How Misplaced Anxiety Affects Your Decision Making

University of Pennsylvania research scholar, Jeremy Yip unpacks how emotional awareness—especially of anxiety—can help us to make better decisions.

When we feel anxious, it's often in response to uncertainty. As a result, we tend to reduce our risk. But this anxiety can be triggered by events that are unrelated to a decision at hand—call it incidental anxiety. There's a spillover effect: one event causes you to be anxious, which then in turn causes you to reduce your risk.

We generally use emotions as information. Whether that's relevant or irrelevant information depends on what has triggered that emotional state. People with higher emotional intelligence are able to discern relevant emotions and irrelevant emotions.

How anxiety, emotion, and decisions relate to one another

When we're making a decision, we often ask ourselves, "How do I feel about this?" When you're anxious from another event in your life, and you're trying to make that decision about whether to hire a job candidate or purchase a car, you end up using that emotional state as information.

There's the safe option, where this person checks all the boxes, then there's the riskier option, the person who might not be as proven but shows a lot of promise. When you say, "How do I feel about this?" you say, I feel anxious, I feel uncertain about this. So you are more likely to go with the safer option.

How emotional intelligence helps you make better decisions

In my research I did a study that looks at a hypothetical gamble about whether you'd choose a certain option with a small amount of money or a risky option that could lead to a larger amount of money, but you could also walk away with nothing. In the second experiment, we look at whether you sign up for flu shots or not.

What we were interested in was the question: "Are there certain individuals who are more prone to incidental anxiety when making decisions? Are there other individuals that are able to block the effects of this incidental anxiety when they make decisions?"

What we found is that people who have higher levels of emotional understanding ability are able to block the influence of incidental anxiety on their risk taking. Whereas those with lower emotional understanding, they're presumably confused about the source of their anxiety, and they misattribute their decisions about risk, and as a result reduce their risk.

People with lower emotional understanding are more likely to make that misattribution, whereas the people with higher emotional understanding are able to say, 'Oh, I feel nervous, but I feel nervous because I'm worried about my car. This has no bearing on the decision I'm making right now. So they don't make an overly conservative decision.

How to get better at making anxious decisions

One of the ways this research informs our thinking and behavior is that we can start to first build an awareness of how we're feeling when we're making a decision. That's the first step, asking yourself how you feel. The second is asking ourselves, "What is causing me to feel this way?" And realizing that there are a lot of different triggers that can cause you to feel certain ways. The third step, once you know what is causing you to feel that way, is asking yourself if that event is relevant or irrelevant to the decision that you're making.

The Bottom Line:

Emotions are very functional. In this particular study we're showing how emotions can be dysfunctional, but how your knowledge about emotions can prevent you from being influenced in way that could impact you negatively.

[Image: Flickr user Jonathan Kos-Read]

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