The impact of affect on search and choice

Before making decisions, people often need to explore their environment to learn about initially uncertain outcomes. To what extent does a person's emotional state shape exploration in such "decisions from experience"? Previously it has been suggested that fear regulates people's informational interface with the external world through its physiological expression (e.g., a more effective sampling of the visual field from widened eyes). In this project, we investigated whether the "emotional feeling" of fear triggers analogous changes in exploration, in terms of increased information sampling in decisions from experience – as suggested by appraisal tendency theories of emotions.

In a first study, we aimed to make use of naturally occurring emotional states and approached people in the waiting area of a comedy show and in the waiting room of a hospital's oral surgery department. The former participants turned out to be in a relatively happy default state (control group), whereas the latter reported being in a fearful state. We asked participants to complete a series of decisions from experience, which were implemented on iPads. In a second study, we induced different emotional states in a controlled lab experiment. The figure below shows the emotional states of participants in the lab study, as a function of the different experimental conditions, as well as pre- and post-study.

Participants' emotional states in the lab study (separately for the four conditions).

Our findings showed that fearful (relative to happy) people indeed explore decision environments substantially more before making a final choice. In the lab study, this increase was +61% (see figure below; findings for the field study were similar). The different degrees of exploration influenced participants' experience of rare events and, in turn, their final choices (i.e., an increased choice proportion of the options with higher expected values). That is, emotional states may be powerful factors in guiding people's exploratory behavior. Of course, when particular emotional states are misattributed to the wrong source or situation, their role may not necessarily be adaptive for information search and choice.

Participants' exploratory behavior in the lab study (separately for the four conditions).

Key references

Frey, R., Hertwig, R., & Rieskamp, J. (2014). Fear shapes information acquisition in decisions from experience. Cognition, 132, 90-99. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2014.03.009

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