Listen To Your Heart… Or Don’t

A life-changing entheogenic experience in conjunction with a class on the relationship between cognition and emotion has led to an amazing realisation: emotions are meant to guide us. As a teenager, I considered robots to be superior due to their lack of emotions and still maintain little respect for those for whom feelz take precedence over realz. I was in good company too, since many of the great thinkers thought that emotions corrupt reason and how it’s best to make decisions while one is in a neutral state. Emotions also predate cognition in the sense that the brain structures that support emotions evolved before those for analytical thinking. Animals also have emotions, but they can’t think as well as we can, so this also contributes to the bad reputation that emotions can sometimes have. We humans like to think of ourselves as being above all this animalistic stuff, but we aren’t robots yet and if you ask me, ALWAYS be suspicious of anyone or any ideology that expects you to repress your animal side.


That being said, I want to stress that emotions are not outdated relics/behavioural fossils that simply we have to put up with. My goal with this article is to enlighten you with when and how emotions can help and hinder decision-making.

It turns out we have two types of emotions when making decisions:

  1. Anticipated emotions which are those that we expect to feel given a certain outcome and;
  2. Anticipatory emotions that we feel during the decision-making process.

Both of these types of emotion can assist and mislead us.

First, let’s start by looking at how anticipated emotions can assist us.

Decision Affect Theory, posited by Mellers et al, is used to estimate the emotions people will experience given a certain outcome. According to this theory, people consider which outcomes will give them the most pleasure and assess the probability that the desired outcome will occur.


To test this, researchers conducted a series of gambling tasks in which participants were asked to evaluate how they expected to feel given a certain outcome, but due to the nature of gambling, they could obviously not determine the outcome . The researchers then compared people’s anticipated emotions with the ones they actually felt when the outcome was revealed to them.

Because the participants considered the probabilities, the amount of pleasure experienced was related to the other possible outcomes. Participants felt more pleasure at winning $8 when this meant avoiding a loss of $32 than they did when the other possible outcome was that of winning $32. This shows that our feelings aren’t based on absolutes, but on relative value. Pleasure was directly related to the size of the winnings or losings and surprising wins were more pleasurable, but on the flip side, surprising losses stung more than those one had “braced oneself” for.

In case there are any nit-pickers reading this, the researchers do not deny the existence of anticipatory emotions. They just view them as a bi-product or, to use a term which I prefer “emotional discharge”, that accompanies the decision-making process but that doesn’t play a role in the actual decision-making. The study found that people are relatively good at predicting how they would feel, but the authors caution that this may only be the case in simple scenarios. Complex scenarios are  difficult to study, as they are more difficult to recreate in a laboratory and in real life settings: we don’t always get feedback as to whether we made the right choice or not. That’s why people ask themselves “what if..” questions and ruminate about the past.When we consider this, it makes it difficult to evaluate whether we truly are any good at predicting how we will feel.

So, in light of this, let’s look at how anticipated emotions can be misleading.

Gilbert and Wilson use the term affective forecasting when referring to anticipated emotions as we are indeed forecasting our affective state. Through their studies, they have found that affective forecasting is riddled with a bunch of biases.


“Forecasts are inaccurate? Tell me something I don’t know!” said dad.

In a study conducted by Dunn, Wilson and Gilbert, 174 students enrolled in the first year of university were sent a questionnaire about how they expected to feel one year later about the student dormitories they would be assigned to. Different dormitories at the university had different physical features with some being newer than others. The students predicted that they would be less satisfied with their living conditions if they were assigned to one of the less aesthetically pleasing residences. They also predicted that the social atmosphere at the dormitory would play a more important role in their future happiness, yet despite them recognising this, they still didn’t consider the social atmosphere when making their predictions.

Fast forward to exactly a year later, the researchers sent questionnaires to the the same students to ask them how they actually felt about where they were living now that they had been living there for a while. The results indicated that there was no significant difference in the degree of satisfaction between those who had been assigned to a more physically attractive dormitory than those who had been assigned to a less appealing one. In fact, the social atmosphere played a greater role in their current feelings.

Just to emphasise this again: the students realised beforehand that social life would matter more to their satisfaction, yet failed to consider it when anticipating their future emotions. It was basically hiding in plain sight. They saw it, they acknowledged it and knew what it meant and STILL they didn’t consider it.


The researchers assessed the satisfaction of the students again after two years of living there and, in addition to that, they even conducted the exact same study again with a new bunch of students and they got the same results.

Wilson et al. think that these errors in affective forecasting are due to the impact bias. The impact bias refers to people’s tendency to overestimate the intensity and duration a decision will impact them in the future. Another bias is focalism which refers to the tendency people have to think that a particular aspect will be of significant importance in the future when, in actuality, they’ll have to consider multiple things and all of these things will influence how they truly feel. This is why we tell people to be careful what they wish for, because they are neglecting to consider all the other stuff that comes along with being a famous celebrity or really rich.

While impact bias and focalism can make our affective forecasting inaccurate, some psychologists such as Baumeister, argue that this overestimation of intensity and duration may be more advantageous than an underestimation. From an evolutionary perspective, it’s better to stick on the safe side. It’s better to think that you would be devasted about losing your legs than to think, “Meh, it will be a lot of physiotherapy at first, but it will help me appreciate other aspects of life.”

Another reason we are be bad at predicting future feelings is because we have a psychological immune system. Wilson et al. argue that this immune system regulates affect (i.e. mood, feelings, emotions) on an unconscious level, so without us being aware of it and because we aren’t consciously aware of it, we don’t consider it when predicting how we will feel. This unawareness would also explain why individuals prefer outcomes which they can change should they feel dissatisfied with the results. However the ability to change an outcome may interfere with the initiation of the psychological immune system process.

To demonstrate this, they conducted a study using Harvard students as participants. The pretext of the study was a free photography and dark room class. Participants had a chance to take pictures and develop two of them. Once the two photographs had been developed, participants had the opportunity to take only one of the pictures home. Fifty-percent of the participants were informed that they would have the possibility of changing the picture, whereas the other 50% were informed that their choice of photograph was final and there would be no possibility of trading it for the other. The changeable and unchangeable conditions were then further divided into forecasters and experiencers. Forecasters in both the changeable and unchangeable conditions were asked how they would feel about their picture four days later, whereas the satisfaction of experiencers of both conditions was assessed four and nine days later.

Conditions of Wilson et al. photography study

CHANGEABLE: Those who could change their picture FORECASTERS: Those who were asked to predict their emotions
EXPERIENCERS: Those who were asked to report their experienced emotions
UNCHANGEABLE: Those who couldn’t change their pictures FORECASTERS

Those in the changeable condition did not believe that the option to change their picture would influence their satisfaction with their choice. However, experiencers in the changeable condition were less satisfied with this choice than those in the unchangeable condition. Despite their lower levels of satisfaction, only one of the experiencers chose to switch picture.


The results support Gilbert and Wilson’s hypothesis that changeability interferes with the psychological immune system. Simply put, if you can’t change reality, change your attitude towards reality. Therefore satisfaction has less to do with the actual properties of an outcome and more to do with how we choose to conceptualise it. However, Gilbert and Wilson do recognise that changeability can be beneficial when facing a complex problem involving features which are unfamiliar such as entering a marriage with an unfamiliar person.

Now imagine, you’re hanging out with a bunch of friends and you have to get up early for work the next day, but because you’re having such a good time, you end up getting drunk. We’ll all been there and we’ve all lived to regret it.

It is difficult to predict how we will feel in an emotionally-arousing state when we are not currently in that emotional state at the time of decision-making. This is referred to as a hot-cold empathy gap. In a study by Löwenstein et al. male participants were asked to evaluate how likely they would be to engage in deviant sex acts such as sleeping with a someone they were not attracted to or pressuring someone to have sex. They evaluated that the chances were low.

The participants were then asked to achieve of state of “75% arousal” (i.e. they were asked to masturbate until they got a semi-bonor) and to evaluate the likelihood of them engaging in such behaviour. Once horny, the men evaluated the chances of them behaving in an ungentlemanly manner as much higher as when they were not in a state of sexual arousal. Therefore, anticipating emotions is challenging when one is not currently in the same emotional state.

That about sums up what I know about anticipated emotions: they can be both informative and misleading. I have also heard that sometimes our family and friends are better at predicting our emotions than we are. I am sure there are a lot of interesting studies on this matter, but I can’t think of any right now.

Let’s move on to anticipatory emotions and how they can be helpful.

Löwenstein et al. developed the Risk as Feelings theory of decision-making which applies to situations of risk and uncertainty. Unlike consequentialist models i.e. models which view anticipatory emotions as simply bi-products, this theory considers that anticipatory emotions play in role in determining which decision we make. Therefore, anticipatory emotions are not only a bi-product of cognitive evaluations, but they influence behaviour directly and feedback into cognitive evaluations of decisions, influencing them in turn. So, emotions and cogitive evaluations have a mutual effect on one-another.This theory is particularly interested in the discrepancy between cognitive evaluations and feelings and predicts that on occasion, decisions will be uniquely derived from anticipatory emotions and may seem irrational from the outside.


The cortex is the seat of your reason. The low-road bypasses your cortex. Source:

One such example is that of LeDoux’s High road/Low road. According to LeDoux, fear-inducing sensory information takes two simultaneous paths. It can either travel from the thalamus directly to the amygdala, thereby triggering an immediate fear response; this is known as the low-road. It also travels from the thalamus, to the cortex which appraises the significance of the threat and if the stimulus is judged to be frightening, a signal then travels to the amygdala causing the evocation of the fear response. The low road may cause individuals to startle at harmless stimuli, but it comprises an evolutionary advantage as it is takes less time and it is better to be safe than sorry. This is why we startle at the sound of a noise and then relax when we find out it was just our cat knocking something off the counter. From a rational perspective, it was stupid to startle and panic at the noise.


I shall knock these over and savour the chaos that ensues. Meowhahahaha!

Compatible data for the Risk as Feelings model also comes from Damasio’s somatic marker hypothesis. In a study conducted by Bechara, Damasio et al., 10 healthy neurotypical participants and 6 participants with damage to their ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) had to complete the Iowa Gambling Task which involves four packs of cards designated with the letters A, B, C and D. The A and B packs comprise greater wins, but also greater losses and despite the chance of winning more, these lead to more overall losses. The C and D packs are safer to chose from as they comprise smaller more frequent wins and smaller losses.

iowa gambling task


As they were playing, the skin conductance response (SCR) of players was measured. Emotional arousal was thus operationally defined as SCR. For those of you who did not know, your neurons communicate with one another and with different cells in the body in an electrochemical manner. So yes, in a sense, we are like organic robots (that is how I choose to see it, I like considering myself as a robot). Anyway, the more your nervous system is aroused for example when you are nervous, the more your neurons communicate with one another. In this case, such a gambling task would cause stress (high arousal), and stress causes sweat. So, the more sweaty your hands are, the more they are conducive to electricity and so, we can deduce that more sweat = more conductance = more stress = greater emotional arousal.


Skin conductance is measured using this little doodad. Source:

After playing 20 games, healthy players showed increased SCR when picking from the A and B decks, whereas participants with damage to their vmPFC showed no response. After 50 games, the healthy participants not only showed increased SCR upon picking from the A and B decks, they also had a hunch that something was wrong with those decks; yet they still couldn’t put their finger on it. By the time they had played 80 games, 7 out of the 10 healthy participants were able to consciously express what was wrong with the A and B decks, but the three others still had a hunch and showed increased SCR. The patients with damage to their vmPFC were also consciously aware that the A and B decks were risky, yet still continued to pick cards from these decks.


Like The Rock, your emotions have got your back.

The hunches experienced by the participants are thought to be people’s cognitive evaluations of the changes going on in their body e.g. “I feel stressed whenever I pick from the A and B packs, so something must be up.” Patients with vmPFC damage could understand the risk on a cognitive level, but lacked the physical experience of stress. So they knew rationally, it was unwise to pick from those packs, but because they didn’t have any emotional response (i.e. stress), making stupid decisions didn’t bother them. Aha! This means emotions can help us act rationally!

Now, I recently saw an article pop up in my facebook feed telling me they had found yet another weakness with this theory, but I haven’t had the chance to read it, so keep this in mind. Here is the link.

Now, we are really getting to the crux of the issue. People often tell us to get into a more neutral state to make decisions. Of course, we know the hot-cold empathy gap can be a problem, but when people tell us to calm down before making a big decision, what they are really saying is that our anticipatory emotions will lead us to make stupid decisions. Are anticipatory emotions misleading?

Baumeister, Vohs and Tice developed a Dual Process Theory of decision-making. According to this, people experience conscious emotions and automatic affect. What’s that? Conscious emotions are emotions that we are consciously aware of and can express verbally. These are thought to help individuals expand the possible ways in which we can behave, but because they are slow to arise, Baumeister et al. argue that it is not their goal to guide behaviour. Simply put, we often don’t know how we feel about something until we have thought about it a little bit, so this takes time.

So, according to these people, our emotions don’t determine how we will behave, rather behaviour would pursue conscious emotion. Basically, we behave in a certain way to chase a certain feeling. Why do we organise parties? To feel happy. Why do we work hard? To bask in the respect of our peers. Why do we listen to music? To experience whatever emotion that music is expressing.

Automatic affect on the other hand is not conscious, but can be consciously experienced as a twinge of liking or disliking. It is thought to guide behaviour. This is akin to the hunches experienced by participants in Damasio et al.’s study on somatic markers. Basically, automatic affect represents our gut feelings. We can’t quite put our finger on it, but we get the feeling that it’s good or bad.

Automatic affect can be the affective residue of a conscious emotion experienced in the past. For example, when an individual finds himself in a situation similar to one experienced in the past, he may experience automatic affect originating from a past emotion and this will influence the choice he makes. Automatic affect is influenced by learning. So, if you had a bad experience with hitch-hikers in the past, you will be reluctant to pick some up in the future. But, it doesn’t have to be deterministic either. Because a person experiences negative automatic affect at the time of decision-making does not necessarily mean they will not engage in that behaviour again, but they might repeat the experiences to develop an optimal strategy. If you try something and you fail, as hard as it may be, if that thing matters to you, you will try again. This time around, you might only pick up a clean-cut looking hitch hiker rather than this guy:

Because behaviour pursues conscious emotion, Baumeister et al. argue that anticipatory emotions experienced at the time of decision-making may cause the individual to favour decisions that lead short-term positive emotions rather than considering long-term happiness.

In a study referred to by Baumeister et al., participants who were induced to be in a sad mood (I don’t remember how they were induced, maybe they were made to listen to sad music) were asked to set a price for items to sell and also to determine how much they were willing to pay for other items. The sad participants were willing to charge less for the items they were selling and to pay more than those in the other conditions. In another study conducted by Leith and Baumeister, participants were induced to be in either a happy, sad or neutral mood. They then had to make a series of gambles. Happy participants took the least amount of risks (why ruin a good thing?), whereas sad participants took the most risks (ain’t got nothing to lose). Neutral participants made the wisest bets. It was only when the sad and happy participants were specifically asked to consider the pros and cons of each bet that they made as informed decisions as those in the neutral condition. 

In other studies, it was observed that if participants were informed that the outcome of their decisions would not affect their current mood, they made wiser choices. This is known as mood freezing and it can take many forms. For example, participants might be informed that their moods will stay stable for one hour or given a placebo pill which they are told will maintain their emotional state for a certain amount of time. Other ways to help people in emotionally aroused states make better decisions is if they are told that engaging in substantive processing will improve their moods, or if they are informed that their mood cannot be attributed to the task at hand.

So, if you tell someone that their decisions will have no effect on their current mood, remind them to use their brains when making decisions or tell them that using their brain will improve their mood, they will make just as good decisions as someone in a neutral mood.

The intensity of the anticipatory emotions also matter. Easterbrook considered that emotional arousal can be both beneficial and detrimental to the decision-making process. According to his cue-utilisation hypothesis, arousal influences which information is considered relevant and this takes the shape of an inverted U. Little arousal causes individuals to consider irrelevant information, whereas too much arousal may cause them to filter out relevant information. Therefore, emotional arousal can be beneficial when kept in check. A parallel can be made with a finding from social psychology. It was found that when performing familiar behaviour, the arousal caused by the presence of others can enhance performance. Panic, on the other hand, can lead a person to oversee important information and make unwise decisions, whereas a lack of arousal can be seen as a lack of interest in the problem or such as in the case of the patients with vmPFC damage in the study on somatic markers, they failed to consider to relevant information when selecting cards.

Emotions can also be influenced by the vividness of the information. In a study by Hsee and Rottenstreich, participants were willing to spend more money to save one panda when they saw a picture of a fluffy panda than they were willing to spend on saving four pandas when they were conceptualised as four dots on a sheet of paper. Ritov also observed that individuals who were able to vividly imagine their child getting sick as a result of vaccinations were less likely to have their children vaccinated. This can also explain why individuals are willing to pay more for insurance for airplane accidents than for car insurance. Plane crashes are reported on the news and usually involve the death of hundreds of people. We tend to visalise the chaos and fear of the passengers before they hit the ground. Car crashes on the other hand, are everyday events, despite the tragedy, they almost seem mundane.


99.9999% of times, it’s the white sheep that is going to kill you and not the black one. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Anticipatory emotions also do not take probabilities into consideration. Baumeister et al. refers to a study in which, participants were willing to spend more money to reduce pesticide-related deaths from 5 in 10 000 to 0 in 10 000, than they were willing to spend on a reduction from 15  in 10 000 to 5 in 10 000, despite the latter representing a greater reduction in the amount of deaths. Lazarus et al. also observed that participants showed elevated levels of skin conductance response when they were informed that they could receive a shock, regardless if the chances were high or low and that they only stopped showing a skin conductance response when there was zero chance of receiving a shock. We have an all or nothing perspective. One question I ask myself though is, there is always a small chance that an asteroid hits the Earth, but we don’t really concern ourselves with that, so it’s more like all or almost nothing.

Thus, anticipatory emotions can be misleading because people typically prioritise immediate regulation of current mood over long-term welfare and vividness and blindness to probability can increase arousal in ways that cause the individuals to filter out relevant information and act in an irrational manner.

Despite the failings that anticipated and anticipatory emotions may have, it is not always possible to engage in substantive processing of information due to limitations of time and the cognitive effort that this required. Therefore emotions can serve as a quick and dirty, but mostly effective ways of dealing with what life throws our way. Sometimes, our emotions can make us do stupid stuff like startle at a benign noise, but this low road can also have life-saving consequences. It’s safer to immediately jump back when you see a snake-resembling object than to wait to be 100% sure, but at the risk of being bitten by what turns out to be an actual snake.

However, when the situation allows it and the implications are grave, it may be worth taking the extra time to think rationally. But, rational consideration also has its pitfalls as it cannot determine which choice is preferable between, for example, staying in at home this evening or going out to a party. In such cases, only emotions can advise which choice will lead to greater pleasure. Also, you can know rationally not to do something, but you do it anyway, because your emotions aren’t present to make you feel how stupid it is.

The take home message is not whether or not to listen to your heart, but to know when it is appropriate to listen to your heart and when it isn’t.

Emotionally and rationally yours,




Baumeister, R. F., Vohs, K. D., & Tice, D. M. (2006). Emotional influences on decision making (Chap. 8, p. 143 – 159). In J. P. Forgas. Affect in social thinking and behavior. New York, NY: Psychology Press.

Bechara, A., Damasio, H., Tranel, D., & Damasio, A. R. (1997). Deciding advantageously before knowing the advantageous strategy. Science, 275, 1293-1295. doi: 10.1126/science.275.5304.1293

Gilbert, D. T., & Ebert, J. E. (2002). Decisions and revisions: the affective forecasting of changeable outcomes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82 (4), 503 – 514. doi:10.1037/0022- 3514.82.4.503

Gilbert, D. Morewedge, C. K., Risen, J. L., Wilson, T. D. (2004). Looking forward to looking backward. The misprediction of regret. Psychological Science. 346 – 350. doi: 10.1111/j.0956-7976.2004.00681.x

Loewenstein, G., Weber, E.U., Hsee, C.K., & Welch, N. (2001). Risk as feelings. Psychological Bulletin, 127, 267-286. doi: 10.1037//0033-2909.127.2.267

Mellers, B, Schwartz, A., Ritov, I. (1999). Emotion-based choice. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 128 (3), 332 – 345. doi: 10.1037//0096-3445.128.3.332

Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2005). Affective forecasting: Knowing what to want. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14 (3), 131 – 134. doi: 10.1111/j.0963-7214.2005.00355.x

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