‘Feeling the Love’ (or Anger): How Emotions Can Distort the Way We Respond to Advice

Here’s a piece of advice: Don’t read this story if you have just had a fight with your spouse or a co-worker. You will probably ignore it, despite its grounding in solid academic research. At least that’s what Maurice Schweitzer, a Wharton professor of operations and information management, would most likely suggest. In a recent paper written with Francesca Gino of Carnegie Mellon University, he shows that emotions not only influence people’s receptiveness to advice but they do so even when the emotions have no link to the advice or the adviser.

“We focus on incidental emotions, emotions triggered by a prior experience that is irrelevant to the current situation,” the two scholars note in their paper, titled “Blinded by Anger or Feeling the Love: How Emotions Influence Advice Taking.” “We find that people who feel incidental gratitude are more trusting and more receptive to advice than are people in a neutral emotional state, and that people in a neutral state are more trusting and more receptive to advice than are people who feel incidental anger.”

Schweitzer and Gino’s research has implications for all kinds of business dealings. Although not always discussed in these terms, relationships with lawyers, accountants, investment bankers, consultants and outside sales representatives all entail taking advice. Even internal corporate communications often boil down to giving and taking advice. When a task force prepares a report with recommendations for the CEO, the members of the group are giving him or her advice. When an internal auditor makes a suggestion to the CFO about how to depreciate an item of inventory, that’s advice as well.

At one level, Schweitzer and Gino’s conclusion seems obvious. Of course, people’s moods affect their frame of mind. Most people have felt stress or gloom seep into their thinking from time to time, coloring their overall outlook. When a friend or family member dies, for example, the world — at work, at home and at play — inevitably looks like a bleaker place.

Even so, until recently, economic analysis has taken as its premise the idea that, when it comes to dollars and cents, people can wall off their emotions. “Classical economics is predicated on this rational-man idea and also on the idea that mistakes will get extinguished by the market,” Schweitzer says.

One investment manager may be angry about losing a big bet on a ballgame and thus may underestimate the value of a stock recommended by an analyst. Another may be elated about the birth of a child and overestimate it. Orthodoxy says that a rational actor is out there to cancel out these mistakes and leave an efficient market behind.

But Schweitzer and Gino’s research suggests that emotions can systematically distort people’s receptiveness to advice and thus their rationality. And if everyone errs in similar ways, that could skew the classicists’ perfect calculus. “My intuition was that we often base complicated decisions on how we feel,” Schweitzer says. “If I ask you something complicated like, ‘Should we hire this person or should we buy this house?’ you have to consider a lot of attributes and compare a lot of complex things. So we often use a simple summary statistic, which is how we feel about the job candidate or the house. When we do that, we open ourselves up to the possibility of making a mistake based on emotion.”

Assessing Body Weight

That makes sense, but how do you prove it? Schweitzer and Gino designed experiments in which they — as difficult as it sounds — manipulated their subjects’ emotions, gave them advice and measured the effects. In their first experiment, they recruited college students and asked them to make a judgment about something they were sure they could not know for certain. In this case, they showed each subject a photograph of another person and asked them to estimate the body weight of the person in the photo. They then induced an emotion by having each subject watch a short movie clip. Some subjects saw an anger-inducing bit from The Bodyguard in which a man gets treated unfairly. Others viewed a gratitude-inducing clip from Awakenings in which another man receives an unexpected favor from his co-workers. And the rest saw a neutral outtake from a National Geographic documentary about Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

In a separate study, the two scholars assessed how the videos induced different emotions. Because the students had no real connection to the scenes, the researchers could classify their reactions as incidental as opposed to integral. If you watch The Sopranos and then get angry with your spouse, that’s incidental emotion. If your spouse slaps you and you get angry with your spouse, that’s integral.

After watching the clips, the students reflected in writing on what they had seen and how it had made them feel, and then had a chance to re-estimate the weights of the people in the pictures. This time, they also received estimates that the researchers told them had been done by another participant. Though the subjects didn’t know it, everyone received the same set of second estimates. These estimates — the advice — were helpful, not misleading. “The emotion manipulations significantly influenced the accuracy of participants’ final estimates,” the two scholars state.

Participants “who experienced incidental gratitude weighed advice more heavily than did participants in a neutral state,” they write. “Participants who experienced incidental anger weighed advice less heavily than did participants in a neutral state. Even though the emotions induced in this study were unrelated to the judgment task, we find that these emotions significantly changed the extent to which participants relied upon advice.”

Schweitzer and Gino also wanted to gauge the role that trust has in the interplay of emotion and advice. They thus designed a second experiment that mostly repeated the first. But this time, before asking the students to do the second estimate, they asked them how much they trusted the anonymous adviser, who was simply described as a previous study participant.

The results resembled the first set. The angry people showed the least trust, while the people experiencing gratitude, the most.

In the real world, as opposed to a behavioral lab, these findings play out in all sorts of ways. Co-workers, for example, often annoy each other, sometimes for legitimate reasons, like missed deadlines, and sometimes for silly ones, like how stupid someone’s laugh sounds. And sometimes, a person will get ticked off and fail to heed another’s good counsel just because of a bad mood.

“If I’m angry at my wife and therefore trust you less and am less receptive to your advice, then that’s clearly irrational,” Schweitzer says. “The fact that my wife crashed my car has nothing to do with you. But maybe I’m angry because you cancelled our last meeting and now we’re interacting again. Maybe there’s some real information about your reliability in the fact that you cancelled our meeting. It takes a controlled, clean experiment to disentangle rational reasons from biased ones. What we haven’t shown [with this study] but I’m confident would work is that, if you do something that makes me angry, then I trust your advice differently.”

A Wing and a Prayer

Schweitzer says that people with what he calls “high emotional intelligence” are probably already putting his and Gino’s insights into action without even knowing it. “Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize emotions and understand how they operate and also the ability to manipulate or change them. If I have emotional intelligence, I know what the right time to talk to my boss is. I know that my new partners had a terrible flight and lost their luggage and aren’t going to be receptive to what I’m saying, so I shouldn’t make my pitch right now. Or I know that, if I take them to this particular restaurant or I buy tickets to this Indy car race, I can shift their emotional state to feeling more gratitude toward me and listening to me.”

Skilled negotiators tend to have high levels of this kind of aptitude, and they apply it in small, subtle ways when they are doing their work. They might, for example, apologize for a perceived wrong, even when no apology was expected or required. Or they might, during a particularly tense time, call for a break, go get a soda and also bring something back for the people on the other side of the table.

“Anything that causes someone to feel some gratitude could help them,” Schweitzer says. “Some people might start off a meeting with a prayer.” If the participants are religious, that can put them in a gracious frame of mind. Of course, if they aren’t, it can annoy them. All of these tactics demand subtlety and sensitivity, notes Schweitzer, who teaches negotiations. “Warren Buffett sometimes starts off his speeches by talking about how blessed we are to be living in this time and in this great country. That gratitude spills over and can influence what his listeners think about what he has to say.”

Schweitzer sees what he and Gino observed operating in all sorts of business interactions. When a sales person takes a client to a ball game, for example, he’s not just cozying up in the obvious way. He’s also creating a sense of gratitude. When a drug rep brings lunch to a doctor’s office, she’s doing the same thing. “Can this backfire?” he asks. “Yes. If it doesn’t seem genuine, people aren’t going to believe it. Suppose that I try to induce gratitude and I go over the top. That’s the sales rep who’s giving too many gifts.” Push it too far, in other words, and you could end up making someone angry.

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