Emotions are crucial to the human experience – they are the primary driving factor behind our thoughts and behavior. And our thoughts, behavior, and even our memories can vary based on which emotion is triggered (similar, but not identical, to what was portrayed in the Disney-Pixar film, Inside Out). For example, take two negative emotions: sadness and anger. Imagine you miss an extremely important flight due to a delay in getting to the airport. You would probably be upset (a negative emotion), but you would probably react differently depending upon whether the delay was due to a terrible Uber driver (anger) or uncontrollable traffic (sadness). If anger is triggered, you are more likely to engage in quick, hasty decisions; if sadness is triggered, you are more likely to engage in deep, critical thinking to improve the situation (vis-à-vis the feeling-as information theory of emotions). According to cognitive appraisal theory, emotions are extracted from how we appraise (i.e., evaluate, interpret, and explain) an event, and, depending upon which emotional response is triggered, can lead to misattributions and biases.
Given that emotions are so important to decision making generally, it is probably not surprising that emotions play a major role in legal decision making specifically. In How emotions affect judgement and decision making in an interrogation scenario, Sambrano, Masip and Blandón-Gitlin (2020) examine how emotions influence legal judgments, decision making, and information processing. Sambrano and colleagues (2020) induced emotion in participants (anger, sadness, or happiness) and then read a scenario involving an arrest. Participants were asked to rate the suspect’s guilt and what interrogation tactics they would use. Researchers expected that happy or angry participants would be more likely to believe the suspect is guilty (judgment), to use hostile and coercive tactics (decision making), and to use more heuristic processing (information processing) than sad participants.
The researchers’ hypotheses were partially supported. With a college student sample, happy and angry participants were more inclined to believe the suspect was guilty than sad participants (i.e., the judgment hypothesis was partially supported); however, with community members, there were no differences in judgments based on emotion. Within the community sample, happy and angry participants were more likely to use hostile and coercive tactics than sad participants (i.e., the decision making hypothesis was partially supported); however, with students, there were no differences in decision making based on emotion. In general, across both samples, most participants tended to use benevolent interrogation tactics.
The findings from the study show that emotions have the potential to cloud one’s judgement and decision making. In a legal context, it can have potentially dire consequences. Interrogators might be driven by a specific emotion to get a confession. This could possibly lead to the use of highly coercive tactics that could potentially lead to a false confession. Even a false confession can be very convincing and can corrupt other forms of evidence, ending in an incorrect guilty verdict and the wrongful convictions of innocent people.