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The Psychology Behind When Emotions Turn Us Into Different People


Emotions can get the better of us. We may freeze when we expect to be courageous or act impulsively when we're angry. Shankar Vedantam from NPR's Hidden Brain podcast reports on the psychology behind these moments when our emotions turn us into different people.


SHANKAR VEDANTAM: At an improv comedy show a few months ago, performer Morgan Smalley (ph) let her creative impulses loose.

MORGAN SMALLEY: I was like a slug. I, like, got on the floor. And I, like, inchwormed across the stage.

VEDANTAM: The audience exploded in laughter. For Smalley, it was an instantaneous high. When she walked out of the theater that night, she was practically bursting.

SMALLEY: I just needed to do something with my energy. Like, I didn't want to just go home and, like, go to sleep. I want to do something.

VEDANTAM: Just then, a guy walked over...


VEDANTAM: ...He was carrying a tripod and asked Smalley if she wanted to buy it.

SMALLEY: I was like, how much? And he said, $25. And also I'm going to give you this $50 Amazon gift card. And I was like, wow. I'm totally going to do that.

VEDANTAM: Smalley told the guy she had to get some cash. He walked over to an ATM with her and hovered nearby as she punched in her PIN number. Smalley paid him.

SMALLEY: And he gave me, like, a shoe box full of other random things. And I was like, he's so cool.

VEDANTAM: Smalley felt like she had hit the jackpot.

SMALLEY: There was a loofah in there. There was, like, a diamond cleaner. I've never heard of a diamond cleaner before, but it's got, like, bristles at the end and, like, this juice on the inside. And he also threw in a pair of women shoes. They weren't my size, but I was like, I could sell those. This is awesome.

VEDANTAM: Smalley couldn't wait to show all this stuff to her roommates.

SMALLEY: They were like, what is wrong with you (laughter)? OK. What this guy did is he went from car to car seeing if they were unlocked. He took this stuff out of cars that weren't locked. And then he sold it to you for money. And slowly, like, my universe just, like, unraveled. And I was like, no. I just bought a bunch of stolen stuff.

VEDANTAM: Why did Smalley fail to see what seemed obvious to her friends?

SMALLEY: In that moment, I didn't have any logic. I was just being super impulsive. And so in that way, I think I was being a pretty different person.

VEDANTAM: Psychologist George Loewenstein understands why Smalley behaved the way she did. He first started thinking about how emotions affect our judgment, perception and behavior after he noticed what happened when he and a friend would go on runs up a steep hill.

GEORGE LOEWENSTEIN: We would get absolutely exhausted on the way up and feeling very, very miserable.

VEDANTAM: All he could think of was the pain. But just moments later...

LOEWENSTEIN: It was all forgotten within maybe 10, 20 seconds.

VEDANTAM: A few days later, Loewenstein would lace up and go running again. He realized that each of his emotional states were little worlds unto themselves. The runner in pain had little understanding of the carefree person going downhill and vice versa. It occurred to Loewenstein that these gaps in perception apply to more than just running.

LOEWENSTEIN: I realized that when you're not in pain or cold or experiencing a powerful emotion like anger or fear, it's very difficult to imagine yourself in that situation.

VEDANTAM: Being in pain or feeling cold, angry or afraid, these are what Lowenstein calls hot states.


VEDANTAM: When we're calm and logical, we're in what he calls a cold state. Our hot-state selves can't remember what our cold states feel like. The same holds true in the opposite direction. When we're in a cold state, we can't imagine what it feels like to be in a hot state. This insight explains why people often don't behave the way they'd expect, especially in situations that trigger an intense emotional response. Psychologist Julie Woodzicka discovered this after she ran a study about sexual harassment.

JULIE WOODZICKA: We had roughly 200 women come into the lab.

VEDANTAM: The women had to read a scenario. It was about a job interview. The interviewer, who was a man, asked a variety of standard interview questions until this one...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Do you have a boyfriend?

VEDANTAM: ...A few questions later...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Do people find you desirable?

VEDANTAM: ...And finally...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Do you think it's important for women to wear bras to work?

VEDANTAM: The response to the scenario was overwhelming.

WOODZICKA: Ninety percent of the women thought that they would respond in a very assertive and sometimes aggressive way. So about 30% said that they would leave the interview. Or that - they would often say, I'd tell him off or I'd slap him and then leave.

VEDANTAM: Then Woodzicka ran the second part of the study. This time, she didn't ask volunteers to read a scenario about a job interview. They were in a job interview - or so they believed. The interviewer asked them those same three harassing questions. So how did the women in this real-world setting react? Did 90% respond assertively?

WOODZICKA: Nobody left.


WOODZICKA: Every single person answered every single question.

VEDANTAM: There was another important difference between the women's responses in the two studies. The women who imagined being sexually harassed thought they'd be angry.

WOODZICKA: About 30% said that they would feel anger.

VEDANTAM: The women who were face to face with a harasser felt something quite different.

WOODZICKA: Many women reported feeling afraid in that situation. And anger was not very much reported.

VEDANTAM: Why did the women not behave the way they expected? It's the hot-cold gap again. In a cold state, the women forecast they would be angry. But in reality, the hot state they found themselves in was fear, not anger. And it was paralyzing, not galvanizing. George Loewenstein says that understanding how the hot-cold gap affects human behavior can help us be more compassionate to ourselves and also to others.

LOEWENSTEIN: It's very difficult to kind of make sense of people who are acting under the influence of emotions that you're not experiencing.


VEDANTAM: So the next time we confidently say that we would absolutely do this or we would never do that, remember that emotions can make us strangers to ourselves.

Shankar Vedantam, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
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