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4 Ways In Which Emotions Affect Beliefs

Dr. Thomas Swan has a PhD in psychology from the University of Otago. His work explores theories of emotion, memory, and belief.

Sometimes our beliefs are shaped by our own emotions and no-one else's.

Sometimes our beliefs are shaped by our own emotions and no-one else's.

How Do Emotions Influence Beliefs?

Most people have a hard time accepting that their beliefs can be shaped by their emotional states. The proposition is embarrassing and, ironically, that embarrassment can shape their belief that it doesn't happen.

The same cannot be said for the opposite relationship: that beliefs determine emotions. For example, if we believe that someone is to blame for our problems, we exhibit anger. And, if we believe that there is danger on the horizon, we exhibit anxiety.

Cognitive psychologists have devoted an entire theory (called cognitive appraisal) to the ways in which beliefs preface emotions. Far less attention has been devoted to the influence that emotions have on thoughts and beliefs (i.e., "hot cognition").

The simplest way for emotions to affect beliefs is when we interpret our automatic emotional responses to our environment. This interpretation may be used to learn about our environment and perhaps to avoid danger. However, as the following sections make clear, it can sometimes be difficult to identify the causes of our emotions.

1. The Attribution Theory of Emotion

Emotions can be difficult to explain because they are often triggered automatically in response to beneficial or threatening situations. We might feel anxiety, fear, awe, or contentment without knowing the cause of the emotion. Whenever the cause is not 100% clear, new beliefs may be formed to explain why we feel the way we do. This is called emotion attribution.

For example, a person may feel jealous when their partner is talking to someone attractive. Without a rational cause for the jealousy, the brain may create a cause, such as a belief that their partner is having an affair. Further suspicious beliefs about the causes of stray handkerchiefs or their partner showering frequently may follow.

Another example is envy, which may cause people to believe hurtful gossip about celebrities or wealthy neighbors, or to despise the methods used to acquire the envied goods (e.g.. the antics of bankers). Conversely, the emotion of love may generate a belief that the loved person has admirable qualities that are not evident.

Anxiety can also shape our beliefs about the world. For example, anxiety may cause a person to interpret an innocuous event as threatening. Following such an event, misattributed guilt may lead a person to believe that they are blameworthy, while misattributed anger may lead them to blame others.

These are all examples of emotion attribution in which the mind forms or changes beliefs to make sense of an emotion. Generally, pleasant emotions are attributed to success, while unpleasant emotions are attributed to failure. The latter tends to change existing beliefs, while the former tends to reinforce their validity.

Emotional Arousal Can Also Be Misattributed

2. The Mood Attribution Theory

Moods may also affect beliefs. Moods are protracted states that are usually saturated with the signals of a particular emotion. For example, a depressive mood is saturated with unresolved anxiety, while a hostile mood is punctuated by unresolved anger.

Like emotions, the cause of the mood may be unclear, or, depending on the mood's duration, the cause may have been forgotten (e.g., "I can't remember why I'm so ill-tempered today").

Similarly, then, the mind may attempt to explain a mood by attributing it to the most likely cause, whether a person, object, or event. For example, a depressed mood may cause one to think pessimistically about current events.

Mood attribution can be eliminated if the object of the mood is identified. Individuals who attend to their feelings (or have their feelings brought to their attention) are more likely to avoid mood attribution..

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There are at least twenty different emotions. Each can affect beliefs in different ways.

There are at least twenty different emotions. Each can affect beliefs in different ways.

3. Sentiments Based on Emotions

A common way for emotion or mood attribution to occur is when the mind stores experiences as emotionally-charged memories. When such a memory is "dredged up" or triggered again, reliving the experience causes the emotion to resurface.

These latent memories are relived automatically based on their triggers (e.g., seeing a person you had a bad experience with) and are therefore an easy way for the cause of the resurfaced emotion to be unclear.

For example, an experiment showed that people who were angry with another person for making an error were likely to form negative beliefs about the person’s trustworthiness (emotional attribution). As a result, subsequent encounters with the person triggered the sentiment that they were untrustworthy.

Sentiments can therefore work as a shortcut to bias thinking in a useful way. For example, when you see someone that has wronged you in the past, your anger may resurface, putting you "on guard" for future transgressions.

Sentiments are often applied to people or animals because living things have dispositional tendencies (e.g., an inconsiderate person or an aggressive dog). Sentiments are also common when an emotional reaction has been useful in the past (i.e., worth reliving), when the trigger is likely to reoccur, and when the sentiment is socially encouraged (e.g., negative sentiments toward outgroups).

4. Beliefs Shaped By Motivated Reasoning

When someone experiences an emotion, particularly one that is unpleasant, they may engage in motivated reasoning to form or reinforce a belief that makes them feel better.

Motivated reasoning involves a biased search of internal memory and the external environment to find evidence for the desired conclusion. For example, when people who were made to feel sad formed negative beliefs about themselves (emotional attribution), these beliefs spontaneously changed to become positive a few minutes later. Furthermore, discussing the negative self-beliefs with a group (i.e., searching for a more desirable conclusion) led to greater positivity.

Jonathan Haidt Explains Motivated Reasoning

The Affect Infusion Model

The ways in which emotions influence beliefs depend on the rules that the brain uses to process the emotion, which depend on the kind of stimulus that triggers it (a person, object, event, etc.).

When a stimulus is simple to understand, largely irrelevant, or there are insufficient cognitive resources (e.g., the brain is preoccupied with something else), we engage in heuristic processing, which means forming a belief quickly using whatever shortcuts are available. Thus, examples include emotion and mood attribution, which both use emotional arousal to quickly infer new beliefs.

When a stimulus is difficult to understand or important for personal goals, and there are sufficient cognitive resources, we engage in substantive processing. This involves extensive gathering and interpretation of information, and an effort to relate the stimulus to preexisting beliefs and knowledge. Substantive processing may be used in motivated reasoning, and it can employ sentiments via its use of memory.

Thus, heuristic and substantive processing are both capable of creating new beliefs that are biased by the emotion being felt (although substantive processing is more effective). Unpleasant emotions lead to unwelcome beliefs, while pleasant emotions lead to happier beliefs. This is called the Affect Infusion Model.

However, affect infusion has its limits. At some threshold, motivated reasoning instigates homeostatic mood management in which people either make themselves feel better by forming positive self-beliefs, or temper expectations with realistic negative beliefs. Indeed, if affect infusion could continue unabated, the consequences would be far more devastating or delusional.

There is an interplay between emotions and beliefs.

There is an interplay between emotions and beliefs.

The Interplay Between Emotions and Beliefs

In recent decades, the most innovative advances in psychology have come from cognitive scientists. Unfortunately, this has led to a focus on "cold cognition," in which emotion is viewed as a distant product of cognitive processes. What has been described in this article is "hot cognition," in which beliefs and thought processes (i.e., cognition) are clouded by what is being felt.

Clearly there is an intricate interplay between cognition and emotion. Indeed, beyond the direct effects on beliefs described above, emotions are the cause of numerous cognitive biases that influence attention and memory, such as the hyper-vigilance caused by anxiety. These biases influence the information we assimilate, which can affect the beliefs we subsequently form.

Further Reading

  • Frijda, N. H., Manstead, A. S. R., & Bem, S. (2000). Emotions and Beliefs. How Feelings Influence Thoughts. Paris: Cambridge University Press.
  • Kunda, Z. (1990). The Case for Motivated Reasoning (PDF). Psychological Bulletin, 108(3), pp. 480-498.

© 2013 Thomas Swan


Missy Smith from Florida on January 14, 2016:

I love this article. I've always been interested in psychology, probably because I analyze everything. I identify with this. I used to be one that attributed to my emotions; I made mountains out of mole hills, if you know what I mean. I would think just like you pointed out; if my boyfriend talked to someone else, I would wonder if he was having an affair. Especially, if he got in the shower straight after work or something like that. I absolutely hated this part about me, and tried never to let my jealousy show. This was in my twenties. Over the years, I would stop and talk myself through things like that with a logical way of thinking; basically, just get out of the negative and place myself in only positive mind thoughts. Even if it was to happen to be true, and he was cheating, I would not dwell and know it would all come out when it needed to.

I get to your emotional sentiments, and just know that I am doing pretty well. Because let me tell ya, I have been done wrong in this lifetime by the people I love and trust more times than I care to count. However, somehow, I have found a way not to hold grudges. I do think it is all up to how we program our psyche. I am extremely grateful that I have noticed my ways of dealing with things. If I'm depressed, I don't bother showing it in daily life, I just put it in perspective and keep going. I'm happy to say I have found a way to release though; I now write poetry and get to release pinned up emotions. :)

Your detailed thinking processes were all very interesting; really engaging article. I'm sure I'll be back when my time allows me to read more.

peachy from Home Sweet Home on March 16, 2015:

anxiety, emotional beliefs, sometime not able to control, is it addicted?

f_hruz from Toronto, Ontario, Canada on October 14, 2013:

On going self analysis and personal discovery should be part of a lifelong development program for any individual, if you ask me ...

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on October 14, 2013:

Well, I'm not too well versed on CBT, but whatever is shown to be an effective treatment should be used as much as possible. I do agree with being able to master our emotions by locating the core triggers, and becoming aware of our emotions when we're experiencing them. If we understand why we act the way we do, we can begin to control it. So what I'd prescribe is more psychology in the school education system!

f_hruz from Toronto, Ontario, Canada on October 13, 2013:

Knowing all this, how important do you feel it is, to assist more individuals through cognitive behavior therapy to develop the kind of mental skill set, so a pre-processing of their emotions can take place in light of their latent bias, with the goal of raising their objective cognitive abilities?

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