Emotional Biases and Cognitive Rationality? Think Again…

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We commonly assume that if we are to behave rationality, we should better rely on cognitive decision making processes, such as balancing reasons, processing facts, calculating cost-benefits, and predicting statistical risks. Three business school professors, Leonard Lee ( Columbia ), On Amir (UCSD) and Dan Ariely (MIT) have posted on SSRN their article, In Search of Homo Economicus: Preference Consistency, Emotions, and Cognition, where they present findings from three experiments pointing to higher transitivity in emotional decision making systems than in cognitive processes. Rational behavior (calculated, forward looking, long term plan, self-control, value maximization) is commonly attributed to the cognitive, reason-based processes, while irrationalities (impulsivity, myopic, transitory behavior) is assumed to be aligned with emotional, feeling based judgments. This new study shows however that emotion based judgments manifest greater preference consistency over time, as compared to cognitive processes, suggesting better prediction of behavior in the former. They show that when participants relied on their emotional system – encoding reality in images, metaphors, narratives, rather than words, numbers and symbols – they acted more consistently and had fewer transitivity violations. In another experiment, they also show that participants that were under higher cognitive load (had to remember a long sequence of numbers) made fewer transitivity errors than those who ostensibly had more cognitive resources to process the decision problems.

Here’s the abstract, as Solum would say, “Download it while it’s HOT!”

Understanding the roles of emotion and cognition in forming preferences is critical in helping firms choose effective marketing strategies and consumers make appropriate consumption decisions. In this work, we investigate the role of the emotional and cognitive systems in preference consistency (transitivity). Participants were asked to make a set of binary choices under conditions that were aimed to tap emotional versus cognitive decision processes. The results of three experiments consistently indicate that automatic affective responses are associated with higher levels of preference transitivity than deliberate cognitive considerations, and suggest that the basis of this central aspect of rational behavior – transitivity – lies in the limbic system rather than the cortical system.

Posted by Orly Lobel

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0 Responses to Emotional Biases and Cognitive Rationality? Think Again…

  1. Patrick Seamus says:

    With all due respect to Professor Lobel, the awkward language here, for example, the division between ’emotional decision making systems’ and ‘cognitive, reason-based processes,’ as well as the mind/brain identity or conflation, among other items (to wit: ‘the emotional limbic system as another possible abode of Homo Economicus’; or, what does it mean to ‘be happy’?), suggests to me there’s fundamental conceptual confusion throughout the paper. And this may be so even if, in defense, it is said that the key concepts are merely ‘metaphorical.’

    So, by all means look at the paper and then might I suggest one also read, with care, M.R. Bennett and P.M.S. Hacker, Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003). Indeed, a more philosophically sophisticated approach to topics broached in this paper–insofar as it aims to vindicate the emotional responses intrinsic to many decisions and judgments–can be found in Martha Nussbaum’s Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001). The emotional and the rational are inextricably intertwined in the mental life, character and behavior of any individual person…we need not wait on findings from the social sciences to convince of this fact. What it means to be rational and reasonable is context- or situation-specific or sensitive (hence, sometimes risk analysis and/or cost-benefit analysis is appropriate, other times or places it has no bearing whatsoever on what it may mean to be rational or reasonable; generalizations here are often hazadous if not useless). The paradigms of rationality are (intra- and inter-culturally) various, and in any given case its instantiation, exemplification or embodiment rather variegated, and in no such case will emotions ever be wholly absent from the picture. The question then centers on the appropriateness of an emotion, or to what extent we need to cultivate or refine, express or suppress, our myriad and mixed emotional responses.

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