The Heat of the Moment: Modeling Interactions Between Affect and Deliberation

Authors: George Loewenstein, Carnegie Mellon University; Ted O’Donoghue, Cornell University


Year: 2007

Focus Area: Emotion, Decision Making

Relevance: Impulsive behavior, according to this paper, can be seen as the triumph of the affective (emotional) mind over the deliberative (rational) mind. This simplification extends to many decision scenarios, but there are subtle variations that influence some decisions. Furthermore, emotions should not be seen as entirely negative influences on decision making.

Summary: Throughout history, human behavior has been seen as a dual-process model: a struggle between opposing forces, whether passion and reason, id and ego, or emotion and cognition. This paper attempts to consolidate these theories into a model of behavior that is influenced by “deliberative processes” that are goal-oriented and “affective processes” that include both emotions and motivational drivers.

  • The deliberative and affective systems have their own objectives, are influenced by the environment, and combine to produce behavior. This model assumes that the affective system comes into play first, and is then moderated by the deliberative system, or willpower.
  • In decisions between options that have different time frames (intertemporal choice), “the affective system is primarily driven by short-term outcomes, whereas the deliberative system cares about both short-term and long-term outcomes.”
  • In risky decision making, the deliberative system weighs the value of the options presented, while the affective system can contribute to inaccurate assessments of probability and tendencies to avoid risk.
  • One application of this theory applies to situations in which people who have few financial resources use up their willpower in daily decisions, in which they are constantly pressured to keep costs down. This theory suggests that people in this situation may be more prone to impulsive behavior when making decisions about inexpensive things because they have used up their resources of willpower.

Author Abstract: Drawing on diverse lines of research in psychology, decision making, and neuroscience, we develop a model in which a person’s behavior is determined by an interaction between deliberative processes that assess options with a broad, goal-based perspective, and affective processes that encompass emotions and motivational drives. Our model provides a framework for understanding many departures from rationality discussed in the literature, and captures the familiar feeling of being “of two minds.” Most importantly, by focusing on factors that moderate the relative influence of the two processes, our model generates a variety of novel testable predictions. We apply our model to time preferences, risk preferences, and social preferences.

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