The Effect of Negative Emotions in Decisions

A Literature Review

Scientific Essay 2016 24 Pages

Psychology - Personality Psychology




Conceptual Clarifications

Emotional Impact on Judgment, Choice and Decision-Making
Valence-based Approaches
Types of Affective Influences
Affect-as-information Account
Affect Infusion Theory

From Valence-based Approaches to Emotion-specific Influences
Appraisal-tendency Approach

Synthesizing Traditional and Contemporary Scientific Models
Emotion-Imbued Choice Model

Choosing Emotions

How might specific negative emotions influence judgment, choice and decision-making?
Research Methodology
The Effects of Fear
The Effects of Anger
The Effects of Sadness
The Effects of Disgust

Discussion of Effects

Conclusion and further Research




Over the last four decades the topic of emotions and decision-making has gained relevance among psychologists. This paper presents a selective, qualitative review of the influence of the negative emotions fear, anger, sadness and disgust on the domains of judgment, choice and decision-making. For this purpose it brings together traditional and contemporary theories from the field of emotion and decision-making and, building on this, reviews highly recognized and accepted research works that have concentrated on outcome effects. Negative emotions turned out to constitute major influence on judgment, choice and decision-making. The review of outcome effects has indicated that, in many cases, emotions of the same valence but with different appraisals can exert opposing effects on the decision outcome.

Key words

emotion; decision-making; judgment; affect; cognition; choice; risk; fear; anger; sadness; disgust


The discussion of cognitive and situational constraints on models of rational choice has its origin in 1967, when Herbert Simon introduced the theory of bounded rationality (Simon, 1967). However, this approach failed to integrate the role of emotions in its explanation to understand human rationality. Regarding this as a starting point, decision research has begun to give attention to emotional influence in decisions and with the upcoming field of behavioral economics in the 1980s, the topic ultimately gained its relevance in research (Rick & Loewenstein, 2010). In recent years, scholarly publications on emotions and decision-making doubled from 2004 to 2007 and again from 2007 to 2011 and have thus reached approximately 430 annual publications in 2013 (Lerner et al., 2015). By now, the involved scientific disciplines reach from philosophy, through psychology, to (affective) neuroscience (Bechara, Damasio, & Damasio, 2000; Solomon, 2010). Regarding the field of psychology, scientists believe that emotions are the prevailing driver of most substantial decisions in life (e.g Lazarus, 1991; Loewenstein et al., 2001).

Although numerous publications on emotional impact on decision-making have been published to date, the majority is concerned with the comparison of solely two (negative) emotions on a specific situational context such as risk-taking. More specifically, scholars have not attempted to systematically review the effects of specific negative emotions on several decision-making domains.

As a result of this shortcoming, this paper addresses two questions. First, which are the most influential traditional and contemporary theories explaining the interplay of emotions and decision-making and, second, what are the outcome effects of the negative emotions fear, anger, sadness and disgust on judgment, choice and decision-making?

In attempting to answer these questions, I will proceed as follows: First, important terms from psychological emotion research will be clarified in order to ensure an uniform understanding for further descriptions. Second, I will give a selective overview of the most regarded theories on emotion and decision-making, ranging from early valence-based approaches, through appraisal-tendency theories, to a model that tries to bring together traditional and contemporary approaches. Third, I attempt to provide a selective review on the effects of the negative emotions fear, anger, sadness and disgust on different situational contexts. These are, among others, decision-making under risk, risk preferences, social perception and endowment effect. Finally, I will discuss findings and conclude with an evaluation on the reviewed effects of negative emotions on decision-making. This paper contributes to the emotion research literature as it brings together and systematically reviews the far-reaching and partly disjointed literature on emotional impact on decision-making.

Conceptual Clarifications

Researchers in the field of emotional influence on judgment, choice and decision-making use a variety of terms and definitions as their approaches draw on multiple research traditions and therefore it is inevitable to clarify their meaning.

Valence refers to a hedonic dimension of a state, whereas events, objects, and situations might have negative or positive valence, that is to say, intrinsic aversiveness or attractiveness (Frijda, 1986; Winkielman et al., 2007). According to the valence term, emotions can be located on a pleasure to pain scale, with a neutral point in between (Elster, 1998).

Arousal is usually defined as an undifferentiated state of general nonspecific mental activation but also refers to the activation dimension of emotion from high to low (Winkielman et al., 2007)

Affect is often considered as a generic label or an umbrella term that refers to both emotion and mood but that differs in the states of valence and arousal (Forgas, 1995). Thus, in many historical and contemporary research works the terms affect, emotion and mood are used interchangeably.

For the purpose of this paper the terms emotion and mood play a predominant role. Nico Frijda (1986, pp. 70-71) defines emotions as “modes of relational action tendencies, either in the form of tendencies to establish, maintain, or disrupt a relationship with the environment or in the form of mode of relational readiness as such. Action tendencies are states of readiness to execute a given kind of action. A “given kind of action,” and thus an action tendency, is defined by its end result aimed or achieved.” Izard (1991), in turn, defines them as organized mental response to an event or entity. Emotions are intense, short-dated, have distinct causes, a clear cognitive content and elaborate appraisal properties (Forgas, 1995; Michl, Welpe, & Spörrle, 2010; Winkielman et al., 2007). Most Psychologists conceptualize emotions as a two-dimensional construct, ranging from positive to negative and from activated to deactivated (Barrett & Russell, 1999). Therefore, emotions cover a range from negative (e.g. fear, anger), through neutral, to positive (e.g. joy, excitement) (Kim, 2012).

In contrast to emotions, moods are affective states of longer duration, not caused by an external event, subtle, and have insidious influence on cognitive processes. They arise without a salient antecedent and therefore with lower intensity (Forgas, 1995; Frijda, 1986).

Finally, decisions can be seen as “(…) a conduit through which emotions guide everyday attempts at avoiding negative feelings (e.g., guilt and regret) and increasing positive feelings (e.g., pride and happiness), even when they do so without awareness“ (Lerner et al., 2015, p. 900).

Emotional Impact on Judgment, Choice and Decision-Making

In this section, I chronologically review the most regarded historical and recent theories from the psychological literature concerning the influence of emotions on judgment, choice and decision-making. Importantly, I do not intend to provide a comprehensive review but rather to trace a context for the subsequent elaboration in this paper. First, I will begin with valence-based approaches, followed by appraisal-tendencies, and finally I will conclude with an integrated theory.

Valence-based Approaches

Types of Affective Influences

To understand the role of emotions in decision-making it is useful to divide them into categories that demonstrate how emotions interfere the process. First, expected emotions, are prognoses about the emotional consequences of decision outcomes, that is, anticipated results related with different possible courses of operation (G. Loewenstein & Lerner, 2003; Rick & Loewenstein, 2010). For example, if a potential investor were deciding whether to buy a share of a company, he might conceive of the potential disappointment when the stock price is decreasing after his purchase. The most important characteristic of expected emotions is the discrepancy in time between experience and cognition. The emotion is experienced in the moment the decisions carries out, whereas in the moment of choice only cognitions about future emotions are felt (Rick & Loewenstein, 2010). Second, immediate emotions, are experienced in the moment of choice and can be further distinguished with two corresponding categories – integral and incidental emotions (Peters et al., 2006; Rick & Loewenstein, 2010). Integral emotions have been found to have significant and routinely impact on decisions (Damasio, 1994; Lerner et al., 2015). They occur from thinking about the result of the decision but, in contrast to expected emotions, are experienced in the moment of choice (Rick & Loewenstein, 2010). To name an example, an anxious person would prefer a safer option of a risky decision over a more profitable one. According to Lerner et al. (2015), integral emotions can function as a beneficial guide for decisions. Thus, for example, anger provides the motivation to react to injustice, and expectation of regret provides a reason to avoid excessive risk-taking. Integral emotions can also bias decision-making (Seo & Barrett, 2007). For example, when an individual feels afraid of using the airplane and thus favors the car as a transportation medium, even though base rates for death by driving are significantly higher (Lerner et al., 2015).

Incidental influences on immediate emotions are underwent in the moment of decision, but originate from situational factors that seem unrelated to the decision task at hand (e.g., the influence of a sunny and warm day in a decision situation) (Rick & Loewenstein, 2010). Such situational factors could arise from the individual’s direct environment or chronic dispositional affect and can bias decisions (Lerner et al., 2015; Loewenstein & Lerner, 2003). It is to mention, that incidental influences on the decision are dissociated from the expected consequence and thus produce discrepancies only between immediate and expected emotions (Loewenstein & Lerner, 2003).

Affect-as-information Account

More evidence from incidental affect on judgment is grounded in the affect-as-information[1] theory, which has its origins in the study of Schwarz and Clore (1983). The theory draws on the assumption that people rely on a “how do I feel about it”-heuristic when making complex judgments (Schwarz, 2011; Schwarz & Clore, 1983). Following this, “(…) whether or not mood influences a particular judgment is governed by the degree to which the feelings occasioned by being in a mood state are seen as a reaction to the object of judgment” (Clore, 1992, p. 135). According to Schwarz (2011), four core postulates can be summarized from affect-as-information theory. (1) People rely on their feelings as a source of information, whereby different types of feelings provide different types of information. (2) The experienced impact of a feeling is depending on the perceived informational value for the present task. (3) When people regard their feelings as a source of information, they follow the same principles as the use of any other random type of information. (4) Feelings can function as a basis for judgment and shape the choice of the processing strategy. As an example, Schwarz and Clore (1983) found that persons use affective responses to their life as a primary basis for judging their well-being. Participants in a good emotional state gave higher ratings of life satisfaction than participants in a negative state. This process is known as the carryover effect of incidental emotion (Bodenhausen, 1993). Schwarz and Clore (1988) propose that the affect-as-information heuristic is most likely to find application when the judgment is evaluative, deals with a general rather than a specific task, exhibits little immediate personal relevance, and when there is little time for detailed processing.

Affect Infusion Theory

In 1995, Josef Forgas contributed to the discussion of moderating factors for carryover of incidental emotions. In his Affect Infusion Model (AIM) he elaborates on the circumstances under which integral and/or incidental affect influences social judgment (Lerner et al., 2015). Forgas (1995, p. 39) defines affect infusion as “(…) the process whereby affectively loaded information exerts an influence on and becomes incorporated into the judgmental process, entering into the judge's deliberations and eventually coloring the judgmental outcome.“ The model forecasts that the degree of affect infusion into judgments variegates along a processing continuum, such that judgments needing heuristic or substantial processing are more likely to be infused than are direct access judgments (Forgas, 1995).

From Valence-based Approaches to Emotion-specific Influences

The foregoing theories of affective influence on judgment, choice and decision-making implicitly or explicitly take a valence-based approach by contrasting negative versus positive emotional states (Forgas, 1995; Lerner & Keltner, 2000). Those states are induced experimentally or by naturalistic observation and are expected to lead to positive or negative judgments (Lerner & Keltner, 2000). Thus, valence-based approaches predict that different emotions of the same valence (e.g. fear, anger or sadness) will produce similar decision outcomes. But, in fact, the reviewed approaches fail to specify if and when distinct emotions of the same valence show different influences on judgments (Lerner & Keltner, 2000).

Appraisal-tendency Approach

As a result of this shortcoming, the appraisal-tendency framework (ATF) was introduced by Lerner and Keltner (2000) to give evidence of emotion-specific influences on decisions. It builds on early work of appraisal theorists that pointed out distinctive meaning structures behind emotions (Lazarus, 1991). The ATF examines multidimensional discrete emotions and systematically links it with the associated appraisal processes building on cognitive-appraisal dimensions[2] of emotion that stand for a range of cognitive dimensions rather than just valence to usefully differentiate emotional experiences (Lerner & Keltner, 2000; Lerner et al., 2015). Appraisal tendencies are the “(…) perceptual processes through which emotions colour the interpretation of stimuli” (Lerner & Keltner, 2000, p. 477). Appraisal mechanisms turn stimulus events into a situational meaning structure (Frijda, 1986). Thereby, six appraisal-patterns underlie different emotions: certainty, attentional activity, pleasantness, control, responsibility and anticipated effort. Thus, as an example, control, certainty and responsibility are central dimensions that separate anger from other negative emotions. The framework claims that emotions of the same valence (e.g. anger and fear) can bear converse influence on choice and judgment, whereas emotions of the opposite valence (e.g. happiness and anger) can bear similar influences. For example, anger underlies the appraisal tendency to perceive negative events as predictable, under human control and brought about by others, whereas fear underlies the appraisal tendency to perceive negative events as unpredictable and under situational control (Lerner & Keltner, 2000).

Synthesizing Traditional and Contemporary Scientific Models

Emotion-Imbued Choice Model

The most recent model trying to attempt how emotions permeate choice processes was conducted by Lerner et al. (2015). It aims on synthesizing traditional and newly emotional inputs to explain conscious and unconscious decision-making by integrating determinates and consequences of emotions. Findings are summarized in the emotion-imbued choice model (EIC) (Figure 1). I will discuss this model’s solid and dotted lines ranging from A to H.


[1] Note: In several publishments also termed “feelings-as-information theory“.

[2] For further information on cognitive-appraisal theories see Smith & Ellsworth (1985).


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University of Marburg – Arbeitsgruppe für Strategisches und Internationales Management
Emotions Affect Decision-Making Decisions Mood Valence Anger Fear Disgust Sadness Psychology Affect-as-information Emotion-imbued-choice affect infusion theory Negative Emotions Behavioral Economics Emotions research appraisal-tendencies appraisal judgement choice



Title: The Effect of Negative Emotions in Decisions