3.5 The Impact of Emotions on Cognition

In this chapter, we want to explore how affect and more complex emotions may impact some of those cognitive processes that you considered in Chapter 2. Research supports that affect and emotions, especially those that involve high arousal as when a person feels threatened, influence a person’s perception and cognitive functions such as problem-solving, decision-making, collaboration, motivation, and stress management (Lempert & Phelps, 2016; Rock, 2008).

Rock (2008) describes how under stress, “resources available for overall executive functions in the prefrontal cortex decrease – the higher the stress, the fewer resources are available for your PFC – which means fewer resources are available for brain functions involved in the working memory, which impacts linear, conscious processing’, including decision-making” (p. 3). “Emotional flooding” is a term that is commonly used to describe the feeling of being overwhelmed with emotions and the perception of being unable to think “rationally” (Jones & Bodtker, 2001; Nair, 2008).

The idea that we can control our emotions with our “rational brain” is not supported by contemporary neuroscience research, as we noted in Chapter 2. In this chapter, we also want to be more specific in terms of cognitions, rather than cover all cognitive processes under the term “rational thinking”. Therefore, we will not consider the impact of affect and emotions on specific cognitive processes. We will do this exploration with the help of Sam Hardy, who, as previously noted, has developed a comprehensive course on emotions and conflict, and who has made available some of her resources for this eBook.

Emotions, Attention and Perception

Emotions have a significant impact on our attention, and thereby also on our perception. Emotions appear to strongly influence which details of an event an individual notices and which ones are neglected (Kaplan et al., 2015). For an exploration of the impact of emotions on perception and attention (as previously noted, these are frequently grouped together since they are closely related), please watch the following video [15:48] by Sam Hardy (used with her permission):

In her video, Sam referred to another video that discusses the importance of audio effects on our attention and perception. If you want to watch that video, you can do that below [15:42]:

To learn more about the impact of emotions on attention, you may also wish to read Chapter 35 in the Handbook of emotions:


Hajcak, G., Jackson, F., Ferri, J., & Weinberg, A. (2016). Emotion and Attention. In M. Lewis, J. M. Haviland-Jones, & L. Feldman Barrett (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (pp. 595-609). The Guilford Press.

Emotions and Memory

The effect of emotions on memory formation is complex. Research suggests that emotional arousal makes it more likely that an episodic memory is encoded for an event and that such memories are particularly vivid and detailed (Porter & Birt, 2001; Van Damme & Smets, 2014). Furthermore, the experience of emotions may increase the strength of memory encoding and the duration of memory storage (Kaplan et al., 2015; Ritchey et al., 2008). Worldwide, many people have harrowing and vivid memories of the terrorist attacks on September 11 and can remember where they were that day and how they felt.

Figure 3.5.1. UA flight 175 hits WTC south tower 9-1-1  by TheMachineStops (Robert J. Fisch) used under CC BY-SA 2.0 licence

During emotional arousal, the amygdala gets activated, which enhances memory consolidation (Ritchey et al., 2008; Roozendaal & McGaugh, 2011). Emotions are also accompanied by the release of stress hormones, including cortisol (Siever, 2008). Research has found a stabilising effect of cortisol on memory encoding, making specific memories particularly strong and long-lasting (Roozendaal & McGaugh, 2011; Sauerland et al., 2016).

Nevertheless, research has also shown that emotional content does not reliably predict the accuracy of memory (Houston et al., 2013; Laney & Loftus, 2008; Phelps & Sharot, 2008). On the contrary, it is well established that memories associated with emotional events are likely to be inaccurate or even entirely fabricated (Brainerd et al., 2008; Laney & Loftus, 2008). For example, research has found that the exposure of emotionally aroused individuals to misinformation can result in vivid and detailed memories of events that actually never occurred (Kaplan et al., 2015; Laney & Loftus, 2008).

Emotions appear to strongly influence which details of an event an individual notices and which ones are neglected (Kaplan et al., 2015). Depending on their attention, people are likely to remember certain information very strongly but may fail to remember other aspects (Kaplan et al., 2015; Levine & Edelstein, 2009). Emotions have been found to strengthen especially memories for emotional aspects of an event, but not for “neutral details”, referred to as the memory trade-off effect (Levine & Edelstein, 2009; Steinmetz & Kensinger, 2013).

Other research suggests that during emotional arousal, central information is remembered in detail at the expense of peripheral information, referred to as emotional memory narrowing or tunnel memory (Kaplan et al., 2012; Kaplan et al., 2015; Levine & Edelstein, 2009). However, which information is considered central and which is peripheral may depend on the individual and context. In one study, participants recalled in detail the looks of a perpetrator of a crime but not what the perpetrator did to the victim (Houston et al., 2013). In another study, participants paid particular attention to “features of a crime scene that threaten safety”, such as the weapon used, but neglected the looks of the perpetrator (Kaplan et al., 2015).

The literature discusses several characteristics of emotions as important factors for memory formation, including the intensity of the emotional experience. Research has shown that intense emotions lead to heightened activation of the amygdala, thereby supporting certain particularly strong and durable memories (Canli et al., 2000). At the same time, the rising intensity of emotional arousal may also increasingly narrow an individual’s attention (Kaplan et al., 2015). This extreme narrowing can result in particular poor memory for peripheral information, making individuals highly vulnerable to substantial memory errors when exposed to misinformation, which again may lead to the formation of false memory (Kaplan et al., 2015).

If you want to learn more about the impact of emotions on memory and what this might mean in the context of conflict resolution (optional), please watch the following video [14:35] by Sam Hardy (used with permission):

In her video, Sam referred to a YouTube video in which LeDoux explains the role of emotion in memory. You can watch this video below if you wish [2:02] (optional activity):

To learn more about the impact of emotions on memory, you may also wish to read Chapter 33 in the Handbook of emotions:


Kensinger, E. A. & Schacter, D. L. (2016). Memory and emotion. In M. Lewis, J. M. Haviland-Jones, & L. Feldman Barrett (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (pp. 564-578). The Guilford Press.

An example of practical implication of emotions and memory research: Eyewitness statements in criminal justice

So, we have just learned that the human memory is susceptible to false memory (Gronlund & Benjamin, 2018). One area that is concerned with a better understanding of how false memory may be formed and what factors contribute to false memory is criminal justice. This is because false memories of witnesses can have significant implications for peace and justice in a society (Theunissen et al., 2017). Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions comprise one of the Sustainable Development Goals developed by the United Nations and are therefore considered as critically important for peace and prosperity for people across the world (United Nations, n.d.). Inaccurate eyewitness statements have contributed to wrongful convictions of a considerable number of suspects (Innocence Project, 2018; Jackson & Gross, 2014; Wise et al., 2014). For example, the Innocence Project reports that in the United States, nearly 70% of close to 400 wrongful convictions, which had later been overturned by post-conviction DNA evidence, were based on false eyewitness identifications (Innocence Project, 2018). To develop more just and peaceful societies, it is important to accurately assess the reliability of eyewitnesses and avoid fomenting false memories during criminal investigations. Both tasks require a better understanding of the memory processes behind false memory.

Further above we discussed that emotions may enhance or impair false memory, depending on several factors. Attention was highlighted as one important factor that may determine which elements of an emotional event are noticed and which ones are neglected. Besides, false memory may be impacted by the intensity and valence of emotions, as well as by the discrete moods of individuals and the number of witnessed events. High intensity and negative valence of material appear to have a particularly strong effect on the formation of false memories. Therefore, witnesses who have experienced intense, stressful events, especially multiple events, may be particularly susceptible to false memory, including through misinformation. These findings may help to better determine eyewitness reliability and improve interview strategies to increase the accuracy of testimonies. Such improvements may prevent wrongful convictions of suspects.

Emotions and Language

Feldmann Barrett (2020) notes in her book “Seven and a half lessons about the brain” (see pp. 88-92) that:

  • The power of words can affect the brain (this has been researched in the lab): when listening to words that describe movement, then there is increased activity in brain regions that are involved in movement. Many brain regions that process language also control the insides of the body, including major organs and systems that support the body budget.
  • Words are tools for regulating human bodies
  • Other people’s words have a direct effect on an individual’s brain activity and bodily system
  • Words can create permanent stress

To learn more about the impact of emotions on language, please read Chapter 34 in the Handbook of emotions:


Lindquist, K. A., Gendron, M. & Satpute, A. (2016). Language and emotion. In M. Lewis, J. M. Haviland-Jones, & L. Feldman Barrett (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (4th ed., pp. 579-594). The Guilford Press.

The following reading also discusses the meaning of words in the construction of emotions and development of emotion concepts (Chapter 32):

Wilson-Mendenhall, C. D. & Barsalou, L. W. (2016). A fundamental role for conceptual processing in emotion. In M. Lewis, J. M. Haviland-Jones, & L. Feldman Barrett (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (4th ed., pp. 547-563). The Guilford Press.

Emotions and Problem-Solving

Research suggests that the perception of a threat decreases a person’s ability to think creatively and to solve complex problems (Rock, 2008). In contrast, the perception of reward (instead of a threat) appears to increase creativity and the ability to tackle complex problems (remember Rock’s SCARF model that we discussed in some detail in Chapter 1) (Rock, 2008). Furthermore, Rock (2008) notes that when a person feels threatened, e.g., by a supervisor or manager, then “increased overall activation in the brain during stress inhibits people from perceiving the more subtle signals required for solving non-linear problems.” (p. 3).

To learn more about the impact of emotions on both problem-solving and decision-making, please now watch Sam Hardy’s video [20:49] below (used with permission):

Emotions and Decision-Making

As you would have already learned in Sam Hardy’s video above, affect and emotions can influence our decision-making in several ways (Lempert & Phelps, 2016). For example, if we are in a particular affective state, such as a certain mood or under stress at the time of choice, this affective state can influence how we process a decision, and can lead to differences in our decision-making (Lempert & Phelps, 2016). An example here is the study with judges in Israel, which found that judges were significantly more likely to deny parole to a prisoner if the hearing was just before lunchtime (Feldman Barrett, 2017b). It appears that the judges experienced their interoceptive sensations not as unpleasant hunger but as evidence for their decisions (Feldman Barrett, 2017b, p. 74-75).

Furthermore, the experience of stress leads to more automatic processing, e.g. it may lead people to switch from goal-directed action to habitual responding, meaning that a person’s decision may no longer be based on the perceived value of the outcome of the decision (Lempert & Phelps, 2016). What does this mean? Those who display habitual behaviour will continue to try to pursue an outcome, even if the outcome is no longer valuable to them. This scenario happens quite frequently in mediation between two parties who don’t seem able to let go of a specific outcome, even if the outcome does not seem to have any obvious value to them.

To learn more about the relationship between affect and economic decision-making, you may wish to read Chapter 5 in the Handbook of emotions:


Lempert, K. M., & Phelps, E. A. (2016). Affect in economic decision making. In M. Lewis, J. M. Haviland-Jones, & L. Feldman Barrett (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (4th ed., pp. 98-112). The Guilford Press.

In this reading, the authors also discuss some strategies for changing emotions to change choices, which you may find of interest for your personal life.

In the following reading, you will learn more about the impact of affect and emotions on decision-making in the context of mediation. You may wish to undertake the reading now or wait until the end of the session (you will be prompted again then to engage with that reading):


Tanz, J. S., & Mcclintock, M. K. (2017). The physiologic stress response during mediation. Ohio State Journal On Dispute Resolution 32(1), 29-74.

Some of the points raised by the authors in the reading include:

  • High levels of cortisol make it more likely that a stressed party overreacts to an offer made by another person, which will interfere with effective negotiations, e.g., during mediation.
  • Highly stressed parties may be susceptible to “reactive devaluation”, which means that the offer by someone who is perceived as a stressor is less valued than the same offer from a neutral.
  • Selective attention: high cortisol may impair the ability to focus on a specific task (such as negotiating a certain issue). High cortisol may also affect an individual’s ability to consider different viewpoints. High levels of cortisol may also make it harder to weigh alternatives and make decisions.


If you haven’t already done this, you could now deepen your understanding of this topic by watching Sam Hardy’s video on how emotions impact reasoning, decision-making, and problem-solving (see video above). You may also wish to hear researcher Antonio Demasio talk about the role of emotions in decision-making [3:22]:



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3.5 The Impact of Emotions on Cognition Copyright © 2024 by Judith Rafferty is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.