Saturday, October 22, 2005

"Humans are governed by emotions -- literally"

The emotional responses that guide much of human behavior have a tremendous impact on public policy and international affairs, prompting government officials to make decisions in response to a crisis -- such as the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- with little regard to the long-term consequences, according to a study by scholars at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. The paper, which appears in the Chicago-Kent Law Review, was written by Jules Lobel, a Pitt professor of law, and George Loewenstein, professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon....

The authors draw on recent research that demonstrates that human decision-making is governed by two neural systems -- the deliberative and the affective, or emotional. The latter, which the authors dub emote control, is much older, and served an adaptive role in early humans by helping them meet basic needs and identify and respond quickly to danger. As humans evolved, however, they developed the ability to consider the long-term consequences of their behavior and to weigh the costs and benefits of their choices. The deliberative system appears to be located in the brain's prefrontal cortex, which grew on top of but did not replace older brain systems.

"Human behavior is not under the sole control of emotion or deliberation but results from the interaction of these two processes," Loewenstein said.

Emote control is fast, but can respond only to a limited amount of situations, while deliberation is far more flexible but relatively slow and laborious. Emote control is the default decision-making system. Deliberation kicks in when a person encounters a situation that is new or when the correct response is not evident. Emote control is highly attuned to vivid imagery, immediacy and novelty, meaning that the emotional system is more likely to respond to events that are associated with striking visual images, that occurred in the recent past, and that people are unfamiliar with and have not had time to adapt to. Emotion also is sensitive to the categories into which humans automatically place the people and things they encounter -- from the perspective of law and social policy, the all-important distinction between "us" and "them." And emote control can activate deliberation, according to Loewenstein and Lobel.

"Moderate levels of fear, anger or any almost any form of negative emotion warn the deliberative system that something is wrong and that its capabilities are required. Perversely, as emotion intensifies, however, it tends to assume control over behavior even as it triggers the deliberative system, so one may realize what the best course of action is, but find one's self doing the opposite," Loewenstein said....

Lobel and Loewenstein do not, of course, suggest that emotions are always bad.... Yet political leaders can exploit emotions for their own ends, so as a society, we must recognize the havoc that emotions can play on public policy....

More @ Science Blog ...

... and 'Emote Control: The substitution of symbol for substance in foreign policy and international law' in the Chicago-Kent Law Review

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