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Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences

Department of Psychology

Psychology Matters

Research Matters

sokolhessnerPeter Sokol-Hessner, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor



Let me offer you a gamble. If you accept this gamble, I'll flip a coin – heads, I'll give you $15, tails you'll give me $10. You can also say "no thanks", and I'll go on my way – you won't lose, but you also won't win. So what do you say? Is the chance of winning $15 worth maybe losing $10 instead?

Let's say that, like many people, you tell me to take my gamble elsewhere. Why might you do that? There are two common possibilities: on the one hand, maybe the element of chance itself drives you away. The uncertainty associated with the outcomes of the gamble (i.e. the fact that you don't know what'll happen!) is so unsettling that you don't want take a shot. On the other hand, you might not mind uncertainty, but you really hate to lose – and that potential loss of $10 feels heavier than the potential win of $15.

In my lab, we combine psychology, economics, and neuroscience to try to understand how people think and feel about how valuable something is, compare it to their other options, and finally make their decision. In particular, we study the role of emotion in decision-making, that is, we try to objectively measure what phrases like "feels heavier" mean. In some of our studies, we attach electrodes to peoples' skin, and measure how much they sweat while they win and lose money, or look at how stress may change their choices. In other studies, we use eye-trackers to see where people look when they're thinking about tough economic decisions, or brain imaging to understand the neural circuits that construct value.

By discovering links between emotion and decision-making, we also identify opportunities to modify the emotions people experience, and in so doing, change their decisions. There are many ways to change emotions, but one of the most effective is teaching people to use emotion regulation techniques. This leads to questions like what does emotion regulation look like in the context of decision-making? What can be changed and for how long?

Emotions are part of our decisions – but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. By studying the links between emotion and decision-making, we hope to ultimately give people the knowledge they need to make better choices for themselves.

If you're interested in emotion and decision-making, check out our lab website.

Editor's Note: We are delighted to welcome Dr. Sokol-Hessner to the department this fall.