Probabilistic inferences under emotional stress


Many models of cognition neglect emotional states that could affect individuals’ cognitive processes. The present study explores the effect of emotional stress on people’s cognitive processes when making probabilistic inferences. It was hypothesized that emotional stress reduces cognitive capacity, leading to the selection of simple inference strategies. Emotional stress was induced with highly arousing negative pictures briefly presented to participants before they made an inference. Emotional stress influenced the selectivity of participants’ information search. Emotionally stressed individuals relied on the importance of the cues to a greater extent than the nonstressed participants. They also spent less time on the least important information. Moreover, the proportion of participants’ choices consistent with a simple lexicographic heuristic was higher for the emotionally stressed participants than for the nonstressed participants. The results suggest that people respond adaptively to emotional stress by selecting heuristics that require less information and fewer cognitive operations.

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