In fact, much of Lerner’s research focuses on how emotions can influence decision-making—and not always for the better. Your gut, to the extent that it reflects your feelings, might be steering you wrong.
Take anger, one of the emotions Lerner and other psychologists understand best. Where fear breeds uncertainty, anger instills confidence. Angry people are more likely to put the blame on individuals, rather than “society,” or fate. Anger makes people more likely to take risks and to minimize how dangerous those risks will be. Other researchers have shown that angry people rely more on stereotypes and are more eager to act. It’s an activating emotion: In lab studies, people shown angry faces crave a reward more intensely.
This trigger-happy impulse is evolutionarily adaptive, Lerner said. “We evolved in hunter-gatherer times,” she told me recently. “If someone steals your meat, you don’t think ‘Should I go after him?’ No! You strike back quickly.”
For a 2003 study, Lerner had a group of U.S. citizens read either a news story about anthrax mail-threats, which was meant to make them feel afraid, or one about celebrations of the 9/11 attacks by some people in Middle Eastern nations, which was meant to elicit anger. Those who were made to feel angry saw the world as less risky, and they also supported harsher measures against suspected terrorists. We saw this angry certainty play out in Congress: Only one member, Barbara Lee, a Democratic representative from California, voted against the authorization to use military force against terrorists in the wake of the attack.
“We said, ‘We’re acting, we’re striking back,’” Lerner said. “Everyone agreed.”
She also sees anger’s influence on this election cycle. Americans are angry, and many of them want a brusque, brash leader who will hold the bad guys accountable. According to Lerner, anger can be beneficial during the primaries. It’s good for voter turnout. “Anger is the primary emotion of justice,” she said. “With Bernie Sanders’ campaign and the Trump campaign, there was a lot of anger driving them. It brought people to the table.”
But when it comes to actually electing someone, anger confuses more than it helps. Anger simplifies our thinking. People switch to rules of thumb—ban all the Muslims!—instead of carefully considering refugee policy and its implications.
“Right now, we shouldn’t be thinking in a shallow way,” Lerner said. “Now, we need to be thinking about very specific policy tradeoffs. Anger gets you in the game, but once you’re in the game, you need to think.”
Surprisingly, though, happiness isn’t much better at inspiring good decisions. Several studies have shown that people who were in a positive mood put more faith in the length of a message, rather than its quality, or in the attractiveness or likability of the source. Given that it’s typically the amicable job interview that results in an offer, this might explain some of the economic advantages that flow to tall men or attractive people.