjoying highly processed foods such as a Big Mac is misinformative because their appeal depends on unhealthy amounts of fat, salt, and low-fiber carbohydrates. As with sugary drinks, YUMMY can be feeling-as-misinformation.

The best way to convert feeling-based misinformation into reliable information is to reflect consciously on the underlying sources. Was the information collected by reliable processes rather than distorted perceptions? Was the information carefully evaluated or merely assumed? Were there any physiological flaws behind the acquisition and evaluation of the information? Was the information received through misleading social processes such as emotional contagion in a riot? Given how our brains work, there is no prospect of abandoning feelings as sources of information, but we can watch for mechanism breakdowns that sometimes make emotions and other feelings misinformative.

References

Schwarz, N. (2011). Feelings-as-information theory. In P. Van Lange, A. Kruglanski, & E. T. Higgins (Eds.), Handbook of Theories of Social Psychology (Vol. 1, pp. 289-308). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Thagard, P. (forthcoming). Energy requirements undermine substrate independence and mind-body functionalism. Philosophy of Science.

Thagard, P., Larocque, L., & Kajić, I. (forthcoming). Emotional change: Neural mechanisms based on semantic pointers. Emotion.

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