Wednesday, May 4, 2016

On Feelings (Woah-oh-oh, Feelings)

According to Paul Ekman, there are 7 basic human emotions that exist across cultures: happiness, sadness, surprise, contempt, anger, disgust, and fear. (It should be noted that Ekman's original research only identified 6 emotions; contempt was added later.) Ekman's work, based on research and observation in many different cultures, remains highly influential, and he has served as consultant for shows and movies, including the series Lie to Me, based on his work in lie detection, and the Pixar movie, Inside Out. Emotions, and their outward expression, serve an important evolutionary function, and also provide evidence in support of evolution, because humans and other primates share many emotional expressions.

These basic emotions are the ingredients for more complex emotions: happiness and contempt, for instance, combine to form smugness. And we all know what happens when you combine fear and anger:

And May the Fourth be with you!

Emotions not only give us cues when interacting with other people, allowing us to alter our behavior in response to their emotions, they also are an important guide in our own decision-making. Previously, we thought choice was determined by our perceptions about value; that is, we assign values to different outcomes, and pick the outcome (or course of action that would lead to that outcome) that has the most value to us. Value is considered a proxy for our emotions. However, no one has really tested that assumption directly.

Until now, that is. A recent study in Psychological Science, which you can read for free here, examined feelings and choice. From this, the researchers developed a "feeling function" that allowed them to relate feelings to value, and ultimately choice. If feelings are a proxy for value, we would expect a perfect or near perfect relationship between the two.

Based on past research, the authors expected loss to have more of an influence than wins; people are loss averse, and will rate a loss of money as more impactful than a win of the same magnitude. We also show diminishing sensitivity; a gain of $10 isn't twice as valuable to us as a gain of $5. The gambling task involved a series of shapes that participants had to choose between. They were randomized into one of three types: mixed (one shape had a 50% chance of a gain and 50% chance of a loss, and the other was a sure option of 0), gain only (one shape had a 50% chance of a gain and 50% of 0, or a sure, smaller gain), and loss only (one shape had a 50% chance of a high loss and 50% chance of 0, or a sure, smaller loss).

Participants also completed two feeling tasks: one about expected feelings - how they thought they would feel about winning or losing various amounts, and one about experienced feelings - how they actually felt after winning or losing various amounts. They used the expected feelings data to develop the feeling function, and tested it on the experienced feelings data. They found that feelings better predicted choice than values. They also found the diminishing sensitivity relationship, where a loss or gain of $10 has less than twice the impact of a loss or gain of $5. Interestingly, they didn't find evidence for loss aversion; losses and gains of the same magnitude had the same impact.

A lot of people refer to decisions made with the aid of emotions irrational. But emotions allow us to make quick decisions, as well as to decide between things that are generally equivalent. It's not always necessary to systematically consider all options. Sometimes, it's good to just trust your instinct.

But in all seriousness, May the Fourth be with you!

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