🔮 How Your Emotions Decide Your Fate
The science of emotional prediction errors
Emotions exist for a reason. You might think of a perfectly rational decision-maker as an emotionless, intelligent robot. But emotions help us make crucial decisions quickly. When you hear a deep growl coming from the bushes next to you, your best bet is to jump and start running. If you stop to calculate risks, probabilities, and payoff matrices for the various actions you could take, rather like a robot might do, you could be too late.
Like most good things in life, emotional reactions also come with costs. For example, many people are terrified of flying even though data shows that it’s the safest method of passenger transport. Why are people terrified? Because if your evolutionary ancestors hadn’t developed a deep-rooted fear of heights, they’d have been more likely to fall off a cliff and lose their place in the gene pool.
Cars are far more likely to kill you than planes are, and yet they don’t give us the same fearful feeling. Since we had no way to travel a dangerous 100mph before motorized vehicles were invented, there was no pressure to evolve the same fear of superhuman speed on the ground.
So there’s occasionally a conflict between your emotional instincts and rational thinking. Here’s the science behind why emotions frequently come out on top.
❌ Emotional prediction errors
If you hang out with cognitive neuroscientists, it’s only a matter of time before you hear the words “prediction error”. It’s part of an influential theory that explains how you navigate and learn from the world around you. Your brain is constantly predicting how the world should behave and then comparing those expectations to what actually happens. Any mismatches produce learning signals in the brain called prediction errors, and the brain uses those signals to update expectations accordingly.
When everything around you is behaving predictably, you might call it your comfort zone. Whenever you escape your comfort zone—whether you’re traveling, changing jobs, or taking on a personal challenge—prediction errors become more frequent. But it’s in your nature to adapt, and soon enough, your brain adjusts its expectations enough that you’re living in a new comfort zone.
Until now, the science of prediction errors has focused almost exclusively on the concept of reward. When you’re surprised by a positive reward, a prediction error helps you notice and reinforce the behavior that got you that reward. And conversely, when you fail to get an expected reward, a negative prediction error will help you avoid that behavior later.
You can think of this as the more rational side of your thinking—do more of the things that help you, and fewer of the things that hinder you. But could there be prediction errors in the context of your emotional reactions too?
In October 2021, a group of researchers at Brown University published a paper on exactly this question. They asked 364 people to play the “Ultimatum Game”—a classic task in experimental psychology. In this game, there are two players: the Proposer and the Responder. The Proposer receives an amount of money from the experimenters and decides how much of that money they want to offer to the Responder. If the Responder accepts the offer, they each get their share of the cash. But if the Responder refuses the offer, both players get nothing.
Behavior in the Ultimatum Game shows that people are willing to sacrifice cash to punish unfair offers. When playing a single game, the most profitable thing a Responder can do is accept all offers, no matter how low, because the alternative is refusing and receiving nothing. But our social instincts are powerful, and punishing a greedy Proposer often feels better than accepting the cash.
In the Brown University experiment, all of the participants were recruited as Responders and partnered with Proposers online. The researchers used a two-dimensional scale to measure Responders’ emotional expectations before an offer, followed by their actual emotional experiences after the offer. I’ve recreated the two measured dimensions below—arousal and valence—and plotted example emotions from the research paper:
By comparing Responder emotions before and after a Proposer’s offer, the researchers calculated the size of each participant’s emotional prediction error. For example, if a participant expected to feel annoyed by the offer but actually felt satisfied by it, that would be a pleasantly surprised positive prediction error. On the other hand, if they expected to feel good but ended up feeling angry and saddened by the offer, that would be a frustrated negative prediction error.
Similarly, by asking people in advance specifically how much money they expected to be offered, the researchers could calculate traditional reward prediction errors too. That allowed them to compare how money-based reward prediction errors would stack up against feeling-based emotional prediction errors.
The researchers found that emotional prediction errors were good at determining whether Responders would accept or punish a Proposer’s offer. Emotions were more reliable than monetary rewards in foretelling social decisions: Stronger emotional arousal and negative valence both predicted a greater desire to punish Proposers. Money on its own couldn’t compete with the predictive power of emotion.
So the researchers showed that you can tease apart the relative roles of emotion and reward in predicting the decisions that people make. Emotions are more than a byproduct in decision-making—they actually create their own unique prediction errors to support learning and behavior. Your emotions will often push against your conscious reasoning and they’re powerful enough to make the decision for you, especially when it comes to social interactions.
⭐️ Takeaway tips
Emotions make decisions: Your emotional reactions exert a powerful influence on your decision-making. Sometimes, that’s a good thing; other times, it might cause you problems. When you’re unsure about a decision or feel you might be acting under the influence of a highly arousing emotion, take a step back and delay action until you can reassess with a cooler head. “Sleep on it” is always great advice.
Emotional prediction is part of life: Your brain loves to build and test predictions about how the world should work. It certainly does this in the context of objective rewards, but according to the latest research, it also does this in the context of subjective emotional experiences. Pay as much attention to managing your emotional expectations as you do to managing emotional consequences. Expectations have a profound impact on how you process events and how you ultimately feel.
Negative emotions won’t last forever: This tip might sound obvious upon reading it, but it’s so easy to forget when you’re in the middle of a sad or angry experience. You adapt to new emotional circumstances just like you adapt to new environmental circumstances. Reminding yourself of this fact and being more mindful of fluctuating emotions can help you recover more quickly from negative emotional episodes.
💡 A final quote
“Two elements must therefore be rooted out once for all—the fear of future suffering, and the recollection of past suffering; since the latter no longer concerns me, and the former concerns me not yet.”
~ Lucius Annaeus Seneca
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📬 I love to hear from readers. Reach out any time with comments or questions.
👋 Until next time,
Erman Misirlisoy, PhD