Feeling and Thinking: Preferences Need No Inferences

Authors: R.B. Zajonc, University of Michigan

Publication: American Psychologist

Year: 1980

Focus Area: Decision making, Persuasion, Prevention

Relevance: Emotions are difficult to untangle from decision making processes, so it is essential to understand their influences, both conscious and subconscious. For example, people make rapid decisions about whether they like or trust a new acquaintance using emotional cues rather than cognitive facts. This can help explain why people trust a charming and well-spoken fraudster, even if their cognitive judgment would tell them to be suspicious.

Summary: Emotional responses to stimuli occur quickly – often before sufficient time has passed to think about the stimuli – but can evolve as more information is learned. Rarely are initial impressions changed altogether. In conversation with other people, emotional cues like tone of voice may carry more valuable information than the actual words being spoken.

  • Immediate emotional responses, or affect, is a basic reaction and is unavoidable – everyone has emotional reactions to events and stimuli (although the emotions may not be particularly strong). These emotions are based in the individual’s self definition and are difficult to explain to others.
  • There are decisions that people make that benefit from more cognitive and less emotional influence – but it can be difficult to extract emotional feelings from decision-making precisely because these feelings are unavoidable and difficult to articulate.

Author Abstract: Affect is considered by most contemporary theories to be postcognitive, that is, to occur only after considerable cognitive operations have been accomplished. Yet a number of experimental results on preferences, attitudes, impression formation, and decision making, as well as some clinical phenomena, suggest that affective judgments may be fairly independent of, and precede in time, the sorts of perceptual and cognitive operations commonly assumed to be the basis of these affective judgments. Affective reactions to stimuli are often the very first reactions of the organism, and for lower organisms they are the dominant reactions. Affective reactions can occur without extensive perceptual and cognitive encoding, are made with greater confidence than cognitive judgments, and can be made sooner. Experimental evidence is presented demonstrating that reliable affective discriminations (like-dislike ratings) can be made in the total absence of recognition memory (old-new judgments). Various differences between judgments based on affect and those based on perceptual and cognitive processes are examined. It is concluded that affect and cognition are under the control of separate and partially independent systems that can influence each other in a variety of ways, and that both constitute independent sources of effects in information processing.

Full Article