Emotion Dominates Fast Choices

Emotion helps you deal with ambivalence.

Posted Mar 16, 2016

Philri via Wikimedia Commons
Source: Philri via Wikimedia Commons

There are many situations in which you have to make choices quickly.  Walking through the grocery store, you are moving through the aisles and pulling items from the shelves without a lot of deep thought. 

Many of these selections are influenced by factors like advertising and past experience that affect what we know about products. There are two main influences that our previous encounters with a product (either in person or through ads) have on our attitudes toward the products. First, they influence what we know about the products. Second, they affect how we feel about the products.

When you are standing in front of a shelf at the store, what drives your attitude toward that product?  What you know or how you feel?

This question was explored in a paper in the February, 2016 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Matthew Rocklage and Russell Fazio. 

Across several studies, they showed participants roughly 40 of different kinds of items like chocolate cookies, skydiving, or cough syrup.  Then, participants were given a list of adjectives that could be used to describe those objects.  Some of those adjectives were relatively cognitive like unhealthy or beneficial.  Some were relatively emotional like terrifying or exciting.  The emotional adjectives also differed in the strength of the emotion they described.  Terrifying is a strong reaction, while enjoyable is relatively weak.  Participants selected as many as five adjectives to describe each product.

After using adjectives to describe each of the items, participants were then shown the items again and were asked to judge quickly whether they were positive or negative.

Many of the items in the set were designed to be ones that would elicit both positive and negative reactions.  A chocolate cookie, for example is delicious, but unhealthy.  In this case, it is positive emotionally, but negative cognitively.  Cough syrup is healthy, but disgusting.  So, it is positive cognitively, but negative emotionally.

The authors were particularly interested in understanding how people resolved conflicts within items that were ambivalent in this way.  When making fast judgments, would cognition or emotion dominate?

As you might expect, the more that people used positive adjectives to describe a product (regardless of whether they were cognitive or emotional), the more likely they were to say that an object was positive.  Likewise, the more that people used strong positive adjectives, the more likely they were to say an object was positive.

On top of those effects, though, when the positive words people used were relatively more emotional, they were more likely to judge the item as positive.  Similarly, when the negative items were relatively more emotional, they were more likely to judge the item to be negative.

That is, when people had to resolve their ambivalence quickly, they were more likely to use their emotional reaction to the product than their cognitive reaction. 

Many of the judgments you make in the world happen quickly.  As mentioned at the start of this piece, you fly through the shelves at the store making a variety of purchases.  But, you may also make quick judgments about people you meet, arguments people make about important topics, and even significant purchases like buying a home.

Your emotional response to these items plays a significant role in these judgments.  As a result, you may have a hard time choosing an item that you believe (cognitively) to be a superior choice if your emotions conflict with your beliefs.

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