The work of University of Iowa neuroscientists Antoine Bechara, Daniel Tranel, and Hanna Damasio demonstrates the effects of emotion on decision making.
They study patients with ventromedial (VM) prefrontal cortex lesions. Individuals with such lesions have dramatically diminished emotional responses. Although their intellectual functioning and memory are unaffected, VM patients exhibit impaired decision-making ability. For example, one of their patients, “Elliot,” would spend 30 minutes trying to choose between two possible dates for an appointment, using relatively sophisticated cost-benefit strategies that far exceeded the demands of the task.
In one experiment, Bechara and colleagues exposed both normal and VM patients to a gambling task. Participants were asked to choose one card at a time from among four decks. Every time a participant chose a card from A or B deck, he won $100. Every time he picked a card from C or D deck, he won $50.
But sometimes after drawing a card and receiving either $100 or $50, the participant was told that he had to return a certain amount of his winnings. For the A and B decks, the unpredictable losses per 10 cards average $1,250; for the C and D decks, the predictable losses per 10 cards averaged $250.
In other words, choosing cards from the C and D decks resulted in the greatest net gains.
Normal subjects learned to pick from the C and D decks. But VM subjects preferred the A and B decks, which resulted in greater immediate gains but lower net gains. Moreover, as normal subjects gained experience in the task, hey displayed physical signs of tension before the selection of a card; the VM subjects showed no such changes. In fact, the VM subjects continued to choose disadvantageously even after realizing the consequences of their actions.
Subjects lacking in emotion made bad decisions even when they knew what the right decision was.
The lesson? Low or moderate levels of emotion can prepare us for challenges and opportunities by providing us with information about our goals and our progress towards them.
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