There Are Some Things Our Emotions Don’t Know

One of the more interesting dichotomies in psychology is the interplay of intuition and conscious reasoning during the decision making process. When we can’t consciously consider important pieces of evidence, going with emotion or intuition can sometimes be more effective. (There’s even a whole book about it.) For example, if your intuition correctly identifies a person as somebody bad before your deliberative thought figures it out, you may feel afraid of somebody you can’t identify.

It would seem that the opposite could also happen. That is, your conscious mind could influence a judgment by picking up on something your intuition missed. For example, you might initially dislike a new co-worker because they have the same haircut as somebody you hated in college. Only after consciously thinking about them do you realize you have no reason to not like them.

A study by UC-Berkeley’s Matthew Feinberg provides some new evidence that this kind of “reappraisal” of intuition can influence judgments. Steinberg and his colleagues conducted a series of experiments in which they observed the moral judgments subjects made about scenarios that were designed to initially elicit disgust, but actually be morally ambiguous. They found that reappraisal of initial moral intuitions generally led to altered judgments that relied more heavily on deliberate reasoning.

We hypothesized that although emotional reactions evoke initial moral intuitions, reappraisal weakens the influence of these intuitions, leading to more deliberative moral judgments. Three studies of moral judgments in emotionally evocative, disgust-eliciting moral dilemmas supported our hypothesis. A greater tendency to reappraise was related to fewer intuition-based judgments (Study 1). Content analysis of open-ended descriptions of moral-reasoning processes revealed that reappraisal was associated with longer time spent in deliberation and with fewer intuitionist moral judgments (Study 2). Finally, in comparison with participants who simply watched an emotion-inducing film, participants who had been instructed to reappraise their reactions while watching the film subsequently reported less intense emotional reactions to moral dilemmas, and these dampened reactions led, in turn, to fewer intuitionist moral judgments (Study 3).

The findings suggest that under certain circumstances you can essentially get a second opinion on your intuitions by reappraising them, and that the reappraisal often leads to judgments that are based on more-deliberate reasoning. The study also hints that it’s theoretically possible to find a sweet middle ground where your emotions and intuitions are making judgments about things you can’t consciously judge, and your conscious mind is making judgments about the things your intuition can’t judge.

By the way, if you’re wondering what the ambiguous moral scenarios were, see below. (The scenario is courtesy of Jonathan Haidt, who created it for an earlier experiment.)

The chicken dilemma described a man who purchased a dead chicken, had sex with it, and then cooked and ate it in the privacy of his own home. For each scenario, participants answered two questions: “Is this morally wrong?” and “How morally wrong would you rate their [the man’s] behavior?”

It seems wrong, but on the other hand….
Feinberg, M., Willer, R., Antonenko, O., & John, O. (2012). Liberating Reason From the Passions: Overriding Intuitionist Moral Judgments Through Emotion Reappraisal Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797611434747

3 Responses to There Are Some Things Our Emotions Don’t Know

  1. swy says:

    looks like Steinberg should be Feinberg…

  2. erichorowitz says:

    Duly noted. Thank you.

  3. Misaki says:

    Reminds me of this

    (“Signals” of course being one concept of examining ‘intuitive’ assumptions.)

    Also relevant:

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