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Affective states – what are they and why did we study them? (Part I)

During the four years of my Ph.D. research on online privacy decision-making, I learned that many factors influence people’s choices. I also found that some of these factors are more extensively researched because they are easier to assess through standard measuring instruments (e.g., self-reported scales) or because their role is easier to interpret.

Regardless, in my work, I decided to study some of the “traditional” factors, e.g., privacy concerns, personality, etc. However, most of my interest focused on factors that received less attention in past research, particularly the effects of affective states. My findings are published, and you can learn details about the methods and results in each of my articles. Yet, I think it is worth dedicating some space to our findings in series of blogs, as I believe not everyone will be interested in reading my academic publications (I don’t blame you, I would also rather read a blog entry!).

Hence, I would like to commence a series of short articles about my research on affective states and their role in decision-making with this post. First, let’s start with a short explanation of what I mean by affective states and what are the main theories that explain the influence of affect on decisions.

What is affect? 

Affect is often associated with many different terms, and some perceive it as merely another term describing emotions. In our work, we followed a more broad definition of affect proposed in past research, assuming that affect means “unspecified feelings; the superordinate umbrella of con-structs involving emotion, mood, and emotion-related traits” [Lener et al.]. Following such definition, it becomes clear that affect is not only emotions because emotions tend to result in physiological responses. Affect is not restricted to a feeling because feelings are usually conscious. Considering past research from psychology and behavioral sciences, it seems that affect is bound with cognitive information processing.

Affect and information processing 

It is often assumed that when people process information, they first perceive a sensory input that is coded, and next, they reach the cognitive representation of the information stimulus using memory reserves. In this process, the stimulus results in an affective reaction that leads to judgment. Social psychologist, Robert Zajonc, proposed that there is a need for a different model of affect [Zajonc]. According to his early schemas, the individual is confronted with a stimulus for a specific time interval. Thus, such stimulus triggers processes that might differ in their onset and offset times (that is, sensory processes, affective reaction—good or bad, recognition memory—old or new, and feature discrimination) [Zajonc]. What was crucial in Zajonc’s speculations was that every stimulus invokes an affective evaluation and that such an evaluation may happen outside of awareness. 

A similar view was held by Damasio and his concept of “somatic markers,” feelings generated from secondary emotions—emotions related to the decision outcomes. Based on the series of neurological studies, looking at the responses of different brain regions among patients with the damaged amygdala (the part of the brain involved in emotional processing), Damasio tried to prove that such patients were unable to make rational decisions. His theory proposed that emotions are crucial for decision-making processes, and people utilize “somatic markers” in learning. Therefore, the absence of emotions should degrade the quality of decisions and interfere with learning. 

Some of the most critical theoretical explanations for the role of affect in decision-making, considering our research, come from the works of Clore and Schwarz. They proposed feelings-as-information and affect-as-information theories [Clore et al., Schwarz]. These assume that when in goal-oriented tasks, people base their cognitive processing on the principles of experience, information, attribution, immediacy, and episodic constrain. These principles unite in the affective judgment principle. When an individual is in an object-focused state, affective reactions might be experienced as liking or disliking, ending in either higher or lower evaluative scores of the object.

Similarly, the cognitive processing of task-oriented people might be guided by the affective processing principle. Here, affective reactions may be experienced as confidence or doubt about cognitively accessible information, resulting in either lesser or greater reliance on their own beliefs, expectations, or preferences. Considering such an explanation of cognitive processing while people are task-oriented, affective feelings may serve as some form of feedback. Here, positive affect could hint that the situation is safe, while negative indicate that it is not safe, and more cognitive processing is needed [Schwarz]. Positive affect may serve as a cue to rely on predefined thoughts and expectations that decision-makers possess. On the other hand, negative affect is supposed to direct attention to new and external information. 

There is also an enjoyment principle, which poses that emotion-focused individuals experience affective feelings, such as enjoyment or displeasure, resulting in greater or lesser persistence in the given activity. Meaning that negative affect might lead to annoying experiences with an object or task, consequently making people less likely to continue with an activity. While the positive affect, on the contrary, might result in enhanced engagement in an activity.

Overall, both Clore and Schwarz’s propositions influence cognitive feelings—meta-experiences such as ease or difficulty [Schwarz]. They are associated with information recall and thought generation and the processing of new, external information. 

But how does it relate to online decisions, especially in the context of privacy? Both types of experiences (difficulty or ease) may result from external stimuli. An example of such stimuli can be the design of the user interface. Therefore, information presentation (e.g., use positively loaded language to convey information) or the semantic context in which a specific situation occurs (e.g., using a mobile device to complete a task in a rush) may influence interaction and trigger different affective reactions. As a result, people’s decisions, to some extent, might be moderated by affect.

Before we dive into the results of our work, we will talk more about affective states and their role in human-computer interaction (HCI) in the next post. We will present some examples of UI designs that might have specific affective effects on users.

Stay tuned to hear all about it!


Lerner, J. S., Li, Y., Valdesolo, P., & Kassam, K. S. (2015). Emotion and decision making. Annual review of psychology66.

Zajonc, R. B. (1980). Feeling and thinking: Preferences need no inferences. American psychologist35(2), 151.

Schwarz, N. (1990). Feelings as information: Informational and motivational functions of affective states. The Guilford Press.

Clore, G. L., Gasper, K., & Garvin, E. (2001). Affect as information. Handbook of affect and social cognition, 121-144.

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