Annals of Rationality: Cool heads are not best

October 11, 2007

I want to become more rational. So do many people I know. But shouldn’t the quest for more rationality itself be conducted rationally, so that we can avoid damaging mistakes? We probably all know people whose Spock-like anti-emotionalism does not seem to correlate with very good decision making, people who show outward signs of being logical but who seem to miss important factors when calculating the probably outcome of events. That’s why I liked this recent paper (PDF) by Myeong-Gu Seo and Lisa Feldman Barrett, which shows how suppression of emotion correlates with poor performance in a simulated stock picking game. People who had a higher level of emotional intensity and who were able to report their negative emotions with greater precision performed better.

Spock.jpgWhy is this true? The authors theorize that, while emotions can bias decision making, the way to combat these biases is not to suppress emotion, but to notice it and regulate its influence. Something that is not consciously experienced cannot be consciously regulated.

So, an obvious question: how can we become more skilled and noticing and regulating the effect of emotion on our decisions? There are a range of instruments designed to put numbers on feelings. Many of them involve too much active self-assessment to integrate into daily life and real decision-making situations. But with the integration of self-assessment and automated assessment, the day is coming when we will have better reminders of how we feel.

Some excerpts:
“… the popular prescription for successful emotion regulation, “Ignore your emotions,” appears, in view of our results, not to be the right answer for effective regulation of feelings and their influence on decision making. Instead, the results suggest exactly the opposite: individuals who better understood what was going on with their feelings during decision making and thus reported them in a more specific and differentiated fashion were more successful in regulating the feelings’ influence on decision making and, as a result, achieved higher investment returns.”

“One additional finding in this study that also has an important theoretical implication is that people achieved the benefit of successful affective influence regulation from understanding and differentiating among their current negative feelings, but not from differentiating among positive feelings. This result was consistent with the finding in Barrett and her colleagues’ (2001) study that negative emotion differentiation, not positive emotion differentiation, led to greater self-regulation of emotions.”

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