4. Emotional Self

Emotion, Emotion Regulation, and Psychophysiology


My research in this area investigates the intersection of emotion, emotion regulation, and human physiology in the context of decision-making.  First, I was inspired by Adam Smith's theory of moral sentiment (1759), which posited that morality is beyond our deliberation and something that is innate.  I seek to identify cognitive, affective, and physiological factors that influence one's moral decision-making.  Second, I examine the effect of emotion, emotion regulation, and human physiology on one's social, political, and economic decision-making. 


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Emotions and decisions in the real world: What can we learn from quasi-field experiments? (Working Paper)

Most of what is known about how emotions influence decision-making is based on laboratory experiments. This paper argues for an alternative quasi-field experiment methodology, in which participants complete experimental tasks after as-if-random real-world events determine their emotional state. We begin by providing the first critical review of this emerging literature. Our review shows that real-world events provide emotional shocks that are at least as strong as what can ethically be induced under laboratory conditions. However, most previous quasi-field experiment studies use statistical techniques that may result in biased estimates. We propose a more rigorous approach, and illustrate it using two studies of how negative emotion affects risk-taking behavior. In Study 1, undergraduate students completed a risk elicitation task immediately after learning their midterm exam grades. In Study 2, sports fans completed risk-elicitation tasks immediately after watching high-stakes NFL games. Overall, we argue that that the quasi-field experiment methodology represents a promising direction for research on emotions and decision-making.


Emotions and the micro-foundations of commitment problems in international politics (2017)

While emotions are widely regarded as integral to the “behavioral approach” to International Relations (IR), a host of fundamental problems have delayed the integration of affective influences into traditional models of IR. We do so by focusing on commitment problems, a body of work that contains strong theoretical predictions about how individual decision-makers will and should act. Across two lab experiments, we use a novel experimental protocol that includes a psychophysiological measure of emotional arousal (skin conductance reactivity) to study how individuals react to changes in bargaining power. While we find support for one key pillar of IR theory — individuals do reject offers when they expect the opponent’s power to increase — we also find that physiological arousal tampers with individuals’ ability to think strategically in the manner predicted by canonical models. We also present a followup experiment that mimics the elements of institutional solutions to commitment problems and find support for their efficacy on the individual level. Our novel findings suggest that when individuals face large power shifts, emotional arousal short-circuits their ability to “think forward and induct backwards,” suggesting that emotionally-aroused individuals are less prone to commitment problems.


Managing perceptions of distress at work: Reframing distress as passion (2016)

Expressing distress at work can have negative consequences for employees: observers perceive employees who express distress as less competent than employees who do not. Across five experiments, we explore how reframing a socially inappropriate emotional expression (distress) by publicly attributing it to an appropriate source (passion) can shape perceptions of, and decisions about, the person who expressed emotion. In Studies 1a-c, participants viewed individuals who reframed distress as passion as more competent than those who attributed distress to emotionality or made no attribution. In Studies 2a-b, reframing emotion as passion shifted interpersonal decision-making: participants were more likely to hire job candidates and choose collaborators who reframed their distress as passion com- pared to those who did not. Expresser gender did not moderate these effects. Results suggest that in cases when distress expressions cannot or should not be suppressed, reframing distress as passion can improve observers’ impressions of the expresser.


Envy and interpersonal corruption: Social comparison processes and unethical behavior in organizations (2016)

Our purpose in this chapter is to explore the role of upward social comparisons and the emotional reactions they trigger in the context of unethical behavior. Under what conditions do the potential benefits and costs of an action to others (motivated at least in part by social comparisons and the invidious emotions that these social comparisons can produce) cause an employee to cross ethical boundaries? An understanding of the motives underlying unethical behavior is essential in order for research on unethical behavior in organizations to progress. In exploring this issue, we seek to further the understanding of envy, social comparison processes, and unethical behavior in organizations in three main ways.


The physiology of (dis)honesty: Does it impact health? (2016)

Research suggests that dishonest acts may be embodied. That is, when a person anticipates, or acts, dishonestly, the choice or behavior is not only reflected in the mind but also in the brain and body. While recent summaries of virtuous acts suggests that truth, altruism, and fairness confer a suite of psychological and health benefits to the benefactor, we suggest that lying, cheating, and stealing may do the opposite. We review the neuroscience, psychophysiology, and endocrinology of dishonesty and suggest that, over time, such behavior may be bad for our health.


Poker-faced morality: Concealing emotions leads to utilitarian decision making (2015)

This paper examines how making deliberate efforts to regulate aversive affective responses influences people’s decisions in moral dilemmas. We hypothesize that emotion regulation—mainly suppression and reappraisal—will encourage utilitarian choices in emotionally charged contexts and that this effect will be mediated by the decision maker’s decreased deontological inclinations. In Study 1, we find that individuals who endorsed the utilitarian option (vs. the deontological option) were more likely to sup- press their emotional expressions. In Studies 2a, 2b, and 3, we instruct participants to either regulate their emotions, using one of two different strategies (reappraisal vs. suppression), or not to regulate, and we collect data through the concurrent monitoring of psycho-physiological measures. We find that participants are more likely to make utilitarian decisions when asked to suppress their emotions rather than when they do not regulate their affect. In Study 4, we show that one’s reduced deontological inclinations mediate the relationship between emotion regulation and utilitarian decision making. 


Hormones and ethics: Understanding the biological basis of unethical behavior (2015)

Globally, fraud has been rising sharply over the last decade, with current estimates placing financial losses at greater than $3.7 trillion annually. Unfortunately, fraud prevention has been stymied by lack of a clear and comprehensive understanding of its underlying causes and mechanisms. In this paper, we focus on an important but neglected topic—the biological antecedents and consequences of unethical conduct—using salivary collection of hormones (testosterone and cortisol). We hy- pothesized that preperformance cortisol levels would interact with preperformance levels of testos- terone to regulate cheating behavior in 2 studies. Further, based on the previously untested cheating-as-stress-reduction hypothesis, we predicted a dose–response relationship between cheating and reductions in cortisol and negative affect. Taken together, this research marks the first foray into the possibility that endocrine-system activity plays an important role in the regulation of unethical behavior. 


Physiological arousal and political beliefs (2014)

It is by now well known that political attitudes can be affected by emotions. Most earlier studies have focused on emotions generated by some political event (e.g., terrorism or increased immigration). However, the methods used in previous efforts have made it difficult to untangle the various causal pathways that might link emotions to political beliefs. In contrast, we focus on emotions incidental (i.e., irrelevant) to the decision process, allowing us to cleanly trace and estimate the effect of experimentally induced anxiety on political beliefs. Further, we build upon innovative new work that links physiological reactivity (Hatemi, McDermott, Eaves, Kendler, & Neale, 2013; Oxley et al., 2008a) to attitudes by using skin conductance reactivity as a measure of emotional arousal. We found that anxiety—generated by a video stimulus—significantly affected physiological arousal as measured by tonic skin-conductance levels, and that higher physiological reactivity predicted more anti-immigration attitudes. We show that physiological reactivity mediated the relationship between anxiety and political attitudes.


Emotion regulation influences political ideology: Does reappraisal decrease support for conservative policies? (2013)

Cognitive scientists, behavior geneticists, and political scientists have identified several ways in which emotions influence political attitudes, and psychologists have shown that emotion regulation can have an important causal effect on physiology, cognition, and subjective experience. However, no work to date explores the possibility that emotion regulation may shape political ideology and attitudes toward policies. Here, we conduct four studies that investigate the role of a particular emotion regulation strategy – reappraisal in particular. Two observational studies show that individual differences in emotion regulation styles predict variation in political orientations and support for conservative policies. In the third study, we experimentally induce disgust as the target emotion to be regulated and show that use of reappraisal reduces the experience of disgust, thereby decreasing moral concerns associated with conservatism. In the final experimental study, we show that use of reappraisal successfully attenuates the relationship between trait-level disgust sensitivity and support for conservative policies. Our findings provide the first evidence of a critical link between emotion regulation and political attitudes. 


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Leadership is associated with lower levels of the stress (2012)

As leaders ascend to more powerful positions in their groups, they face ever-increasing demands. As a result, there is a common perception that leaders have higher stress levels than nonleaders. However, if leaders also experience a heightened sense of control— a psychological factor known to have powerful stress-buffering effects—leadership should be associated with reduced stress levels. Using unique samples of real leaders, including military officers and government officials, we found that, compared with nonleaders, leaders had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and lower reports of anxiety (study 1). In study 2, leaders holding more powerful positions exhibited lower cortisol levels and less anxiety than leaders holding less powerful positions, a relationship explained significantly by their greater sense of control. Altogether, these findings reveal a clear relationship between leadership and stress, with leadership level being inversely related to stress. 


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