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Decisions, decisions: How emotions alter our decisions

Research in neuroscience, psychology, business and economics tells us that a plethora of influences can alter the decisions we make. The author explored some of these factors in a Worldview Stanford course and wrote about them in a Stanford story package, Decisions, Decisions. This post is part of a series on what she learned. 

emotionWhen it comes to charitable giving, the cold hard facts suggest hanging on to our money. But people routinely give their support to environmental or other causes.

Nik Sawe, a graduate student in environmental resources, wanted to know why. So he put people in an MRI and recorded their brain activity while showing them photos of iconic spaces and proposed destructive uses of those spaces.

In my story I describe their findings:

As expected, iconic images activated a part of the brain's reward pathway involved in anticipating good outcomes, like getting money or food, and images of destructive land uses triggered a part of the brain that is often associated with response to bad outcomes, like experiencing pain or losing money.

The people with the biggest negative response to land destruction were the most likely to give money. Sawe said, "My hunch is that people get outraged over the proposed negative actions of a third party and that's what drives donation. It's punitive."

This negative emotion driving environmental donation is the opposite of what people find with donations to charities or orphans, Sawe pointed out. There, people who anticipate the warm glow of giving are most likely to give. But, as I write in the piece:

In each case, he said, it's our emotions that often override the pure cost-benefit analysis that goes into deciding which cause to support.

Previously: Decisions, decisions: The way we express a decision alters the outcome and Decisions, decisions: How our decision making changes with age
Photo by Shutterstock

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