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When emotion takes over

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  • Business school study shows how emotion influences decision making
  • Tests show even feelings connected to non-work events affect us
  • Those feeling anger are less likely to heed advice, it shows
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By Peter Walker
For CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Imagine this hypothetical situation: You're a hard-nosed business trader and I'm a contact who's just passed on a great tip on some undervalued shares. Do you take me up on the advice? Well, to imagine some more, it depends on whether or not you argued with your spouse that morning.

You won't like me when I'm angry... But will it affect my decision making?

You won't like me when I'm angry... But will it affect my decision making?

Really? You might think that businesspeople, especially top level executives, keep their emotions, not least those connected to non-workplace matters, completely separate from commercial dealings when in the office.

Not according to an innovative new study by two business school professors which contains potentially vital information for anyone in the money making world, particularly during these tough financial times.

The paper -- "Blinded by Anger or Feeling the Love: How Emotions Influence Advice Taking" -- explains how people receiving advice or guidance can be easily influenced by so-called incidental feelings, that is to say emotions not directly connected to the business in question.

"We focus on incidental emotions, emotions triggered by a prior experience that is irrelevant to the current situation," the two authors, Maurice Schweitzer of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton business school and Francesca Gino, a professor of organization at Carnegie Mellon University, say in the paper.

"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."

Why does this matter? Because advice, in its various forms, is an integral part of everyday business, whether in the form of our hypothetical stock tip or suggestions by a colleague or boss. According to the study, this tendency to be swayed by outside moods is not just an incidental curiosity but can systematically distort rational decisions.

"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," Schweitzer says. "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."

The paper demonstrated the hypothesis through a complicated experiment in which college students were asked to make a judgment about something they could not know for certain -- guessing someone's weight in a photo -- before having their moods swayed either positively, negatively or neutrally by snippets from films intended to provoke either anger, euphoria or no strong feelings.

After seeing the film clips the students were asked to re-estimate the weight, but this time with some outside advice which was -- although they didn't know it at the time -- largely helpful.

The verdict? "The emotion manipulations significantly influenced the accuracy of participants' final estimates," paper says.

Participants "who experienced incidental gratitude weighed advice more heavily than did participants in a neutral state.

Fact Box

FT MBA Rankings
1. Wharton, U.S.
2. London Business School, UK
3. Columbia, U.S.
4. Stanford GSB, U.S.
5. Harvard, U.S.
6. Insead, France/Singapore
7. MIT: Sloan, U.S.
8. IE Business School, Spain
9. University of Chicago GSB, U.S.
10. University of Cambridge: Judge, UK
Source: Financial Times 2008

"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."

In a follow up test, Schweitzer and Gino carried out an identical experiment but also asked the students how much they trusted their "adviser", who was described as a previous participant. And yes -- the angry group showed the least trust.

Of course, as Schweitzer points out, many businesspeople might already know this unconsciously and adjust their actions accordingly

"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."

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