5 Lessons We Learned About Human Emotions From David DeSteno's AMA

On harnessing your emotions for good, trusting people, and working as a research journal editor.
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Yesterday, we published our September/October issue cover story, "A Feeling of Control." To accompany this launch, Dr. David DeSteno, the writer of that story and a leading expert on the psychology of emotions, hosted an Ask Me Anything session where members of the social forum Reddit could ask questions about his work. DeSteno, who is also the editor-in-chief of the research journal Emotion, primarily studies the way emotions influence our actions. In his own words, "One of my primary goals is to figure out how to leverage emotion-based mechanisms of the mind to help individuals make better decisions and, hopefully along the way, to nudge the greater good."

Thanks to the highly engaged and discerning posters on the science-themed sub-Reddit, who submitted more than 350 comments and questions, DeSteno was able to explain more of his research and the work he does as a psychologist and journal editor. Below are a few lessons we learned:

1. Emotions can help you delay gratification: In response to a Redditor asking how to practice long-term gratification, DeSteno wrote, "It's all about learning to cultivate moral, prosocial emotional responses that will nudge you, automatically, toward decisions that favor the long-term when needed."

2. But, both emotions and rationality have a role to play: One Redditor who believes in stoicism said, "The stoics took the stance that emotion ought to be subordinated to reason." In response, DeSteno noted that relying solely upon reason or upon emotions can be shortsighted. "You see," he wrote, "battles of moral judgment are fought on both the rational/conscious and intuitive/emotional level. Neither side is always correct, but they use different info in their calculations. Some of the most terrible acts in human history have occurred because we were able to 'rationalize' our actions."

3. Social psychology is not the only field struggling with data manipulation and replication issues: DeSteno was asked about recent "scandals" in social psychology due to inaccurate and misleading studies. He noted that sites like Retraction Watch show that the problem is, unfortunately, consistent in other research fields. "There is an incredible pressure to publish, and in my opinion, too much toward publishing on 'sexy' topics that offer a counterintuitive finding but no true advance to knowledge," he wrote. "We're moving toward supplying open data for articles, replication initiatives, etc. Such daylight strategies will greatly help."

4. Individual experience of emotions can widely differ: One Redditor who claimed to be "more or less emotionless," reported having difficulty connecting with others. Does a lack of emotionality affect decision-making? DeSteno replied that variation is the norm when it comes to emotional experience. "For instance, some people can tell you they feel 'righteous anger tinged with a bit of dysphoria.' Others experiencing the same situation will tell you they feel 'bad.' ... What matters most is that you're comfortable in your own skin," he wrote. Lack of emotion, however, could deprive you of a source of information that could help you make better decisions.

5. Humans, by default, tend to trust others: But, it's a "weak default," DeSteno wrote. The reason? "The gains/losses tend to be asymmetric. If a partner was going to be untrustworthy and you decided to trust him/her, you'd lose out in that instance. But, if he/she were going to be trustworthy and you decided not to trust him/her, you're potentially losing a relationship that would have provided many, many benefits over time. So, the aggregated gains tend to outweigh the one-time loss."

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