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Emotions persist

Neurocognitive studies show that the judgement of people is also strongly influenced by explicitly unreliable information

Words and phrases like ‘apparently’, ‘allegedly’ or ‘is suspected of’ are frequently used in daily communication, in social media and in media coverage about people, in order to signify the questionable veracity of information. These terms even serve a legal purpose and are intended to prevent false accusations, prejudgements and defamations. Until now, however, little has been known about how our brain processes verbally communicated person-related information of dubious reliability and how this affects our judgements. Do we consider the uncertainty of information in order to temper our judgement about a person, formed on the basis of negative statements, and to prevent misjudgements? Although it is desirable, this does not automatically seem to be the case, as evidence from neurocognitive studies on person judgements shows.

In order to investigate these questions, the brain activity of experiment participants was recorded using an electroencephalogram (EEG) while they received information with negative or comparatively neutral content about previously unfamiliar faces. The negative information was either presented as facts (for example: “This man bullied his apprentice”) or verbally marked as unreliable with the use of expressions like “they say”, “it’s thought that”, “he is said to” and “it is claimed that” (for example: “This man has allegedly bullied his apprentice”).

Weak evidence, strong judgement

A first experiment showed that both the spontaneous likeability evaluation and the direct judgement of people were strongly influenced by the negative content of information presented. Similar effects could also be seen in the EEG, which showed a clear modulation of brain activity that reflects the emotional judgement of people. Although control tasks demonstrate that the verbally marked unreliability was understood and the likelihood of negative information was assessed as being accordingly more unreliable, this had neither a tempering effect on the emotional responses nor on the negative judgements: the judgements were still negative if they were based on unreliable information.

The same applies to positive judgements

These findings could be reproduced in a second experiment and extended to positive unreliable information (for example: “He has supposedly donated his savings to schoolchildren in the crisis-stricken region”). The people were assessed as likeable and judged positively, again accompanied by a modulation of brain activity that reflects an emotional judgement; here too, the reliability of information had no tempering influence on judgement.

These findings show that we tend to judge people on a strongly emotional basis, even if this judgement is knowingly based on unreliable evidence. Similarly to situations in real life, the experiment participants were not explicitly asked to actively suppress the emotional content or to consciously consider the effects of rumours. Instead, the participants were free in their decision to use the indications relating to the questionable reliability of the information in order to put their judgements into perspective.

Future studies are now to examine the circumstances in which the unreliability of person-related information is considered in order to regulate our emotional responses and judgements.

Further Information

Publication: Baum, J., Rabovsky, M., Rose, S. B., & Abdel Rahman, R. (in press). Clear Judgments Based on Unclear Evidence: Person Evaluation Is Strongly Influenced by Untrustworthy Gossip. Emotion. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/emo0000545

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30589302 or: https://psyarxiv.com/hwnp9/

Contact

Prof. Dr Rasha Abdel Rahman
Neurocognitive Psychology
Institute for Psychology
rasha.abdel.rahman@hu-berlin.de
Tel.: 030 2093-9413

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