Greater emotional understanding enables people to quell the “incidental emotion” of anxiety while they focus on decisions, according to Wharton’s Jeremy Yip and Stéphane Côté of University of Toronto.
Incidental emotions that influence decision-making have been called “the affect heuristic” by University of Oregon’s Paul Slovic, Melissa Finucane of the East-West Center, Ohio State’s Ellen Peters, and Donald MacGregor, then of Decision Research.
People with greater emotional intelligence can separate unpleasant thoughts and feelings from decision making and are less likely to show the affect heuristic bias in risky decisions.
Sigmund Freud considered this ability to separate unpleasant thoughts and feelings as a defense mechanism deployed unconsciously to reduce anxiety and preserve self-esteem.
He called this experience “isolation,” contrasted with “compartmentalization,” which he defined as separating unpleasant emotions from each other.
Florida State’s Roy F. Baumeister, with Karen Dale then of Case Western, and Baruch College’s Kristin L. Sommer, documented recent studies that demonstrate “isolation” as a defense mechanism or coping strategy to contain negative feelings, “emotional contagion,” and “spillover.”
Yip and Côté demonstrated the relationship among emotional intelligence, evoked anxiety and propensity to make riskier choices in their lab studies of more than 100 volunteers, who completed the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test developed by Yale’s Peter Salovey and David R. Caruso with John D. Mayer of University of New Hampshire.
One group received an anxiety-provoking assignment: One minute to prepare a videotaped speech shown to peers studying “academic and social standing” at the university.
The other group was given a less stressful assignment: Prepare a grocery list.
Volunteers in both groups could choose their compensation for participating in the study: Receive $1, or take a one in 10 chance to receive $10.
For those given the stressful speech-writing task, people who scored higher on emotional intelligence chose the riskier option to receive $10 three times as often as those who scored lower on emotional intelligence.
In contrast, volunteers who completed the low-stress task made similar choices for compensation no matter the level of emotional intelligence.
However, people can learn emotional awareness skills to enable mental focus and contain unrelated incidental emotions, according to related studies by Yip and Côté.
They demonstrated this ability to contain anxiety when some volunteers in the speech-writing task were told they “might feel worried” because making a speech is an anxiety-producing task.
Other speech-creators received no further instructions.
Yip and Côté “primed” no emotion among some grocery list-creators by saying that they “may feel no emotion” or no instructions.
Participants were then primed to separate their emotions from their decision-making by being told that their emotions were irrelevant to their decisions.
Volunteers read information about the benefits of receiving flu injections and consequences of no inoculation during flu season.
Then participants were given the option to register for nearby flu injection clinic.
The reminder that emotions were irrelevant to decisions changed previous results, by increasing the frequency that participants with lower emotional awareness chose the riskier option of not attending the flu injection clinic.
The findings suggest that adults can reduce emotional bias in decision-making by explicitly identifying emotions and separating them from critical thinking processes
Questions that enable people to separate emotions, thoughts, and decisions include:
- How do I feel right now?
- What is causing me to feel that way?
- And are my feelings relevant to the decision I need to make?
-*How do you avoid the affect heuristic when making decisions?
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