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Emotions in Foreign Policy Decision Making

Summary and Keywords

There are lots of ways that emotions have been studied in psychology and various ways that their use has been examined in the context of foreign policy. Perhaps one of the most useful ways to examine the influence of emotion on foreign policy is through the lens of risk and threat assessment. Some approaches to emotion tend to categorize emotions as valence-based, in terms of broad-based positivity or negativity. Certainly, elements of this kind of approach can be useful, particularly in terms of thinking about the ways in which political conservatives appear to have a negativity bias. However, an investigation of discrete emotions allows a more sophisticated and nuanced exploration of the effect of emotion on risk analysis and threat assessment, in particular the effect of fear, anger, and disgust on decision-making under conditions of risky threat. Genetic, as well as environmental, circumstances can influence individual variance in the experience and expression of such emotions, and any comprehensive approach to understanding the influence of emotion on decision-making should take all these factors into account.

Keywords: emotion, foreign policy, decision making, risk, threat, fear, anger, disgust

For the vast majority of the history of studying international relations and foreign policy, dominant models eschewed the influence of the individual on decision-making; models such as realism and liberalism focus disproportionately on the impact of large structures and institutions on constraining and incentivizing choice (Waltz, 1979; Moravcsik, 1997). Important exceptions exist, most notably Robert Jervis’s (1976) masterwork on Perception and Misperception in International Relations. Yet, as even he has noted, this work focused almost exclusively on the disciplinary preoccupation of the time in psychology, emphasizing the role of unmotivated bias on decision-making. This work reached its apex in the Nobel prize–winning research of Kahneman and Tversky (1979, 1984), which documented the outlines of these judgmental heuristics and biases in decision-making in perhaps the crowning achievement of the cognitive revolution. Such biases do exert profound, powerful, and systematic effects on individual decision-making, and understanding their operation proved to be a critically important contribution to the study of the human mind and human behavior.

But it also left some important considerations, most notably related to the role of emotion, out of the equation.1 One of the reasons for this goes back centuries, to a juxtaposition of emotions with rationality that assumed rationality to be far superior. This view rested on an assumption of emotions as forces that are bad and get people into trouble, whereas rationality was viewed as the correct way to approach complex problem-solving. This Enlightenment construction was no doubt deeply informed by a misogynist view that similarly equated men with rationality and women with emotion. One of the most important seismic shifts in the scholarly understanding of emotion arises from the rejection of this view. Modern notions see emotion as inextricably intertwined with all forms of what had been previously characterized as rationality; indeed, what we typically understand as rationality rests on a neurological foundation of emotional processing that the brain develops much earlier and privileges in both speed and access across the course of the lifespan (Damasio, 2006). Specifically, emotional instincts and responses, including fear, frustration, and attachment appear essentially intrinsic from birth, but the pre-frontal cortex which governs so-called “rational thinking” or executive functioning does not complete development until a person is in their early 20s. So not only is emotion not distinct from rational consideration, but, in fact, at a neurological level, it receives primacy of attention in every way, precisely because it enhances our prospects for survival. For example, we need to be able to run away from a predator without thinking about it first, on instinct.

Similarly, an emphasis on social and environmental structures in both psychology and political science that grew out of the earlier behavioral revolution neglected the importance of dispositional differences among people, and these, too, need to be taken into account to achieve a comprehensive understanding of the nature of human psychological processes. Luckily, there has been a veritable explosion of work on these topics particularly since the turn of the century, not only in psychology but also in areas as diverse as cognitive neuroscience, behavioral economics, biological anthropology, and behavior genetics. And this work has tremendous implications for the way that scholars of foreign policy can and should think about the nature of risk taking and threat assessment.

The plethora of work on emotion since 2000 means that there is simply no way that a single explication can do the question justice2. However, it is possible to outline some of the ways that specific emotions can influence particular outcomes of interest. This should not be understood as a comprehensive summary, but rather as an illustration of the ways that various specific emotions can influence decision-making, and an example of how work on this topic as it relates to foreign policy analysis might proceed.

To be clear, the discussion here relates to topics involving the influence of emotion on risk and threat in particular because these are central issue in the study of international relations and foreign policy, but by no means constitute the entire universe of inquiry in either of those fields. The discussion concentrates on this area so as to provide a comprehensive overview of work in this area within the space limitations; however, this focus is not intended to to dismiss or devalue work which examines the effect of emotion on other domains by emphasizing their influence on perceptions of risk and threat assessment.

This field is quite vibrant, and there is a plethora of work investigating the influence of emotion on foreign policy. Crawford (2000) blazed a trail in her work arguing for the importance of emotion and emotional relationships in world politics. Other work followed quickly in its wake, including research by Jon Mercer, who has made significant contributions to understanding the influence of emotion on processes of rationality (Mercer, 2005), beliefs (Mercer, 2010), and social identity (Mercer, 2014). Hymans (2006) has examined the influence of emotions and social identity on nuclear proliferation. And Lebow (2005) has looked at the integrated role of both reason and emotion to help explain the development and maintenance of cooperation. Work by Hutchison and Bleiker (2014) examining emotion and world politics was published in International Theory; Åhäll and Gregory (2015) have edited the collection Emotion, Politics and War, and Ariffin, Coicaud, and Popovski (2016) have edited one on emotions in international politics more broadly, as well.

Important work has argued for the significance of emotion in regulating vast aspects of human cognition, including reasoning, memory, and attention (Dolan, 2002). No one body of work, much less a single article, can begin to review all the significant work that has been done in this area even by starting a review in the early 2000s. However, the topics of risk and threat remain central to any study of international relations and foreign policy. To focus on them is not to neglect the other important work which has examined the application of emotion to other areas, but rather seeks to provide an in-depth discussion of one area of emphasis within reasonable space constraints. Similar models have been put forward by Stein (2008) whose work seeks to integrate psychological and neurobiological insights to inform our understanding of foreign policy decision-making.

The discussion of emotion and the framing of risky choice encompasses a broader examination of the influence of decision-making under risk, of how genetic contribution can also influence individual differences in emotional experience and expression, and how such influences can play out in specific foreign policy attitudes and behaviors. This overview occurs through the discussion of specific work, in an attempt to privilege depth over breath, and to explore some of the challenges associated with undertaking work in this area.

Emotion and the Framing of Risky Threat

The core psychological model of decision-making under conditions of risk remains prospect theory, developed by Kahneman and Tversky (1979, 1984; for applications to international relations, see McDermott, 1998). This model specified the way that environmental circumstances can influence choice. Specifically, one of the main substantive contributions and theoretical insights offered by this model was the prediction that people are much more likely to take risks then things are going badly, while they tend to remain caution when in a domain of gains. In addition, in one of the most robust findings associated with this work, prospects of loss seem to have a much bigger influence on decision-making than do hopes of gain. This model, one of the most cited papers in all of social science, produced an incredibly generative research agenda for exploring the scope and conditions under which the framing of domain occurs, as well as of how loss aversion affects all manner of choice.

Ironically, although prospect theory grew out of notions of hedonic response and questions about how people choose to value different things to a greater or lesser degree, most notably quandaries about whether a person would rather have fewer less-painful shots or a single more-painful one, the emotional element ended up being filtered out of the formal model. There were various historical and methodological reasons for this (see McDermott, 2012), but suffice it to say that emotions were not so much dismissed as they were set aside for purposes of isolating the variables of primary interest that related to automatic unconscious biases.

And yet later work indeed showed that emotions can have an influence on the tendency to take risks, and, importantly, on the framing of choice. This is particularly important from the perspective of prospect theory because one of the elements lacking in the original model was a theory of the origins of framing effects, whereby choices come to be represented as gains or losses. Notably, there are at least two important areas of consideration regarding the way that emotions affect the understanding and interpretation of risk. Each of these are most easily comprehensible from the perspective of evolutionary psychology but such an analysis is outside the scope of this discussion. First, the way in which emotion influences the construction of risk and choice differs by decision domain (Fagley & Miller, 1997; Kühberger et al., 1999). For example, making a choice about money, while important, may not be governed by the same set of emotions as life and death decisions about medical care for oneself or loved ones. Second, the specific operative emotion can influence the same decision in different ways (Lerner & Keltner, 2000, 2001; DeSteno, Petty, Wegener, & Rucker, 2000). For example, a terrorist attack might engender fear in some people while spurring rage in others; the nature of that individual emotional response will condition both the interpretation of risk but also the default responses seen to be appropriate.

In one attempt to investigate the nature of these phenomena, Druckman and McDermott (2008) conducted two laboratory experiments to investigate the influence of emotion on the framing of risky choice. The first experiment included 214 subjects with an average age in their mid-twenties, a majority of whom were white females. The second study included a broader range of subjects using a community-based population. The main difference between the groups had to do with the way emotion was assessed. In the first group, a measure of people’s background emotions was taken using the standard Positive and Negative Affect Scale; in the second, people’s moods were intentionally manipulated using a standard mood induction technique that asks people to write about a personal experience from their past when they strongly felt a given emotion. This technique has been found to result in reliable mood inductions, although it is important for ethical reasons to make sure that subjects are brought back to a normal state after the study when such inductions are used.

The first experiment in the Druckman and McDermott study used a variant on the classic Asian disease paradigm experiment originally developed by Tversky and Kahneman (1981). This paradigm represents the iconic demonstration of how people systematically violate the axioms of rational choice in their actual decision-making behavior by making a decision shift based on nothing other than the framing of choice. In one version of the original Tversky and Kahneman experiment, odds are framed in terms of survival; in the other they are framed in terms of mortality, and people confronting the exact same probabilistic odds make a different choice based on this framing alone.

Druckman and McDermott (2008) posed the question presenting the survival frame first, as follows:

Imagine that the U.S. is preparing for the outbreak of an unusual Asian disease, which is expected to kill 600 people. Two alternative programs to combat the disease have been proposed. Assume that the exact scientific estimates of the consequences of the programs are as follows:

If Program A is adopted, 200 people will be saved/400 will die.

If Program B is adopted, there is a 1/3 probability that 600 people will be saved, and a 2/3 probability that no people will be saved/1/3 no one will die and a 2/3 probability that everyone will die.

Which of the two programs would you favor?

Because the authors were aware of the domain-specific nature of these findings, they also posed a similar problem regarding a financial choice with the positive frame presented first, as follows:

Imagine that the community where you live was given a $3,000 government grant for future community development. The community must however immediately invest the grant in one of two programs, and everyone agrees that the estimated impact of each program is as follows:

If Program Y is adopted, your community will gain/lose $1,000.

If Program Z is adopted, there is a 50% chance that your community will gain $2,000 and a 50% chance that your community will gain nothing/50% chance that your community will lose nothing, and a 50% change that they will lose $2000.

Which program would you vote for—program Y or program Z?

In these experiments, it was clear that different emotions exerted a different effect depending on domain. For example, negative emotions induced more risk-seeking decisions in the life-and-death decisions, but not so much in the financial ones, which seemed to be more influenced by enthusiasm. Consistent with other results that have shown that women tend to be, on average more fearful, while men tend to be more angry, and that fear leads to risk-averse choices, while anger leads to risk-seeking ones (Lerner, Gonzalez, Small, & Fischhoff, 2003), Druckman and McDermott also found that sex differences matter overall, with women being more risk averse. Anger did not seem to have much of an effect, but that may be because anger is not easy to map onto a gain-and-loss divide, although it clearly did increase the confidence people had in the decisions they made.

The results of the authors’ second experiment, which engaged in mood manipulation, mimicked that of the first. The framing of a problem mattered, but so did the emotions being experienced by the person making the decision. Moreover, different emotions affected people in distinct ways; in addition, different emotions differentially affected how confident people were of the decisions they made. Choices vary by the domain of choice, such as life-or-death versus financial decisions, a finding that has tremendous implications for the decisions that leaders and mass publics make over things like going to war as opposed to tax or budgetary policy. Finally, sex differences appeared consistently throughout the study.

A related study, in which Kam and McDermott conducted examining the influence of emotion on decision-making under risk, further explored the nature of specific emotions and sex differences on such choices. A group of about 250 undergraduate students who were majority white and about a quarter Republican, were shown movie clips to induce various mood states. The goal was the same as with the earlier Druckman and McDermott (2008) study, but the method of induction differed. The Kam and McDermott also used a variant on the Asian disease problem to investigate the nature of risky choice. As in the Druckman and McDermott study, the authors found that negative emotions exerted a much stronger influence on policy decisions than did neutral ones, inducing more risk-seeking choices, as would be predicted by prospect theory. Importantly, these mood states exacerbated the predicted framing effects. The sex differences the authors discovered in this study were intriguing, showing that the effect of emotion on women was to instigate the classic preference reversal, which framing alone triggered in men. In other words, emotion became the mechanism by which women, but not men, showed framing effects.

The overall importance of such studies is not that they are definitive but rather that they serve to illustrate the diversity and specificity with which emotion affects risky decision-making. The domain of choice, as well as the specific emotion, matters in exerting an effect on decision-making. In other words, though predictable in some ways, these relationships are complex. So the political implications are not as straightforward as some might like; appealing to emotion may certainly represent a more straightforward way to engage public attention, but such evocations will not work the same way for everyone. As a result, it is worth investigating further the ways in which the nature of specific emotions, as well as the individual characteristics of particular people, conditions the effects of emotion on risky choice and threat assessment.

These findings and similar ones from myriad other studies highlight the importance of incorporating such individual differences in emotional response into scholarly work. Individual variance in the dispositional propensity to experience and express emotion has not been sufficiently appreciated by the scholarly community in the studies that have been run on emotion. In most work, scholars implicitly assume that everyone experiences the same level of a baseline emotion, whether that is fear or anger or disgust. And yet people do not start at the same baseline, nor are they equally reactive to particular stimuli. This is a very important consideration in thinking through the design of any research into the influence of emotion on decision-making. Clear decisions should be made about the specific emotion, the decision domain, and the individual variable across actors in designing studies that intend to investigate particular aspects of the influence of emotion on decision-making. Indeed, this characterization itself is likely too broad, and studies should be characterized in terms of the effect of a particular emotion on a specific set of decisions. And that is what the sections “Disgust and Attitudes Toward Issues Involving Sex, and Reproduction,” “Fear and Attitudes Toward Immigration,” and “Physical Aggression, Foreign Policy, and Moral Choices” endeavor to accomplish.

Disgust and Attitudes Toward Issues Involving Sex and Reproduction

Hatemi and McDermott spent the last eight years investigating the relationship between genetic and environmental factors in various emotions and how those forces play out in the realm of political preferences, attitudes, and behaviors. A few of the results of that collaboration are discussed from this point forward.

Perhaps one of the most well-investigated cases of the influence of a specific emotion on particular political outcomes involves the case of disgust. Disgust evolved as a strategy primarily for avoiding the pathogens that might result from eating spoiled food, but it has carried over into a wide variety of social and political experiences (Hatemi & McDermott, 2012). Most tellingly, these responses seem to affect people’s approach to issues of sex and reproduction, not only with regard to their own behavior, but also with respect to how they believe other people should behave.

Individual differences in the propensity to experience disgust do not seem to appear randomly across the population. In particular, people with greater physiological disgust sensitivity tend to be more politically conservative (Inbar, Pizarro, & Bloom, 2009a); conservative people are much more likely to care about purity (as well as authority and in-group defense) than liberals. Other work has shown that disgust sensitivity exerts an influence in particular on issues related to a perceived sense of sexual purity, which often plays out in attitudes on issues as abortion and gay rights (Inbar, Pizarro, Knobe, & Bloom, 2009b). Individuals with high disgust sensitivity are more likely to attribute moral offense intentionality to those who disgust them (Inbar et al., 2009b). Disgust and perceptions of disease vulnerability raise levels of ethnocentrism; those who feel most vulnerable to disease hold the most hostile attitudes toward outgroups (Navarrete & Fessler, 2006). Not surprisingly, because disgust is particularly pronounced during pregnancy (Fessler, Eng, & Navarrette, 2005), increased disgust sensitivity increases ethnocentrism in the first trimester of pregnancy (Navarrete, Fessler, & Eng, 2007).

Disgust sensitivity is often measured using a so-called purity scale where people are asked about their reactions to particular people or events. This scale includes items such as the following:

Whether or not someone did something disgusting

Whether or not someone violated standards of purity and decency

Whether or not someone did something unnatural or degrading

Whether or not someone acted in a virtuous or uplifting way

Whether or not someone was able to control his or her desires

One can see many ways in which disgust sensitivity emerges in domestic political debates; recent fights over transgender bathrooms reflect only one of many ways in which individual variance on these emotional tendencies can affect different people in various ways, even when contemplating the same issue.

However, there is a great deal of room to explore the various ways in which disgust sensitivity may play out, consciously or otherwise, in the international realm. Arguments about immigration often characterize people in terms of dirt and disease, using metaphors that arouse concerns about infection from within, encouraging the strengthening of boundaries and borders in ways that mimic the physical importance of keeping the body envelope intact, mirroring such concerns at the broader level of the body politic.

Fear and Attitudes Toward Immigration

Fear makes man unwise in the three great departments of human conduct: his dealings with nature, his dealings with other men, and his dealings with himself. Until you have admitted your own fears to yourself, and have guarded yourself by a difficult effort of will against their myth- making power, you cannot hope to think truly about many matters of great importance.

—Bertrand Russell, “Outline of Intellectual Rubbish,” Unpopular Essays, 1950

Fear may have always been used by politicians to manipulate the body politic, but it is impossible to observe the political climate, especially since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, without being struck by how prevalent fear has become in political discussions, and not only those involving terrorism. And this political manipulation is not without consequence, albeit perhaps not that expected or hoped for by prominent politicians. In a survey of the top 10 fears of the American public in 2015, the most common fear reported, by a wide margin, was fear of corruption in government officials (58%; Chapman University Study on American Fears, 2016). Other fears that ranked higher than fear of terrorist attack (44.4%) included those related to cyberterrorism (44.8%) and corporate tracking of personal information (44.6%), and fear of government tracking of personal information was not far behind (44.4%). Even in the wake of the global financial crisis, fear of running out of money came in a distant ninth (37.4%).

But what does this level of fear mean for actual political behaviors and outcomes of interest? The same survey inquired into the behaviors that fear has sparked in individuals. Twenty-two percent of respondents admitted to voting for a particular political candidate out of fear, while 10.5% had purchased a gun. Fear drove 16.7% of respondents to purchase a home alarm system, and another 5.4% admitted to sending their children to a private school out of fear for their safety.

Given these myriad effects, how do we think about the nature of fear and its stranglehold on the media presentations, if not on the larger population? One of the most important things to remember is that individuals differ in their innate fear disposition or in their literal tendency to get scared in the face of uncertainty or threat or other negative occurrences. This variance is not unique to fear; it has been seen with regard to disgust sensitivity, and will be seen again with respect to anger.

What does it mean to say that people vary in a baseline level of fear? Fear is genetically informed trait, and variance exists in individual fear disposition (Hatemi, McDermott, Eaves, Kendler, & Neale, 2013). In addition, there are all kinds of fear; there are fears of heights, blood, spiders, and so on. But the most politically relevant form of fear regards fear of other people, a type of fear categorized as “social fear.” Social fear in particular influences attitudes toward out-groups and can influence political attitudes and behaviors in areas such as immigration, segregation and decisions about in-group defense, such as war, as well as out-group derogation, which can easily result in racial, ethnic, or sexual discrimination.

Because dispositional fear is a genetically informed trait, Hatemi et al. (2013) went on to examine the influence of such factors on both fear as well as attitudes toward immigration. Because genetic effects are small and such studies must involve a lot of people in order to find any putative effects, the study included over 29,000 subjects, and comprised many family units to make it possible to study the intergenerational transmission of fear, attitudes, and tendencies toward political conservatism. Two measures were used to assess dispositional levels of fear. These included a self-report 5-item scale, comprising the following items:

Feeling afraid to travel on buses or trains

Having to avoid things that frighten you

Feeling uneasy in crowds

Feeling uneasy when left alone

Feeling uneasy in crowds or on the streets

The second measure included a clinician diagnosed scale that measured individual levels of social phobia based on such topics as fear of meeting new people, fear of giving a speech, fear of using public bathrooms, and fear of eating in public.

It should not be surprising that more conservative people display more consistent hostility to out-groups. What may be surprising is that the study found the same propensity among fearful people. As people endorse and display higher rates of dispositional fear, they come to show much higher rates of endorsement on a whole panoply of attitudes related to out-groups. More fearful individuals show higher support for restrictions on immigration and segregation, and show lower support for foreign-owned companies, multiculturalism, and foreign-trained doctors.

Genetic data made it possible for the authors to examine the relationship between parents and children with regard to the development of both fear and conservativism independently. Interestingly and importantly, individual variance in social fear influenced attitudes toward out-groups through a shared genetic pathway. In general, it is not the case that conservative people are more fearful, but rather that fearful people are more conservative.

Physical Aggression, Foreign Policy, and Moral Choices

The final demonstration comes from the domain of anger but is really explored in terms of the nature and propensity toward physical aggression. Existing work indicates that individuals with greater degrees of physical strength are more likely to support aggressive and interventionist foreign policy choices (Sell, Tooby, & Cosmides, 2009). Stronger individuals have also been shown to utilize a more utilitarian moral calculus, for example, in the famous trolley car paradigm, which asks people if they would push a person off a bridge to save five people about to be hit by a train below (Graham & Haidt, 2007).

McDermott and Hatemi (2017) sought to examine the relationship between variance in the tendency to engage in physical aggression and political choices and moral dilemmas. As with their fear study, the authors also hoped to examine genetic associations; as a result, their Australian population included 250 complete twin pairs, in addition to other subjects. They also explored sex differences in responses among our subjects.

This study used a well-validated instrument, the Buss-Perry Aggression Questionnaire, to measure the tendency toward physical aggression, specifically, the part of the scale that scores physical aggression, known as the “physical subscale.” This scale comprises nine items and asks respondents to say how characteristic each statement is of them on a scale from 1 to 5:

  1. 1. Once in a while I can’t control the urge to strike another person.

  2. 2. Given enough provocation, I may hit another person.

  3. 3. If somebody hits me, I hit back.

  4. 4. I get into fights a little more than the average person.

  5. 5. If I have to resort to violence to protect my rights, I will.

  6. 6. There are people who pushed me so far that we came to blows.

  7. 7. I can think of no good reason for ever hitting a person.

  8. 8. I have threatened people I know.

  9. 9. I have become so mad that I have broken things.

Respondents were then presented with two different foreign policy questions and two different sets of moral dilemmas and asked to make choices. For the foreign policy questions, subjects were asked to answer on a 5-point scale from agree to disagree:

  1. 1. If it is proven that Iran is helping the terrorists or insurgents in Iraq, then Iran should be bombed.

  2. 2. Military force may be needed to prevent North Korea from developing more advanced nuclear weapons.

Subjects were also presented with two different moral dilemmas as follows and asked to respond on a 7-point scale from “forbidden” to “obligatory”:

  1. 1. You are on a ship when there is a fire on board, and everyone has to leave the ship. The lifeboats are carrying many more people than they were designed to carry. There are too many people in your lifeboat, and it will soon sink. The seas start to get rough, and the boat begins to fill with water. If nothing is done, it will sink before the rescue boats arrive and everyone on board will die. However, there is an injured person who will not survive in any case. If you throw that person overboard the boat will stay afloat and the other people on the boat will be saved.

    Throwing this person overboard in order to save the lives of the other people on the boat is:____.

  2. 2. A horrible disease has spread around the world killing millions of people. You have made two substances in your home laboratory. You know that one of them is a vaccine that will prevent any more people from getting the disease but you don’t know which one. You also know that the other one is deadly. Once you figure out which substance is the vaccine you can use it to save millions of lives. You have with you two people who are under your care, and the only way to identify the vaccine is to inject each of these people with one of the two substances. One person will live, the other will die, and you will be able to start saving lives with your vaccine.

Killing one of these people with a deadly injection in order to identify a vaccine that will save millions of lives is:___.

Other demographic and personality measures that earlier literature had suggested might be associated with increased risk of engaging in physical aggression were also used, including measure of political ideology, religiosity, parental bonding and partner and social support levels.

Consistent with earlier work on physical manifestations of aggression, McDermott & Hatemi (2017) found that, on average, women proved much less aggressive than men, just as more highly educated people showed less aggressive tendencies. It is of course hard to know if the education effect is the result of the effect of education itself, or whether it is a function of self-selection, where more aggressive individuals are simply less likely to stay in school, perhaps partly because such people have a harder time sitting still for long periods of time.

Overall, individuals who scored higher on the self-report Buss-Perry physical aggression scale were more likely to endorse the use of military force in the foreign policy scenarios. In addition, men were more likely to endorse aggressive action than women. And environmental factors, such as education and father bonding, appear to exert an influence on exacerbating or ameliorating the expression of physical aggression. In the genetic part of the analysis, the authors found that the majority of variance in physical aggression in men results from genetic factors, while the majority of variance in physical aggression in women derives from unique environmental factors, or things in their environment that happen only to them. Such unique events can include biological factors such as the in utero hormonal bath during gestation. In addition, the majority of covariation between physical aggression and political attitudes in men comes from a combination of genes and environment, whereas in women these relationships emerge entirely as a result of environmental factors.


There are many different ways to investigate the influence of emotion on decision-making, including foreign policy decision-making. Different negative emotions (fear, anger, disgust, sadness) seem to have more pronounced effects on most decisions. But it is clear that the effect of emotions on decision-making is not just based on valence, or positivity and negativity alone. Instead, discrete emotions have distinct effects on decision-making, and produce different effects on political attitudes and moral decision-making. Anger acts differently than fear, just as other emotions exert effects which are similarly distinct. Specifically, fear tends to make people more risk averse, while anger tends to increases risk taking. Both result in biased information processing, albeit in different ways. Sadness and fear tend to result in bottom-up information processing, whereas anger tends to create top-down processing. This may be part of the reason why fear induces pessimism and anger potentiates optimism and confidence about success. Thus, although attacks may spark anger in the victim, making decisions to attack in a moment of revenge is desired may not be wise, since the anger can make the decision-maker more optimistic about prospects for victory than might be objectively warranted, just as fear may make other decision-makers more reluctant to respond than necessary, possibly leaving the way open for subsequent attack.

In addition, sex differences matter in the effect of emotion on risky decision-making. On average, women tend to be more fearful and risk avoidant and men tend toward anger and risk seeking. Framing effects exert an effect on everyone, but emotion appears to cue these effects more strongly in women. Similarly, negative emotions tend to exert a stronger effect on women, in general. But of course the most important lesson is that men and women are more similar than they are different in the ways that they process emotion and how it influences decision-making. Men get scared, just as women get angry, and the effects of these emotions certainly operate similarly once engaged.

Moreover, the decision domain matters, and the influence of emotion on decision-making differs based on whether people are making life-or-death decisions or decisions about money or other issues. Pundits and elites can decry the attention that gossip and sensationalism have in the news, but this should not be surprising because it is clear that such issues engage people emotionally and that emotions have a powerful pull on human attention, memory, and learning. Evolution has privileged the processing of emotion over abstract information in age, speed and accessibility for good reason; they not only help us survive threats from predators but they help us to negotiate a complex social world, which requires the ability to constantly and consistently distinguish those who will cooperate with us from those who threaten us. And in the end, for the vast majority of people, that skill is much more important for living our day-to-day lives than more abstract decisions we might be forced to make.

In the end, emotions provide a mechanism by which people choose the frames and interpretations that help to structure and regulate their lives. Most importantly, emotions quickly and easily facilitate social communication with others. Rather than seek to rid ourselves of their influence, we should do more to understand the nature of their operation, the function they serve in our lives and decisions, and the positive purposes to which we can direct them.


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                                                                                        (1.) For a more comprehensive discussion of the historical and methodological factors which led to the privileging of cognition over emotion in earlier intellectual development, see McDermott (2012).

                                                                                        (2.) Interested readers are referred to comprehensive recent overviews, especially essays on emotion and neuroscience by Phelps (2014) and emotion and decision-making by Lerner (2015), as well work on emotion regulation by Gross and Thompson (2007).