In Chapter 6 of Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariety and George Loewenstein discuss the influence of arousal on decision making when people are in high-stress and emotional situations. In their study, they examine the different ways in which individuals would react or make decisions when they were in a high state of sexual arousal, asking the same questions when someone is coldly emotional and when they were masturbating. In many cases, people's decision making would get more irrational and shortsighted, focused mainly on instant gratification more than long-term satisfaction. Their conclusions allude to the idea that each of us has a "Jekyll" and a "Hyde" - a coldly dispassionate self and an irrationally passionate self, and it is extremely hard to merge the two halves of our personality.
Reading this chapter, I found myself initially disagreeing with Ariety's assertions; according to his writing, we were absolutely not in control of ourselves no matter what we tried to do, provided we are in a sufficiently passionate state. I was somewhat resentful of his assertions that we simply behaved like animals if there was the promise of sex or if we were sufficiently angry. It's a somewhat insulting premise on its surface, as it denies us the agency and free will to keep ourselves safe and reasonable. However, as I kept on reading, it became clearer and clearer to me that Ariety's assertions were more correct than I'd anticipated. I know plenty of hotheaded people in my life, who rush to get into fights or who have had unprotected sex because they feared being denied sex altogether otherwise. Ariety has some pretty great points for why we do the things that we do, and they gave me a lot to think about. While he does not outright imply that we have no control over our actions, I at least have a better understanding of exactly why we do what we do, and just how much my emotions affect my decision making.
Ariety mentions that the human being is not integrated, but is in fact an "agglomeration of multiple selves" (Ariety, p. 135). I see a lot of truth to this claim; I've often found myself making decisions and move that are what I could describe as 'uncharacteristic.' Normally, I am a very calm driver; however, put me in a car for long enough, make it hot enough, make it so I am low on gas, etc., and I will yell at anyone who cuts me off or honks at me for trivial reasons. I get unnecessarily angry at these people, and sometimes I will honk my horn right back, or be close to getting out of my car in general. While these moments are few and far between, this chapter made me wonder exactly why I start behaving like that at times. It's the combination of a number of stress factors that make me need to "let off steam," or get rid of the immediate stimuli that is bothering me. Realizing and understanding this, I began to see Ariety's idea that we are an amalgam of selves that have different goals and thresholds, depending on what we are reacting to.
Whenever we are able to detach ourselves from a situation and look at it objectively, we are able to most clearly see the best way out of said situation. It may seem a silly example, but I thought about horror films and audiences' reaction to them. One of the more famous tropes in horror films are the characters making stupid decisions, such as not leaving a house, or slowly investigating something suspicious, or running upstairs to evade a killer instead of running out of the house. There are many people who, watching the movie itself with a coldly dispassionate outlook, would fault the characters for not behaving rationally. However, if you were to put yourself in their shoes, you would quickly find that you were so frightened or confused that you would likely make the same hotheaded, fear-fuelled decisions. As a result, it can be faulty to attack 'tactical realism' in films because you don't think you would do what they did; the fact that we have different reactions to things when we are emotionally heightened means that you may in fact do the same things.
In conclusion, I must agree with Ariety's findings that we behave much differently when are in emotionally heightened states. In terms of what we can do about it, the only options we really have available to us is to understand that we are not consistent beings, and that we may have different priorities from moment to moment. As soon as we can reconcile that, we can make sure to reasonably account for our actions and at least make peace with them as we make them. Also, we can take steps to be aware of our emotional states, and work harder to maintain objectivity in the face of stressful situations.
Ariety, Dan. Predictably Irrational.