Choices Are Based on Feelings Not Value

People combine feelings to decide what to do.

Posted Jun 20, 2016

Panapp via Wikimedia Commons
Source: Panapp via Wikimedia Commons

Over the past 50 years, there has been an increasing appreciation of the role of feelings in people’s choices. Economic models suggest that people’s choices should be based on an objective assessment of the value that an option has related to a person’s goals. The work of researchers like Antonio Damasio, though, suggests that people who are unable to use their feelings to make choices as a result of brain damage make worse choices than those who can use their feelings. 

Very little research has explored the relationship between feelings and the choices people make. This issue was explored in an interesting and complicated study by Caroline Charpentier, Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, Xinyi Li, Jonathan Roiser, and Tali Sharot published in the June, 2016 issue of Psychological Science

These studies focused on choices of gambles that would lead people to win or lose particular amounts of money.

The researchers first assessed the feelings people predicted they would experience if they won or lost that amount of money as well as the feelings they actually experienced when finding out they had won or lost those amounts.

In the expectation condition, they were told that they had to pick one of two shapes. In some cases, they were told that that if they picked the correct shape, they would win a certain amount of money (varied across trials of the study). In other cases, they were told that if they picked the incorrect shape, they would lose a certain amount of money (varied across trials). They were asked to predict how they would feel if they won or lost that amount using a rating scale. 

The experienced feeling condition was similar, except that they made the choice of shape and either won or lost an amount of money and rated how good or bad they felt.

Finally, participants were given a choice between two gambles. One was always a sure thing. That is, a 100 percent chance of winning or losing a particular amount of money. The other was a gamble with a chance of winning or losing particular amounts of money. For example, a participant might be given the choice between getting $0.40 for certain or having a 50 percent chance to win $1 and a 50 percent chance of getting nothing. 

First, the researchers characterized the relationship between gains, losses, and feelings. They fit several mathematical models to the data. The best model both for the predicted feelings and the experienced feelings was similar. The relationship between amount of money and strength of feeling was curved. For small amounts of money, there was an initial rise in feeling. Small gains made people feel good. Small losses made people feel bad. As the amount of money increased, the strength of feeling increased, but there were diminishing returns. So, the increase in feeling going from no gain or loss to a gain or loss of $1 was larger than the increase in feeling going from $1 to $2. 

A second interesting aspect of this relationship was that it was the same for gains and losses. You may have heard of the concept of loss aversion, which is the idea that people try to avoid losses more than they try to achieve gains. This idea is not reflected in feelings. The gain of $1 feels about as good as the loss of $1 feels bad.

A third interesting aspect of the feeling data is that anticipated feelings were stronger than actual feelings. That is, people expected they would feel worse about a loss of $1 than they actually did.

After characterizing the feeling data, the researchers predicted people’s actual choices of gambles. They compared several models to make these predictions. For models based on feelings, the researchers used the feelings people would experience for each of the outcomes of the gambles presented (both the sure thing and the risky choice). One model used actual feelings. One model used anticipated feelings. The models using feelings allowed the weight given to positive and negative feelings to differ.

They compared these models to models based on the actual money values in the gambles. These models were designed to capture different economic approaches to gambles.  

Overall, the model based on anticipated feelings fit people’s choices best. In this model, people gave more weight to their potential negative feelings than to their potential positive feelings. So, loss aversion did not reflect the strength of people’s feelings, but rather the importance that negative feelings were given in the choice. 

The researchers ran three versions of this study and got similar results all three times.

This study suggests that people experience the value of items as feelings rather than as some objective measure of value. They use their anticipated feelings for good and bad outcomes to guide choices. Because people want to avoid feeling bad, they give more weight to negative feelings than to positive feelings.

A particularly interesting aspect of these data is that experienced feelings are less strong than anticipated feelings. That means that you may avoid some opportunities because of a fear of how it will feel to experience it, even though the actual experience is likely to be less bad than you expect it will be. 

An open question from this work is whether it is good or bad to use feelings to make choices (at least for gambles). It is clear that people naturally turn their expectations of value into feelings. However, it is not clear whether people would be more likely to maximize their gains and minimize their losses if they focused on their feelings or on the objective values. 

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