Beyond Fact and Fiction
The role of emotions in our choices
“Just give me the facts.” This is a frequent call heard in a lot of reasonable situations. We don’t want fluff. We don’t want spin. We only want the hard truths that make a situation what it is. This seems like a reasonable position. If we could only deal with the facts of the case without the emotional context, we believe we would make better decisions.
Unfortunately, that proves not to be the case.
In The Myth of Experience, authors Emre Soyer & Robin Hogarth explore this topic, noting,
It turns out that, in the absence of emotions, normal decision-making is almost impossible.1
Almost impossible. Something about that seems wrong. But it turns out to be true.
Check out this short video:
As Spencer Gerrol from SPARK Neuro summarizes here, our emotions guide our decision-making in what turns out are helpful ways. And it’s not coincidental that the first video I found explaining this topic comes from a marketing agency, which conveniently put a little sales pitch at the end of their video. Companies want you to buy things, as it turns out, and figured this principle out a long time ago.
We typically envision ourselves as people who are immune to marketing. We operate off the facts; we feel ourselves as relatively objective people, capable of making good decisions on information alone. We look at others who let their emotions drive them with almost a bit of pity: if only they were able to escape the tyranny of the irrationality driving them to the decisions they made.
This dynamic happens all the time, from our walking around the isles in a grocery store and glancing at the poor choices made by others displayed in their shopping carts to scrolling through Instagram and Facebook and reading a highly opinionated post by someone we “once knew” but now we feel like they have gone off the deep end.
When we do this, we are dehumanizing them and ourselves in a very interesting way. The default state for a human being is not an unemotional decision machine, though that’s frequently the metaphor we use to think about the brain. As much as we want to think like that, we are not computers.
We are whole human beings, mixtures of thought and emotion, and our emotions influence our thinking in what turns out to be reasonably predictable ways. Soyer and Hogarth note:
When we are angry, for instance, we tend to take more risks…
When we are sad, we tend to have a more pessimistic view of the world…
Fear monopolizes our attention. It propels us to action when we sense a threat…
The emotion of disgust… influence[s] our social perceptions, moral judgment, and political attitudes.2
So we must move beyond the notion that we can be a human computer capable of separating our decision-making from our emotions. They will be tied together. What we have to do is work out strategies to manage our emotions. The consequences of not doing so can be substantial. Soyer and Hogarth continue:
One example is politics, where emotions often run high. Candidates, pundits, and advisers can snow people with a wide variety of messages that contain high doses of emotion. Research suggests that these tend to influence people’s perceptions and how they eventually vote.
It’s difficult to escape this experience. Because it attracts attention, all types of media can join the frenzy. As the anxiety mounts, the line between fact and fiction can be blurred. Sensational claims can garner undue attention, while thoughtful, fact-based investigations and nuanced messages may frequently be undervalued. The experience can perpetuate from one election to the next. While the issues and the people may change, the emotional tags may remain, and the effects deepen with each cycle.3
So what are we to do? How can we escape this cycle?
One way is to develop an internal design radar–a sensitivity to designed experience that can help us recognize when our immediate experience is being manipulated and to consciously discount its impact on us.
This isn’t easy to do. It takes a degree of mental and emotional discipline. Experience is hard to deny even when it works against us. Fortunately, however, while we may not have much choice about how to immediately feel when we experience a design, we have more control over how we react to it…
… we should learn to react with caution when we experience an immediate liking for something or someone. At least as a first step, we could use our initial reaction as a reminder to discount or minimize the impact of first impressions, instead of relying on them as a guide.4
The authors discuss a lot more in the pages of the text, but I think the point for us here today to take away is that the information we are presented, even when it feels like “just the facts,” always impacts us emotionally. In the case of designed marketing materials or other information aimed at persuading us, they are frequently organized and framed in a way intended to give us a specific emotional impact.
So as we move forward, let’s aim to use our emotional reactions to things not directly as a guide for what we should do next but as a prompt to slow down and reconsider. If the facts excite us, take a beat before hitting that buy button. If the facts make us afraid or angry, reconsider before making that social media post.
Thanks for reading, and see you again soon.
You can check out the text Descartes’ Error, mentioned in both the video and The Myth of Experience.
The Brain as a computer metaphor is a deep-rooted idea in our culture that leads us to many places, including considering the possibility of mind-uploading and other far-out technologies.
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