How Emotion Shapes Behavior: Feedback, Anticipation, and Reflection, Rather Than Direct Causation

Authors: Roy F. Baumeister, Florida State University; Kathleen D. Vohs, University of Minnesota; C. Nathan DeWall, Florida State University; Liqing Zhang, Peking University

Publication: Personality and Social Psychology Review

Year: 2007

Focus Area: Emotion, Decision Making

Relevance: Both perpetrators of fraud and those working to prevent it take advantage of the power of emotion in shaping behavior. Anticipation of regret is a powerful force that may prevent people from halting participation in a fraud, even if they have suspicions it may be fraud –the anticipation of regret associated with giving up on a legitimate opportunity may be worse than the anticipation of regret if one continues with what may be a scam.

Summary: This article argues that emotion does not cause behavior, but rather influences behavior as a feedback mechanism. Anticipation of emotion strongly influences behavior; emotions also functions as feedback that enable people to learn from past actions. (The article distinguishes automatic affective responses from more conscious emotion.)

  • Emotion does impact behavior, though usually indirectly. Emotion may hamper cognitive processing, encourage foolish risk taking, and distort perceptions of likelihood – e.g. an angry person will estimate the odds of being cheated by a car salesman as higher than a sad person.
  • Behavior can be understood as pursuing emotion as a desired outcome. Anticipated emotion often leads to caution and choosing the safe, readily defensible option.
  • Emotions function to provide feedback and evaluate a given behavior or course of action.
  • Anticipation of regret is powerful: Most people refused an offer of a small cash incentive to trade a lottery ticket they had been given, for another with the same statistical probability of winning. “The only reason to refuse this advantageous trade was the anticipation of regret one might feel if one traded away the winning lottery ticket.”

Author Abstract: Fear causes fleeing and thereby saves lives: this exemplifies a popular and common sense but increasingly untenable view that the direct causation of behavior is the primary function of emotion. Instead, the authors develop a theory of emotion as a feedback system whose influence on behavior is typically indirect. By providing feedback and stimulating retrospective appraisal of actions, conscious emotional states can promote learning and alter guidelines for future behavior. Behavior may also be chosen to pursue (or avoid) anticipated emotional outcomes. Rapid, automatic affective responses, in contrast to the full-blown conscious emotions, may inform cognition and behavioral choice and thereby help guide current behavior. The automatic affective responses may also remind the person of past emotional outcomes and provide useful guides as to what emotional outcomes may be anticipated in the present. To justify replacing the direct causation model with the feedback model, the authors review a large body of empirical findings.

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