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Cognitive Foundations


Cognitive Foundations

Emotions can partially, but only partially, be understood from the biological perspective.  To better understand emotions the biological perspective needs to be complemented by both the cognitive and social perspectives.  In this second major section of this book, I will focus on the cognitive perspective on emotions.

In general, the cognitive perspective is concerned with describing the mind and how it works.  In relation to emotions, the cognitive perspective looks at how the individual’s mind both influences, and is influenced by, emotions.  One interesting aspect that the cognitive perspective examines is how emotional information is processed at both an unconscious and a conscious level.  Surprisingly, we are consciously aware of only a small portion of the information that our brain\mind initially processes about the world.  For example, at the very beginning of visual perception, approximately 130 million rod and cone cells in the retina of our eyes register visual information.  However, only 1-2 million axons leave the eyes via the optic nerve.  Thus, information gets condensed and selected at the very beginning of perceptual processing.  Similarly, we can only consciously think of so many things at any given time; our conscious awareness has a limited capacity.  As a result, our mind sometimes works at a problem that is bothering us at an unconscious level, particularly when our conscious thoughts have been pulled to some other matter.  (Have you ever suddenly thought of an answer, without at that moment consciously trying, to a question that you gave up trying to answer several hours ago?) So, our mind processes some perceptual and cognitive information at an unconscious (automatic) level.  However, while I will draw a distinction between unconscious and conscious processing, keep in mind that the exact boundary between unconscious and conscious information can be hazy.  For example, the point between unconscious and conscious detection of stimuli (visual, auditory, or otherwise) can be altered by factors such as motivation or fatigue.

The cognitive perspective concerning emotions tries to answer a host of other questions.  For example, what exactly are we processing? How do we convey our emotions? How can we use our thinking to control our emotions? Do our emotional experiences affect our memory of events? Do the particular emotions we experience influence the decisions we make in our lives? This section on cognitive foundations will attempt to answer, at least partially, each of these questions.  However, our introduction to the cognitive perspective starts with the process of attention.  After all, our mind cannot react to something that is going on in front of us if we are not paying attention!


Attention and Emotion

As part of the process of visual perception, we have unconscious biases that cause us to focus on particular aspects of the world, sometimes to the exclusion of other aspects of visual information.  One of these biases is a tendency to focus on emotional information.  Simply put, emotional stimuli are attention grabbing (Ni et al., 2011).  These emotional stimuli can be scenes or objects that evoke emotions (by the stimuli being associated with emotions in our minds), or these stimuli can be other people’s emotional facial expressions (Biggs, Kreager, Gibson, Villano, & Crowell, 2012) or body posture (Bannerman, Milders, & Sahraie, 2010).  We sometimes process these things even when they are outside of our present focus of attention.  For example, we appear able to process facial expressions of anger versus happiness even when most of our attentional resources are engaged in completing another task (Shaw, Lien, Ruthruff, & Allen, 2011).  When pictures of facial displays of emotions are presented it appears that attentional resources are automatically allocated to processing the emotional faces (Roesch, Sander, Mumenthaler, Kerzel, & Scherer, 2010).

Once we attend to an emotional stimulus, it appears that one path the information takes is directly from the occipital lobe to the neural centres that correspond to the appropriate emotion (Hofelich & Preston, 2012).  Such early unconscious processing may lead to later enhanced conscious (cortical) processing (Homes, Vuilleumier, & Eimer, 2003).  At the same time, we often focus extra attentional resources on emotional stimuli (Roesch et al., 2010) to further process their possible relevance to us.  These shifts to selective attention may be seen (by using evoked potential recording methodology) at 100ms after a stimulus has been presented.  Sustained selective attention to emotional stimuli can be seen at 300ms after the stimulus has been presented (Holmes et al., 2003), and this is when conscious processing is clearly present (Williams et al., 2004), and of course can last as long as it is important to the individual.  The neural system that involves unconscious processing of emotional stimuli (e.g., fearful faces; Williams et al., 2004) appears to be, in part, separate from the system involved in the conscious processing of emotional stimuli.  So, there is a path that stimuli take in perception that goes from very quick unconscious processing to, sometimes, conscious processing.  If a stimulus is initially assumed by the mind\brain to be unimportant, then presumably it is not processed (much or at all) further.  However, if the stimulus is deemed to be important, it is conceivable that further unconscious processing could proceed in parallel with conscious (deliberate) consideration.  


When do we Start Unconsciously Attending to Faces?

One of our attentional biases is to focus on emotional faces.  How quickly do we start to process emotional facial expressions? It turns out that this happens very quickly indeed.  It only takes 39ms for most individuals to be able to judge subtle facial expressions as displaying a threat.  In one study (Bar, Neta, & Linz, 2006), these judgments were independently concurred with by others (r = .55) who got to see the same faces for a longer (1700ms) exposure time.  In fact, for the most highly threatening faces, the correlation between the judgments of the 39ms and 1700ms exposure groups was r = .94.  To perhaps give you a better feeling for how fast this is, 100ms is one-tenth of a second.  Thus, people make this judgment of a facial threat in less than one-tenth of a second.  

One study (Kirouac & Dore, 1984) investigated recognition accuracy for people’s facial expressions of basic emotions (pictured on slides) as a function of exposure time (10 - 50ms).  It was found that people could recognize a happy face at better than chance levels after an exposure of only 20ms.  People could recognize facial expressions of surprise, disgust, anger, sadness, and fear at better than chance levels after only 30ms of exposure.  Asymptotic levels of accuracy were reached for happiness at 30ms; for surprise at 40ms; and for disgust, anger, sadness, and fear at 50ms (Kirouac & Dore, 1984).  Similarly, another study (Williams et al., 2004) found that most of their participants could detect, with better than chance accuracy, a facial expression of fear at 20ms, with accuracy increasing to 95% at 50ms for this early detection system.  Another approach (Du & Martinez, 2013, expt.  1) manipulated exposure time based on the results of each previous trial for that emotion, to find the exposure time at which participants were able to correctly recognize a facial expression of emotion at a criteria of 57% accuracy (the chance level of accuracy was 14%).   This approach found that the exposure level that allowed a 57% accuracy level was: 12ms for happiness, 13ms for surprise, 68ms for sadness, 77ms for disgust, 101ms for fear, and 122ms for anger.   The conclusion was that facial expressions of happiness and surprise are recognized more quickly than are facial expressions of negative emotions (Du & Martinez, 2013).  

At both a conscious and unconscious level, people pay particular attention to threatening, fearful, or anxiety provoking things in the world (Sutton & Altarriba, 2011).  For example, we are more likely to pay attention to angry faces than to faces with a neutral expression.  We are also more likely to follow the fleeting gaze of an angry than a happy or neutral face (Becker, 2010).  This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective as avoiding dangerous things in the world will increase the chance of our survival (Sutton & Altarriba, 2011).  So, the perceptual system has a built in bias to allocate a disproportionate amount of its limited attentional resources to processing negative things in the environment and this actually occurs very early in the process of visual perception.  Nevertheless, we are best at recognizing happy faces, and at doing so very quickly.  From an evolutionary perspective this also makes sense, as we are more likely to choose happy people as mates, and we are more likely to have sex with someone when he or she is happy.

Not surprisingly, there are considerable individual differences in detection sensitivity for facial expressions of emotions.  One study (Pessoa, Japee, & Ungerleider, 2005) found that 2 of their 11 participants could actually detect other people’s facial fear expressions that were presented for only 17ms and then immediately masked by a neutral facial expression.  (Masking inhibits further processing of the original stimulus.)

Other aspects of people’s faces related to emotions are also processed very quickly, although perhaps not quite as quickly as are the facial expressions of basic emotions.  It only takes 40ms of viewing a person’s face before being able to make an initial judgment of that person’s social dominance (Rule, Adams, Ambady, & Freeman, 2012).  When individuals were presented faces for 100ms, they we able to judge the faces on: aggression, competence, likeability, trustworthiness, and attractiveness (Willis & Todorov, 2006).  We should note that it is possible that these judgments might be made more quickly (i.e., with less visual information), as no exposure of less than 100ms was tested in this latter study.

We appear to be predisposed to attend to physically attractive people early in our attentional sequence.  In speed dating we assess a potential date’s physical attractiveness, his or her body weight for height, age, and race, and decide whether we want to date that individual, all within three seconds (Kurzban & Weeden, 2005).  Thus, some of that initial attraction we have for someone may be based on our very quick assessment of that individual’s personality and attractiveness, and how they match with our own personality and level of attractiveness.

When we are in romantic relationships we frequently need to consciously inhibit some automatic attentional biases.  Specifically, we tend to inhibit our subjective attention to very attractive others who, potentially, could be an alternative partner (Maner, Rouby, & Gonzaga, 2008).  Simply put, this helps to maintain our current relationship, and individuals may question their partner’s intentions when their partner does not inhibit his or her attention to attractive potentially alternative partners (Guys, are you listening to this?!!).

One of the other things that we automatically process, because our visual system is biased to do so, at a very early perceptual stage is gross aspects of body language that signal another person’s emotional state.  We only need 33ms to make a decision about someone’s emotional state based on strong body language signals (Stienen, Tanaka, & de Gelder, 2011).  The Ginsburg et al.  (1977) finding (discussed earlier on pp.  6-7) that a child’s nonverbal behaviour predicts the end of a fight without people being aware of this, demonstrated that our processing of the body language of others can guide our own behaviour without our conscious awareness that this is so.

We sometimes also unconsciously process and then mimic the body posture, gestures, tones of speech, or facial expression of others (Uleman, Saribay, & Gonzalez, 2008).  We do this when we socialize with others.  The feedback from our facial muscles (remember the facial feedback hypothesis?) allows us to feel something of what others are feeling.  It helps us to connect with others, to empathize.

What happens after our mind detects and identifies emotional stimuli? When stimuli are highly pleasant for us we quickly shift our attention to them and focus additional attentional resources on them (Ni et al., 2011).  The processing of an emotional stimulus can sometimes enhance the processing of any subsequent stimulus because of the continued focusing of attention resources.  Emotional stimuli can enhancing the processing of coarser (as opposed to detailed) information and can also automatically facilitate motor responses initiated within 100ms (Bocanegra & Zeelenberg, 2012).  Paradoxically, the processing of an emotional stimulus can also inhibit the processing of subsequent stimuli (Most & Wang, 2011), especially the processing of the details of the subsequent stimulus (Bocanegra & Zeelenberg, 2012).  This subsequent inhibited processing can result from either (a) having reached processing capacity limitation (Most & Wang, 2011) or (b) perceptual defense – when the “self” actively censors emotionally threatening stimuli.  So, some emotional situations can help lead to an insight about a problem, while other emotional situations may lead to us not functioning well at all.  

Our attention to stimuli is also affected by (a) our immediate emotional state and (b) our personality.  Our expectations can shift our attentional resources to search for particular things (Becker, 2010).  For example, when we are happy we are more likely to broadly pay attention a scene, focus our attention more on positive things, and more fully process the second of two stimuli (Vermeulen, 2010).  When we are sad we are more likely to have narrowed (focused) attention (Srinivasan & Hanif, 2010; Zeelenberg & Bocanegra, 2010), focus our attention on negative things, are less likely to accurately “see” (identify) the second of two stimuli (Vermeulen, 2010), and have more difficulty disengaging our attention from negative things (Biggs et al., 2012).

Our personality biases our emotional state.  Individuals who are high in neuroticism are generally anxious people who look for the negative things in the world.  People who are highly anxious narrow their attention and focus it on threats, then have a more difficulty disengaging their attention from any threat.  Fox (1996) conducted an interesting laboratory study of the attention processes of highly anxious people.  She had people simply classify a number as odd or even, while a distractor word (neutral of threatening) was also presented.  Sometimes the words were presented subliminally (14ms and masked).  Fox found that highly anxious participants (but not people low in anxiety) took longer to classify a number when a threatening word was subliminally presented near the number.  Thus, the highly anxious people appeared to be unconsciously searching for threats.  Interestingly, this bias to unconsciously look for threats only occurred if participants already consciously knew that some words were threatening.  One of the things this study nicely illustrated is that most mental events are a combination of both conscious (controlled) and unconscious (automatic) processes.  It would be a mistake to ignore the importance of the conscious regulation of our attention.  When we consciously move our attention away from frightening movie scenes, we are less scared by the movie.  Indeed, we need to regulate our inner attention away from negative thoughts in order to keep us from being anxious or depressed (Johnson, 2009).

In this section on attention I’ve narrowly focused on visual attention.  However, we automatically attend to several senses at once, such as the visual and auditory senses.  Typically, more attention is devoted to the processing of emotional visual information than emotional auditory information (Collignon et al., 2008).  However, if the visual information is ambiguous, our mind then automatically pays more attention to the auditory information (Collignon et al., 2008), such as the pitch and speed of speech.


Reading Facial Expressions

One of the things our mind pays particular attention to is the facial expressions of others.  Surprisingly, although the facial expressions of basic emotions are universal (Ekman & Friesan, 1971; Ekman, 1994), and although we are biased to attend to facial expressions of emotions, many of us often do not accurately read someone’s true feelings from his or her facial expressions.  This is partly due to the fact that people are often trying to mask their true feelings.  For example, do you sometimes hide what you are feeling when you are dating someone, not wanting to give away your feelings until you know the other person better, or perhaps you feel forced to mask your feelings when your boss has criticized your work? Many people try to mask their emotions in these and other situations and some people try to mask their emotions in most situations.

Reading facial expressions can sometimes be challenging.  Facial expressions can be subtle and fleeting.  Some facial expressions do not communicate a specific emotion but just the presence or absence of emotion (Motley, 1993).  Adding to the difficulty in accurately identifying the facial expression of basic emotions is that faces of a particular demographic group (e.g., different ages or races) can look different until one has more experience with people of that group.  Also, a given facial expression on a given person looks different when the face is seen from different angles.  To deal with these difficulties, most of us rely on the context, the situation, to interpret what someone else is feeling (Motley, 1993).  However, some of us (and not just autistic individuals) are just not very good at reading facial expressions and this can cause a variety of social problems.  Fortunately, we can improve our ability to read other people’s facial expressions.  To become better at reading faces we need to learn what specific facial features to attend to, what features go with each emotion, and we need to practice this skill. 

Ekman and Friesan (1978) provided a comprehensive description of the facial muscle movements involved with emotions.  The major visible facial change for each basic emotion is as follows: 

SurpriseSurprise involves the raising of the eyebrows (both the inner and outer part of each brow), raising of the upper eyelids, and the jaw dropping.




HappyHappiness involves raising the corners of the mouth and raising the cheeks with muscles active at the corner of the eyes.  This is obviously a smile, but note that it is a true enjoyment smile as opposed to a nonenjoyment smile.  Let me explain these two different smiles. 

Enjoyment smiles (called Duchenne smiles) involve the activation of the zygomatic major muscle (that pulls up the corner of the mouth) and the orbicularis oculi muscle (around the eyes).  Nonenjoyment smiles only involve raising the corners of the mouth.  A nonenjoyment smile is a false smile that we make when we do not want others to know that we did not really enjoy something.  For instance, if a friend told a joke that was not really funny, maybe you gave a nonenjoyment smile after the punchline, just to be polite, to be social, and not offend the other person.

There are some additional, more subtle, differences between Dechenne and nonenjoyment smiles.  The zygomatic major muscle shows a smoother action in a Duchenne smile than in a nonenjoyment smile (Frank, Ekman, & Friesen, 1993).  In addition, the zygomatic major muscle in Duchenne smiles is usually active between 0.5 and 4 seconds, but is frequently active for a longer time in nonenjoyment smiles (Frank et al., 1993).  So, sometimes you can detect a false smile because it has been on the face for “too” long.



Anger involves a number of facial features.  In anger the eyebrows pull down.  The upper eyelid raises while the lower eyelid tenses.  The lips narrow and press together hard. 






In fear the inner and outer eyebrows raise and the brows pull together.  This pulling together can sometimes be seen in a wrinkling of the skin between the brows when the emotion is being experienced.  The upper eyelid raises and the lower eyelid tenses [This should actually be the same for both anger and fear].  Finally, the mouth stretches horizontally.



SadnessSadness involves raising the inner eyebrows (but not the outer eyebrows).  In addition, in sadness the corner of the mouth pull down, the chin raises, and the cheeks may be active pulling up towards the lower lip.






DisgustDisgust is expressed through raising the upper lip and wrinkling the nose.










ContemptContempt is seen when the corner of one side of the mouth is pulled back, often in conjunction with the head tilting back.







There are a number of web sites that are designed to help someone to identify what emotions people are experiencing by their facial displays.  Try linking to the following sites on youtube:

Facial Expression Tutorial by Khappucino
Basic Emotions (LIE TO ME)



Table 4 (from Gosselin, Perron, & Beaupre, 2010)
Facial Action Units With Their Appearance Changes and Associated Emotions
FACS Name Appearance Change Associated Emotion
Inner brow raiserRaises only inner part of the eyebrowFear, sadness, surprise
Outer brow raiserRaises only outer part of the eyebrowFear, surprise
Brow lowererLowers eyebrows and pull them togetherAnger, fear, sadness
Upper lid raiserRaises the upper lid, exposing more of the upper portion of the eyeballAnger, fear, surprise
Cheek raiserRaises the cheek, causing crow’s feet and wrinkles below the eyeHappiness, sadness
Lid tightenerRaises and tightens the lower eyelidAnger
Nose wrinklerWrinkles and pulls the skin upward along the sides of the noseDisgust
Upper lip raiserRaises the upper lip and causes bend in its shapeAnger, disgust
Nasolabial furrow deepenerDeepens the middle portion of the nasolabial furrowSadness
Lip corner pullerPulls lip corner up diagonally toward the cheekboneHappiness
Lip corner depressorPulls the lip corner downSadness
Lower lip depressorPulls the lower lip down, flattens the chin bossDisgust
Chin raiserPushes chin boss and lower lip upwardAnger, disgust
Lip stretcherStretches lips horizontallyFear
Lip funnelerFunnels lips outward, pulling in medially on the lip corners and turning out at least one lipAnger
Lip tightenerTightens the lips, making them appear more narrowAnger
Lip pressorPresses the lips together, tightens and narrows the lipsAnger
Lips partParts lips to a limited extentAll 6 Emotions
Jaw dropParts lips so that space between the teeth can be seenAll 6 emotions
Mouth stretchStretches mouth open quite farFear, surprise


Reese (1993) has suggested that interest is associated with a unique facial expression: riveted eyes and a still head.  Is this what happens when we see someone who interests us? So, interest basically involves a "hard stare".  Some people may use the hard stare deliberately as part of flirting, but if we do not want someone to know we are interested in them then we often look at them surreptitiously.. 




Part of the difficulty in reading facial expressions is that people are often trying to mask (hide) what they are feeling.  One of the times when people work hardest to mask their facial expressions is when they are trying to lie.  (It does not go over well if you say you are “truly sorry” while you are also grinning from ear to ear!) The truth is that almost everyone lies at least some of the time, and some people lie frequently.  Extroverts and high self-monitors (people who are particularly concerned with how others view them) lie more often than do other people.  Now, sometimes people lie to spare the feelings of others, but most lies are told to serve one’s own motives.  So, how can we tell if someone is lying to us?

A police force might use a polygraph, or lie detector test, to try to tell if someone is lying (although they could not submit the result in court).  The polygraph indirectly measures lying by measuring changes in anxiety.  The polygraph measures whether an individual’s sympathetic nervous system’s level of activation increases in response to particular yes or no questions, usually related to some crime.  Sympathetic activation is gauged by the polygraph measuring breathing pattern, blood pressure, and the level of sweating (Meijer & Verschuere, 2010).

The accuracy of the polygraph partly depends on the tester using the right questions for the particular case and “demonstrating” to the test taker that the polygraph is completely accurate.  In reality, a trained tester will detect deception at a much better than chance level, but far from perfectly.  A trained tester using a polygraph can detect lying over 74% of the time.  However, anywhere from 10 - 20% of the time innocent people tend to be falsely classified as lying (Meijer & Verschuere, 2010).  In addition, a polygraph is not accurate with people who can control their sympathetic nervous system’s activation or for whom their sympathetic activation is depressed (e.g., psychopaths and people who are somewhat depressed). 

Although the use of a polygraph does not guarantee accuracy (and because few of us carry one around in our pockets!) you might say “So what! Who needs a polygraph? I can tell when someone is lying!” However, most of us are actually not very good at detecting deception.  In fact, many people who need to detect deception as part of their job are not very good at telling whether or not someone is lying.  For example, Vrij (1993) had confederates either lie or tell the truth during a structured police interview that was videotaped.  The videos were played back to 91 police detectives who had to say whether the person was lying or not.  The result was that the detectives’ accuracy was no better than chance but the detectives were none-the-less very confident of their judgments.  Although one detective did achieved 70% accuracy, 44% of the detectives scored worse than chance.  One mistake the detectives made was that they associated lying with (a) less smiling, and (b) more arm or hand movements.  Although one study (Biland, Pyb, Allione, Demarchi, & Abric, 2008) of French women found that liars were more likely to show fake smiles and embarrassment smiles, smiling or not is generally unrelated to deception, and less (not more) arm and hand movements is actually associated with lying (Vrij, 1993).

After performing a meta-analysis of 247 studies, Bond and DePaulo (2008) came to two conclusions about our ability to detect lying.  First, they suggested that we are rarely accurate in detecting deception in real-time situations (i.e., as it is actually occurring).  Evidence consistent with this conclusion comes from a separate meta-analysis (i.e., Aamodt & Custer, 2006) that found that both experts and general citizens tend to be accurate less than 55% of the time (when chance performance would be 50%).  Second, Bond and DePaulo suggested that there are almost no individual differences in this very poor ability to detect lying.  They described individual differences in the ability to detect lying as “minicule” (p.486).  They suggested that our ability to detect lying is unrelated to our: age, sex, education, confidence, expertise, Machiavellianism, or self-monitoring tendency.

In contrast, O’Sullivan (2008) argued that there are indeed meaningful individual differences in the ability to detect lying.  O’Sullivan found that some select police experts perform significantly above chance levels.  Specifically, she identified 11 different groups of police officers (one group was Canadian parole officers) who performed between 60% and 88% in detecting lies/truths.  (However, note that 8 other police forces scored between 48-56%.) O’Sullivan found that detection accuracy was correlated with: being left-handed, emotion recognition accuracy, training or attentional instructions, professional experience, honesty/moral values, and social or academic intelligence.  Evidence for the importance of training is provided by the finding that some police officers are very accurate in detecting criminal lies but not emotional lies, while some therapists are very accurate in detecting emotional lies but not criminal lies (O’Sullivan, 2008).

In fact, even Bond (2008) later admitted that there are some “very rare” experts who consistently perform at 80%+ accuracy levels when dealing with felons telling truths and lies.  He found 2 experts (out of 112 law enforcement professionals) who performed at 80%+ accuracy on each of the 4 occasions that they were tested.

So, the ability of untrained people to detect deception is not very good, but the ability of some experts to detect deception is quite good, but not perfect.  How can we tell when someone is lying?

One approach is actually to avoid any specific detection strategy and just to reply on our unconscious processing.  Albrechtsen, Meissner and Susa (2009) found that their participants actually did 10—15% better when they simply used their “intuition.” In other words, they simply gave their unconscious processing free rein.  However, this is not as good a level of detection as shown by some police forces who had specific training to detect lying.

A second approach to improve the detection of lying is to increase the cognitive load of the liar.  Lying requires a high level of cognitive resources as liars are controlling their behavior and monitoring what they are doing so that they will not be caught.  Further increasing their cognitive load might mean less available resources for controlling behavior while lying, resulting in the appearance of more verbal and nonverbal cues of lying.  Vriji et al.  (2008) increased the cognitive load by having subjects recall their story in reverse chronological order and this improved the accuracy of the police in detecting lying by 12%.  Specifically, in the cognitive load condition (but not in a control condition) liars supplied less details and context, talked more slowly and with more hesitations, and more often blinked their eyes or moved their foot or leg.  This fits with Vriji’s (2008) suggestion that focusing on verbal cues (speech errors, speech fillers, pauses, voice) and memory details (perceptual, spatial, temporal details, logical structure) increases detection accuracy.

A third approach to detect lying relies on reading facial expressions.  Ekman suggested that facial leaks of automatically experienced emotions (such as guilt or fear) may be present when someone is engaged in an emotional lie.  Facial leaks are when some of the muscles used in the facial expression of an experienced emotion are not completely suppressed and so are instead briefly expressed on the face.  For example, someone might try to mask that they are feeling sad but their chin muscles involved in the emotional facial expression of sadness are briefly activated.  Facial leaks are often difficult to detect as some emotional leaks may only be present for 1/25th of a second.  Nevertheless, Bond (2008) found that it was the ability to detect nonverbal cues, such as facial leaks, that differentiated experts from non-experts in their ability to detect lies.

So, each of these three approaches might help you to detect whether someone is lying.  However, note that it is impossible to “read” everyone.  Some people are simply very accomplished liars.  Still, it is important for us to tell someone’s true intentions, such as whether they are attracted to us, or not.




Interpersonal Attraction in Bars

We do not usually think of it this way, but our evolutionary heritage has some influence on who sexually attracts us and on our thinking processes and communication when we try to initiate relationships with those who attract us.  Some of these influences are evident in public spaces such as in bars or at parties.  In these situations, as we are thinking about what to say and do while gauging the intent and sincerity of the other person, we are both consciously and unconsciously reading that person’s facial expressions and body language.  This leads to a a set sequence of stages in the communication between people sexually attracted to each other: (a) looking at the other, (b) approaching and initiating conversation, (c) light touching, (d) the first kiss, and (f) perhaps later, in private, sex (Naworynski, 1993).

There are a variety of strategies that are used to begin the sequence.  Some women deliberately place themselves where they will be discovered by a man who interests them (Perper, 1989).  For example, the woman might move into an area close to where the man is standing.  Many women will signal interest by looking and smiling at a particular man, while other women will go through a repeated sequence of glancing at a particular man and then looking away (Moore, 1985).  Still other women signal that they are generally looking for someone of interest by a look that is a 5-10 second sweep of room not directed at any individual, or they might engage in a “parade” using exaggerated hip sway and a tightened stomach with their chest out, to attract a man’s interest (Moore, 1985).

Both men and women who flirt are more likely to attract interest from others.  Flirting is used both to attract initial interest and when the couple are talking.  Besides the different types of looking, the nonverbal cues in flirting that women use include: the head toss (where the face is tilted upwards for less than 5 seconds); head nods during conversation; tilting their head about 45 degrees which presents their neck; flicking their hair; licking their lip; pouting; smiling; laughing or giggling at another’s comments; whispering in the ear of the person of interest; gesticulation during speech; primping clothing; caressing one part of their own body\face; and caressing an object (Moore, 1989).  The frequency of women’s flirting behaviors is often a better predictor of men’s approaches than is the attractiveness of the women, and those women who are the most flirtatious are 8 times more likely to be approached by men (Moore, 1985). 

When men flirt they often puff up their chest, show off their muscles, and brag about themselves (Naworynski, 1993).  In an observational study (Renninger, Wade, & Grammer, 2004) of men’s behavior in bars, a number of nonverbal behaviors by men were associated with preferential attention from women.  These nonverbal behaviors included signaling interest through brief glances at a woman of interest, and signaling the man’s own status through his: (a) taking up more space in the bar, (b) frequently changing his position in the bar, and (c) touching other men who did not touch him back.  Flirting tends to be reciprocated for both men (r = .68) and women (r = .69) (Back et al., 2011).

In a speed dating study, flirting (as measured from auditory recordings) was associated with more subsequent date requests from others (Back et al., 2011).  Those who flirted more tended to be those who were more attractive and who had a high opinion of their value as a mate.  Those who only flirted with one person were more likely to choose that person for a date.  However, flirting can also sometimes be ambiguous or involve deception to try to discern someone else’s intentions while hiding one’s own intentions (Back et al., 2011).

Once a man and woman signal their interest, one of them must approach the other and initiate conversation.  The man might approach the women, a situation that typically creates a high level of anxiety in the man (Perper, 1989).  Alternately, the women might approach the man, perhaps asking for help with something.  Either way, once the approach has been made and received, the couple have to talk.

Initial conversation is often about trivial things as the two people look for areas of mutual interest (Perper, 1989).  Similarity in interests, attitudes, and personalities are major factors in interpersonal attraction (Miller, 2012) and people often look for a mutual area(s) of interest on which they can build the conversation, and perhaps some sort of relationship.  The conversations frequently involve some of the flirting behaviours previously mentioned.  As time goes on, it may also involve body synchronization.  In body synchronization, both partners might come to move their hands or head at the same time.  They might both drink at the same time.  They might both adopt the same posture.  Many people are not aware of this mutual synchronization of body movements that occur as intimacy builds (Perper, 1989).

If the conversation goes well, the couple, who initially stood at a “V” angle to each other, gradually begin a process of turning to directly face each other (Perper, 1989).  The gradual turning of the position of our bodies is another aspect of the process of sexual attraction that operates unconsciously for most of us.  Accompanying this turning of our bodies, the gaze of each partner becomes more focused on the face and body of the other partner (Perper, 1989).  Most of us are aware of our focused attention on the other person, focused to the exclusion of much that is going on around us. 

After the partners have begun to turn towards each other, the woman will often initiate the first touch as a signal of warm interest (Perper, 1989).  This may be a light touch on the man’s hand, arm or shoulder.  A gentle touch when individuals face each other is considered both flirtatious and signals romantic interest.  These gentle touches may be on the face, shoulder, forearm or elsewhere.  Intimacy increases if the man reciprocates the touch, but deceases if he does not.  If touching is mutually reciprocated and continues then it may signal a mutual sexual interest (Perper, 1989).  Some women might also use the, not as subtle, signal of leaning towards and brushing her body against the man.

Finally, at some point one person will kiss the other, and this will happen either in a public space or in private.  It need not be a long passionate kiss (although it can be).  However, it is a signal of the growing sexual interest between the two people.





Cognitive theories of emotion believe that what we think about events affects our emotions.  For example, cognitive theories of emotion often assume that we make appraisals: we weigh the personal significance of events, and this has a major impact on our emotional reactions and behaviour (van Peer, Granjean, & Scherer, 2014).  Appraisals are an assessment of how the situation affects our well-being, leading to a specific emotional reaction (Moors, Ellsworth, Scherer, & Frijda, 2013).  This makes intuitive sense.  When someone flirts with us, how we feel about it depends on our personal goals.  If it is someone who we desire and the situation is right, then we feel happy.  If it is someone who we do not want flirting with us, we might feel, depending on the exact situation, annoyed or angry or afraid.  If it is someone who is way, way, too old for us, we might feel disgusted.  Thus, appraisals can explain why two people can experience different emotions when faced with the same situation: they appraised the situation differently (Brosch, 2013).  Appraisals are subjective in nature and so may not always follow objective reality (Tamminen & Crocker, 2014).  For example, we may feel fearful about someone when there is no objective reason for this feeling.  We simply have just incorrectly appraised that that the individual may harm us.

A central, and perhaps counterintuitive, aspect of appraisals is that appraisals occur rapidly at an automatic (unconscious) level (Moors et al., 2013), although we may later become aware of them and consciously change (reappraise) these initial appraisals.  The assumption that appraisals can occur automatically is consistent with findings about other automatic cognitive processes.  Although we tend to believe that we are always consciously controlling our behaviour, there is experimental evidence that much\most of behaviour is activated automatically prior to a conscious awareness of our decision to initiate the behaviour (Corr, 2010; Libert, 1985; Velmans, 1991).  Some of this evidence comes from studies of the brain’s electrical activity (e.g., Libert, 1985).  What appraisals do is they help our limited capacity cognitive system to allocate attentional resources to what is important for us (Clement & Dukes, 2013) and when we later become consciously aware (because of the increased attentional resources associated with something important to us) of a thought or action, then we can inhibit or alter that thought or action (Corr, 2010).

Have you ever done something without thinking and you were not even sure why you did it? Frijida (2010) believed that one’s appraisal of an event can change a motivational state, leading to an action, and this occurs at the automatic level in the case of impulsive actions.  Impulsive actions seem to happen without effort and are driven either by the presence of a stimuli or an emerging thought Frijida (2010).  The appraisal leads to the selection, depending on the circumstance, of a seemingly appropriate action schema (an organized way of thinking or behaving).  Sometimes these action schemes are not put into direct action, and may simply be manifested as impulsive thoughts or daydreams (Frijida, 2010).  There is always a constant cycling of: appraising events, experiencing the resultant emotions, and coping with the events\emotions (Tamminen & Crocker, 2014).

Of major interest have been the types of appraisals that we make.  Although different theories postulate slightly different appraisal dimensions, most theories contain dimensions related to intrinsic pleasantness, expectancy, goal relevance (van Peer et al., 2014), and personal ability to cope.  Lazarus, a clinician interested in the relations between stress and coping, distinguished two types of appraisals: primary and secondary appraisals (Smith & Lazarus, 1993).  Primary appraisals concern the relevance of an interaction for one's own goals.  Secondary appraisals decide on credit and blame, one's coping potential, and future expectations. 

Similarly, Flykt, Dan, and Scherer (2009) distinguished two stages of appraisal.  The first stage is an unconscious evaluation of the pleasantness of the event.  This occurs within the first 300-450msec after an event.  So, this is occurring within approximately one-third of a second after an event.  The second stage is an evaluation of whether the event helps or hinders a particular goal.  This second stage also involves an assessment of the individual’s ability to cope with the event.  Both stages of appraisal occur before the mind\brain decides how to respond.  A further elaboration (van Peer et al., 2014) of this stage approach suggested a partially fixed sequence of processing in which novelty is processed prior to pleasantness, with other appraisal dimensions processed in parallel after these initial two (Moors et al., 2013).  Some of the other commonly postulated appraisal dimensions include: likely outcome, urgency (Gentsch, Grandjean, & Scherer 2013), responsibility (Laukka & Anger Elfenbein, 2012), self-concept (Clement & Dukes, 2013), and compatibility with norms (Laukka & Anger Elfenbein, 2012).  Later appraisal dimensions such as these may adjust and refine the quicker, initial appraisals (Brosch, 2013). 

Halle BarrySo, if you are at a party and someone [say, Halle Barry or Ryan Gosling] appears to move towards you, you might appraise how novel this is [never before happened!], then you would appraise how pleasant this is [extremely!!], and after that you would appraise (all at the same time) the likely outcome [your talking to this person!?], the urgency of meeting this person [?], responsibility [he or she is making the approach!], how it would affect your self-concept [self-esteem skyrockets!!!], and compatibility with norms [it’s fine to talk to someone new at a party].  This is all unconsciously processed in about a second, after which you feel something [perhaps ecstatic and nervous at the same time!].

Appraisals are affected by the person’s needs, goals, values, concerns, personality, and past experiences (Tamminen & Crocker, 2014).  One part of past experience can be a long-term emotional sentiment, such as the underlying anger (or positive feelings) towards a particular category of people (Halperin, 2014).  Events may also be appraised for their biological significance (Roseman & Evdokas, 2004).  For example, how desirable would Hally Berry\Ryan Gosling be as a sexual partner? Finally, the factors that affect appraisals will often be social in nature, because humans are generally social animals.

What actually happens during the appraisal process? Appraisals involve a decision mechanism, acting on appraisal outcome values, to determine the emotional outcome by then sending messages to the appropriate biological systems.  Some of the appraisal values may be dichotomous (e.g., either pleasant or unpleasant, with no values in between), while others are thought to be a number of discrete values (Moors et al., 2013).  It is thought that the decision is based on one or more of: (a) the outputs of an always continuing process of computation of the appraisal values, (b) an association between stimuli and past appraisal outcomes, and/or (c) perceptions leading directly to feelings and motor responses (Moors et al., 2013).  When an appraisal results in conflicting outcomes, such as when a situation is both pleasant and unpleasant, the result can be mixed emotions (Shuman, Sander, & Scherer, 2013).

One of the main questions in the area of appraisals is which appraisal, or combination of appraisal dimensions, leads to which emotional experience? Generally, goal incongruent (incompatible) outcomes lead to negative emotions (Bossuyt, Moors, & De Houwer, 2014).  More specifically, Bower and Forgas (2000) believed that the decision rules associated with appraisals include that: (a) loss of anticipated pleasure results in sadness, (b) blocking from a desired goal results in anger, and (c) threats to one’s body or self-esteem results in anxiety.  Because there are a number of appraisal dimensions, a more precise answer to the appraisals-emotions mapping question often requires the consideration of more than a single appraisal dimension.  For example, threat appraisals lead to negative emotions but if one appraises that one has sufficient copying resources, a challenge appraisal leads to positive emotions (Tamminen & Crocker, 2014). 

Lazarus (1994) assumed that there is a core relational meaning underlying each emotion.  These relational meanings reflect the outcome of one or more appraisals, and were proposed to lead to a particular emotional response.


Core Relational Meaning Emotion
Something is done against me that threatens my self-esteem→ anger
Uncertainty→ anxiety
Immediate personal physical danger→ fear
I broke a moral code→ guilt
Failure to live-up to one’s ideal→ shame
Experienced a lasting loss→ sadness
Wanting something possessed by someone else→ envy
Possible loss of another’s affection to someone else → jealousy
Too close to something that might make you ill→ disgust
Progressing well towards a goal→ happy
Accomplishing something that boosts one’s self-esteem→ pride
Change from moving away from a goal to moving towards it→ relief
(adapted from Lazarus & Lazarus, 1994)


There are other proposals about the specific appraisal outcomes that lead to specific emotions.  For example, Feather and McKee (2009) suggested that the following appraisals will lead to certain emotions:


Our action outcome for usour emotion
positivepleasant + deserved→ Pleasure, pride
positiveunpleasant + undeserved → sadness, anger, disappointment, resentment
negativeunpleasant + deserved→ sadness, guilt, regret
negativepleasant + undeserved→ pleasure, guilt, regret



Other's action outcome for themour emotion
positivepleasant + deserved→ Pleasure, admiration
positiveunpleasant + undeserved → sadness, sympathy
negativeunpleasant + deserved→ schadenfreude
negativepleasant + undeserved→ anger, resentment


Note that Feather and McKee’s (2009) assumption that we appraisal a situation on whether we think that the outcome was deserved or not is consistent with the previous suggestion (i.e., Laukka & Anger Elfenbein, 2012) that we appraise compatibility with norms. 

Tong (2010) suggested some of the more complex relationships between appraisals and emotions.  These are as follows:

  1. If the situation is appraised as: unpleasant, unfair, is caused by someone else, a hindrance to goals, and requires effort to solve the situation → an individual will feel anger.
  2. If the situation is appraised as: unpleasant, unfair, beyond one’s control, a hindrance to goals, and requires effort to solve the situation → an individual will feel sad. 
  3. if the situation is appraised as: unpleasant, unfair, unpredictable, beyond one’s control, a hindrance to goals, and requires effort to solve the situation → an individual will feel fear (Tong, 2010).
  4. if the situation is appraised as: unpleasant, unfair, is caused by oneself [this appraisal seems situation dependent], and a hindrance to goals → an individual will feel guilt.

Appraisals make intuitive sense, but is there empirical confirmation? It has been difficult to provide empirical evidence for appraisals as much of the process occurs quickly and unconsciously, limiting the usefulness of verbal self-reports (Gentsch et al., 2013).  However, several recent studies appear consistent with the influence of appraisals on emotions.

The most direct evidence for the existence and impact of appraisals can be seen in a recent study (Crespo & Fernandez-Lopes, 2014) of anger in the caregivers of elderly dependents.  Caregivers felt anger when they perceived their elderly dependents as a burden.  However, this only accounted for 8% of the variance in the experience of anger.  Whether the caregivers expressed their anger partly depended on their coping skills (Crespo & Fernandez-Lopes, 2014).

University students’ ratings (i.e., conscious appraisals) of control and value for academic subjects are related to the experience of pride, anxiety, and boredom (Bieg, Goetz, & Hubbard, 2013).  Appraisals of personal control were positively related to positive emotions and negatively related to negative emotions, while appraisals of high personal value were related to stronger feelings of both positive and negative emotions (Bieg et al., 2013).

There is weak evidence that appraisals play a role in children’s internalizing (i.e., anxiety and depression) and externalizing (aggressive) behaviour.  Langer Zarling et al.  (2013) found that for 6- to 8-year-olds from lower class families, the effect of exposure to interpersonal violence in the home on later internalizing and externalizing behaviour was mediated by at least four variables.  The mediating variables were (a) harsh parenting, (b) maternal psychopathology, (c) child appraisals, and (d) child emotional dysregulation.  These four variables accounted for 59% of the variance in internalizing behaviours and 69% of the variance in externalizing behaviours.  However, it must be noted that the cognitive appraisals variable was composed of three separate measures, one of which was fear or distress from violence.  Thus, the construct of appraisals in this study partially confounded appraisals with emotional responses.

Indirect evidence of the effect of appraisals on emotions comes from a meta-analysis (Sheeran, Harris, & Epton, 2014) of 208 experimental studies of the impact of risk on behaviour, it was found that appraisal of personal risk combined with measures related to coping had a medium sized effect (d = .45) on people’s behaviour.  Although not directly measured in the meta-analysis, it is reasonable to assume that risk also affected emotions.  The study did clearly demonstrate that conscious appraisals of risks (e.g., of cancer) cause some behaviours to change (e.g., protection from sun, vaccination, or diet), but not others (e.g., getting medical tests, dental hygiene, or alcohol consumption).



Cognitive Biases

Long after initial appraisals are made, the way we think about people and events influence our emotions.  If we change the way we think about someone it may, depending, change the way we feel about them.  There is an almost infinite number of ways that this can happen and we simply call them “life.” However, there are also some common biases in people’s thinking in intimate relationships that both directly and indirectly affect emotions.

According to Miller (2012), there are a number of automatic cognitive biases that influence what we think about our intimate partners.  We tend to idealize our lovers (at least at the beginning of our relationships, less so as time goes on) so that we somewhat exaggerate their positives and overlook their flaws.  We also perceive our lovers to be more like us than is really the case.

We like others who say or do things that make us feel better about ourselves and we also prefer others who reinforce our own self-concept.  When we have a positive self-concept and our partner reinforces that self-concept, then the relationship has a better chance of lasting.  However, when we have a negative self-concept and our partner tells us good things about ourselves, we are more likely to avoid our partner because he or she is telling us things about ourselves that we do not believe.  Thus, some people with negative self-concepts are more comfortable in relationships with others that belittle them than in relationships with others that praise them.

Finally, people sometimes hold unrealistic beliefs that are harmful to their relationships.  These beliefs include thinking that: people who truly love each other never fight, your partner should automatically know what you want, people cannot change, sex will always be great, men and women are more different than similar, and partners do not need to work on their relationship (Miller, 2012).  These unrealistic beliefs are simply not true.

Cognitive biases are not restricted to our perceptions in intimate relationships.  Cognitive biases can be more general.  For example, younger adults have a small attentional and memory bias towards negative events rather than positive events (Reed, Chan, & Mikels, 2014).  Depressed individuals have a more difficult time in turning their attention away from negative information and are more likely to interpret an event as negative.  More specifically, depressed individuals look at emotionally negative words (e.g., “bad” vs “good”) more frequently and for longer periods of time, are more likely to interpret sentences in a negative way, and are more likely to later remember the negative words (Everaert, Duyck, & Koster, 2014).  It appears that selective attention of negative information is associated with negative interpretations, which leads to memory recall being biased towards the negative information (Everaert et al., 2014).  Similarly, when (non-depressed) people watch Hollywood movies, they focus their attention to a smaller area of the screen during emotional scenes (Subramanian, Shankar, Sebe, & Melcher, 2014).  However, for these nonclinical subjects, memory for the gist was best for positive emotional scenes, while memory for details was supressed for positive and negative emotional scenes (Subramanian et al., 2014).  As we age (and our goals change), we increasingly prefer to attend to, and remember, positive rather than negative things (Reed et al., 2014).  This moderately sized positivity effect can be lessened when our attention and goals are elsewhere (Reed et al., 2014).




Emotions and Memory

In some case emotions enhance memory, but in other cases emotions impede memory.  We often better remember an event if it’s associated with a strong emotion (Van Damme & Smets, 2014).  This is the case for flashbulb memories, which are particularly clear and vivid memories that result from a highly emotionally arousing experience (do you remember when you heard about the 9\11 terrorist attack; or do you vividly remember an emotional experience with a past romantic partner?).  We tend to better remember the central events of these emotional experiences.  Biologically, amygdala activation during encoding appears responsible for the memory-enhancing effect of emotion (Onoda, Okamoto, & Yamawaki, 2009).  Cognitively, people’s strength of attachment or connectedness to a just deceased person predicted their confidence, 18 months later, in their flashbulb memories of the deceased person (Day & Ross, 2014).  The level of initial surprise about the event may underlie the strength of emotion associated with flashbulb memories (Day & Ross, 2014).  The number of mental rehearsals of the event may also relate to flashbulb memory consistency (Day & Ross, 2014).

On the other hand, emotions can impede memory.  It is more difficult to remember the answers to trivia if you feel pressured.  Bower (1980) cited Diamond, a forensic psychiatrist, as saying that amnesia occurs in about 1 out of every 3 cases following crimes of great passion.  Bower suggested this as a retrieval problem caused by mood-state-dependent memory.  Our recall of peripheral details of highly emotionally negative (but not positive) scenes is often impaired, presumably because of more attention being focused on the central details (Van Damme & Smets, 2014). 

Words denoting emotions may form a distinct category in memory (Altarriba & Canary, 2004).  Emotionally arousing words will prime the retrieval of other emotionally arousing words, even when controlling for association, frequency, word length, and valence (i.e., positive vs negative emotions) (Altarriba & Canary, 2004).  Words denoting emotions also show increased automatic interference, compared to neutral words, in a Stroop task (Sutton, Altarriba, Gianico, & Basnight-Brown, 2007).  This later finding was the case for Spanish-English bilinguals whether the words were presented in Spanish or in English.

The size of working memory is positive correlated with the ability to regulate one’s emotions, with the relationship being bidirectional (Wang & Saudino, 2013).  Not surprisingly, if an event causes negative emotions, this often triggers rumination (continually thinking about the event), which in turn reduces the amount of working memory freely available (Curci, Lanciano, Rime, & Soleti, 2013), which then may decrease our ability to deal with these negative emotions.

Both genes and nonshared environmental factors influence these capacity differences in working memory, with common genes and brain structures apparently underlying both working memory and emotional regulation (Wang & Saudino, 2013).  However, this does not necessarily mean that the size of one’s working memory or ability to regulate emotions is fixed.  In fact, it is clear that most individuals who are poor at regulating their emotions can be trained how to do so.

The phenomena of mood congruent processing refers to people being disposed to take in information that is consistent with their existing emotional state.  Our mood also serves as a retrieval cue.  So, someone who is depressed sees only sees the negative things (the cup is half empty!).  This effect of negative emotions on memory could be critically important, at least from the standpoint of the negative rumination that is a core feature of various affective disorders (Onoda et al., 2009).  Psychological resilience is associated with being able to remember positive emotions even in the face of a sad situation (Philippe, Lecours, & Beaulieu-Pelletier, 2009).

Finally, our memory for emotional events can be biased.  Our recollection of how much we did or did not enjoy past events are not completely accurate.  This is the case for both vacations (the memory of which often seems better than the actual experience) and pain (the memory of which is based on the peak –most intense- experience).  The difference between the average of the experienced emotion and the remembered emotion is greater for unpleasant than pleasant emotions (Miron-Shatz et al., 2009).

So, if our partner is angry with us, maybe it is simply because he or she is sleep deprived, but on the other hand, maybe it is because sleep helps to consolidate our emotional memories, as well as helping to maintain our mood, emotional regulation (e.g., of anger, anxiety, depression, and low stress) and emotional intelligence (Deliens, Gilson, & Peigneux, 2014).




Repressed Memories

Sometimes we do not want to think about something that occurred, because it would otherwise cause us too much anxiety.  Can we repress (an unconscious process that can last an extended time), or at least suppress (a conscious process), an extremely negative emotional experience (e.g., one’s own sexual abuse or domestic violence between one’s parents) for years on end? Certainly, consciousness has a limited capacity so information is constantly moved back to unconscious memory (Erdelyi, 2006).  We can suppress non-traumatic thoughts for a time, although this is often difficult to do but what about traumatic memories?

Traumatic emotional memories seem well remembered by most.  Prospective research (Peterson, Morris, Baker-Ward, & Flynn, 2014) has found that personal injuries are frequently remembered by children 2 years after they occurred.  Children’s memories linked with emotion (either positive or negative emotion) were 2.5 times more likely to be retained than were other memories (Peterson et al., 2014).  So, traumatic memories seem to be generally well remembered.

Psychologists disagree on whether unwanted emotional memories are ever unconsciously repressed.  Some (e.g., Erdelyi, 2006; McNally & Geraerts, 2009) concluded that there are at least cases of suppression of traumatic memory; people simply having forgotten childhood abuse or knowingly suppressed the memory.  There have been several medically documented cases of childhood sexual abuse that has been forgotten by the individual (McNally & Geraerts, 2009) or consciously suppressed.  While it is possible that there are rare cases of (unconscious) repression of emotionally traumatic events for several years, Loftus (as interviewed by Workman, 2012) has taken the strong position that there is currently no good empirical evidence for repressed memories.  So, traumatic memories may be forgotten or suppressed, but at best the repression of them appears rare.

Unfortunately, there have been a number of cases of individuals who have had false memories of sexual abuse implanted into their memory by therapists (for a discussion of false memories see Herndon et al., 2014).  The power of suggestion coming from a trusted therapist who employs hypnosis might implant a false memory in some clients.  It is possible to implant in some adults a false memory of a painful childhood medical procedure, but only if a factor such as guided imagery was used in the memory implant phase or social pressure during the memory recall test (Patihis et al., 2014).  Thus, it is not surprising that mainstream psychotherapists who hold a Ph.D.  were more skeptical in 2012 than in 1992 about the validity of recovered memories of abuse (Patihis, Ho, Tingen, Lilienfeld, & Loftus, 2014).  Indeed, some courts have required the presence of objective evidence (such as hospital records) to corroborate accounts of the recovery of previously repressed memories of abuse (Piper, Lillevik, & Kritzer, 2008).




Emotions and Decision Making

Conventional wisdom is that greed and fear rule investors’ behavior in the stock markets; that stocks are more likely to rise on sunny days simply because sunny days make investors happy.  How much do emotions really influence our decisions in life? A recent review (Lerner, Yi, Valdesolo, & Kassam, 2015) concluded that emotions exert a strong, pervasive, and predictable effect on decisions.  In fact, emotions may be the most influential factor in many important decisions in people’s lives (Lerner et al., 2015).  Emotions affect decisions not only in financial situations, but probably in all areas of the human experience, including everything from intimate relationships to work life to sports performance to moral judgments.

Emotions can affect the decision process in a variety of different ways.  They can affect decisions by influencing (a) what people focus their attention on (e.g., anxiety will cause people to focus on negative information), (b) whether people use a general (heuristic) or analytical type of thinking (e.g., happy people are more likely to be influenced by someone’s attractiveness than by the content of what that person is saying), (c) what weight people give to the different choices open to them (e.g., angry people are more likely to choose to retaliate), and (d) the appraisal goal behaviors that are activated (e.g., jealousy is likely to trigger behaviors intended to help retain our loved one) (Lerner et al., 2015).  One’s emotions themselves also provide key information on which decisions are made (e.g., love for someone will influence decisions about a potential relationship)(Frey, Hertwig, & Rieskamp, 2014) and may provide the motivation needed to make or delay a decision (e.g., anger or fear may be the final factor leading to the end of a relationship)(Pakhomov & Sudin, 2013).  Finally, individuals may come to a particular decision because of how they think the decision will make them feel in the future (Joel, MacDonald, & Plaks, 2013).  For example, some individuals may decide not to ask someone on a date, or to end a relationship, because they overestimate the emotionally pain (e.g., depression, loneliness) that it might engender (Joel et al., 2013).

A classic experiment by Tversky and Kahneman (1981) demonstrated that we are not always rational (i.e., strictly logical and consistent) in our decisions.  Tversky and Kahneman demonstrated that how a choice is worded (framed) can influence what we choose.  When options are all framed positively, most people choose the gain that is small but that is most likelyto occur, a conservative approach.  When the same options are all framed negatively, then people are more likely to “gamble” on the less likely outcome if it means that they would lose less.  It has been suggested (Stanton, Reeck, Huettel, & La Bar, 2014) that this framing effect results from emotional reactions.  We emotionally feel negatives (e.g., loses) more strongly than we feel positives (e.g., gains), so when faced with likely losses we are more inclined to gamble on the small chance of only a slight loss in the hope of experiencing only a small amount of emotional pain.  So, whether we decide to go on a date with someone, or decide to stay in a relationship, should be influenced by whether we focus on the positive attributes, or on the negative eccentricities, of that same person.  The main point here is that when we make decisions, we are influenced by both (a) our rational computations (or best guesses), and (b) our emotional reactions (Harlé & Sanfey, 2012), with our emotions often playing a major role.  If you are treated unfairly in love or work, do you quit even if it causes personal hardship? Many people will.  Feeling angry or disgusted may override an otherwise rational response (Dunn, Evans, Makarova, White, & Clark, 2012).  When we feel angry, we are less likely to engage in detailed and systematic thinking (Thiel, Connelly, & Griffith, 2012).  In contrast, when we feel pessimistic, we are less likely to take action (Thiel et al., 2012).  In situations where emotions may negatively affect our judgment, we can overcome this by (a) delaying the decision until a later time, (b) reappraising the situation so that it is perceived as less emotional, or (c) thinking about our decision making in a critical way (Lerner et al., 2015).

Fear can affect our decision making in interesting and important ways.  Fear can cause us to sample more information from the environment before we make a decision (Frey et al., 2014).  Thus, fear of making a mistake by marrying a particular person may lengthen the time before making, or accepting, a marriage proposal.  Maybe fear is a factor behind a runaway bride\groom?

Worry can cause a small increase in the chance that we choose a small immediate gratification over a larger, but delayed, reward (Worthy, Byrne, & Fields, 2014).  Similarly, a long exposure to fear may predispose us to choose the smaller, immediate reward, although just a brief emotional prime of fear can predispose us to choose the larger, but delayed, reward (Luo, Ainslie, & Monterosso, 2014).  Perhaps the general relationship between negative emotions and an inability to wait relates to the finding that negative emotions cause both men and women to overestimate the frequency of disease, accidents, and disasters (Johnson & Tversky, 1983).  Why wait if we are pessimistic about the future? The relationship between emotions and this type of impulsivity versus self-control is important to people’s lives.  Self-control (inhibitory control) of this kind has been linked to educational attainment, health and well-being (Hoerger, Quirk, & Weed, 2011).  Meanwhile, low delay of gratification (impulsivity) has been linked to higher drug usage, obesity, consumer debt and psychological problems (Hoerger, et al, 2011).  The good news is that impulsivity, at least in many children, is frequently more of a strategy than a trait (Jones & Duffy, 1982) and can often be modified by parents altering their parenting style and by teachers adopting a behavior modification program.

When we feel happy we are more likely to gamble (Stanton et al., 2014), which may be why the major hotels in Los Vegas try to keep their predominately male clients happy.  Mild positive emotions increase overconfidence in men, but not in women (Ifcher & Zarghamee, 2014).  As overconfidence sometimes has a negative effect on economic decisions (Ifcher & Zarghamee, 2014), this raises the question of whether women financial managers or CEOs avoid the financial losses that can follow false overconfidence? Note that culture sometimes affects the relationship between emotions and overconfidence, as sadness increases overconfidence in non-Asians but not in Asian-Americans (Ifcher & Zarghamee, 2014).

Emotions may interact with the type of task in their effect on decision making.  In situations when a stand-alone decision is to be made, it has been suggested that angry and happy people are more likely to choose options that carry some risk (including sexual encounters), while fearful people are averse to taking risks.  However, in situations when one decision can effect subsequent decisions, angry and happy people prefer the conservative (safe) decisions while fearful people are more likely to take risks (Bagneux, Bollon, & Dantzer, 2012).

Moral judgments are a type of decision that may affect only a few people, but depending on the situation may affect many others.  It has been suggested (Olatunji & Puncochar, 2014) that emotional processing at an unconscious level occurs prior to conscious reasoning processes when making a moral judgment.  Disgust appears to be an emotion that has a strong tendency to sway moral judgments (Olatunji & Puncochar, 2014).  Would you vote for someone who disgusts you [say no!]? Stress increases the odds of participants choosing personal gains over the welfare of others (Youssef et al., 2012).  Anger, which can trigger impulsiveness and risky decisions, appears to inhibit moral judgments while fear, which can trigger a search for additional information, appears to facilitate them (Kligyte, Connelly, Thiel, & Devenport, 2013).  Angry individuals are more likely to make distorted appraisals, misperceive a situation as threatening, are slightly more likely to then retaliate against the misperceived threat, and are moderately more likely to choose less ethical decisions (Kligyte et al., 2013).  Both cognitive reappraisal and relaxation can reduce the effect of initial anger on poor ethical decision making.

The influence of the display of anger in negotiations is complex.  In negotiations for morally important items, expressions of angry by the other person reduces the odds that one will make a concession while expressions of sadness increases the odds that one will make a concession (Dehghani, Carnevale, & Gratch, 2014).  However, in some contexts (e.g., by someone high in power) the expression of anger may increase the chance of getting a concession (Dehghani et al., 2014).

On the positive side, emotions sometimes aid decision making.  Patients whose emotional processing is impaired through damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex are more likely than others to make suboptimal, risky financial decisions (Lerner et al., 2015).  Damasio’s somatic marker hypothesis suggests that emotions serve to remind us of the rewards or punishments that resulted from our past decisions.  There is some evidence that this is particularly the case in complex situations with uncertain future outcomes (Werner, Duschek, & Schandry, 2009).  Positive emotions often allow us to better process information, even information that is threatening to us (Ifcher & Zarghamee, 2014).  Salespeople rely on emotional awareness and regulation, rational deliberation, and intuition [rapid unconscious processing] when making decisions to close sales (Locander, Mulki, & Weinberg, 2014).  Knowing when to go with one’s “gut feelings” may partially determine the success of a number of our important life decisions (Dunn et al., 2010).