Jolie Bau­mann, a North­eastern Uni­ver­sity grad­uate stu­dent pur­suing a PhD in psy­chology, is con­ducting research about the chronic impact of emo­tion on a person’s judg­ment. Bau­mann, who won a 2011 Out­standing Grad­uate Stu­dent Award for Research, works with Pro­fessor David DeSteno and had her find­ings pub­lished last summer in the Journal of Per­son­ality and Social Psy­chology. Among other out­comes, that research has shown that angry people are more likely to iden­tify a gun in a pho­to­graph, even if one is not present.

In your research, you asked sub­jects to write essays to elicit a par­tic­ular emo­tion, such as hap­pi­ness, anger, sad­ness or dis­gust — then had them iden­tify threats in photographs. How did a test subject’s emo­tions affect their iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of a threat?

We’ve con­sis­tently found that angry par­tic­i­pants demon­strate a pro­nounced bias on the threat-​​detection task; angry indi­vid­uals more often misiden­tify everyday objects (like wal­lets and cam­eras) as guns. Inter­est­ingly, the response bias appears to be driven by dif­fer­ences in sub­jects’ expectan­cies of encoun­tering threats. Com­pared to neu­tral sub­jects, those expe­ri­encing anger actu­ally expect to see more guns. Not sur­pris­ingly then, the other emo­tions we’ve inves­ti­gated, like hap­pi­ness and dis­gust, have had no impact on threat-​​detection per­for­mance because they are not related to dif­fer­ences in people’s expec­ta­tions to encounter guns.

Test sub­jects almost always knew they had made a mis­take. Why do you think that was the case?

In one of our studies, we demon­strated that par­tic­i­pants given a second oppor­tu­nity to respond on the threat-​​detection task were able to iden­tify and cor­rect their mis­takes, even when they did not see the photos for any addi­tional length of time. While this does not nec­es­sarily sug­gest that par­tic­i­pants are aware of their mis­takes as they are making them, it does sug­gest that par­tic­i­pants are at least aware of these mis­takes after the fact. On its own, this finding is not par­tic­u­larly sur­prising because we used rel­a­tively clear, straight­for­ward pho­tographs as stimuli, and obvi­ously people can easily iden­tify simple objects in a pho­to­graph. What makes this finding so inter­esting is what it sug­gests about the orig­inal mis­takes. That is, when par­tic­i­pants did make mis­takes under time pres­sure, it was because they were being forced to respond with only the lim­ited amount of infor­ma­tion they were able to extract and process from the image before time ran out.

Why do people carry over their emo­tions from one instance to another?

Even though emo­tional states are thought to be short-​​lived, they fre­quently last long enough to carry over from the sit­u­a­tion that caused them to another. How­ever, people’s “car­ried over” emo­tions do not always impact their behavior or deci­sions in sub­se­quent sit­u­a­tions. Notably, the sit­u­a­tion or deci­sion must somehow seem rel­e­vant to the emo­tion being expe­ri­enced. If the indi­vidual can readily mis­at­tribute their cur­rent feel­ings to the new sit­u­a­tion or new deci­sion, then the “car­ried over” emo­tion is likely to impact their behavior. Essen­tially, the emo­tional system is tricked into thinking that the cur­rent emo­tional state is caused by and thus is infor­ma­tive for the sit­u­a­tion at hand. If an emo­tion does not seem rel­e­vant to a new sit­u­a­tion, it is far less likely to impact one’s behavior in it.