Incidental emotions are emotions not related to the task at hand such as anxiety or depression that nonetheless affect the decision-making process, with sometimes detrimental consequences. One possible explanation points to the role that brain structures involved in both emotion processing and decision-/choice-making play in that context.
Brain structures involved in decision-making
Particularly, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), ventral striatum (VS), insula, and amygdala are all recruited during both emotional processing and choice-making. However, they differ when it comes to value coding (i.e., seeing an outcome as positive or negative), since the VMPFC and VS tend to be activated when a positive value is attributed to a situation whereas the insula is involved when assigning a negative subjective value.
Therefore, it is likely that the computation of emotions and choices/valuation in similar neuronal pathways also provides a neural route for emotions to influence our subjective interpretation of situations. Similarly, chronic affective states like depression and anxiety could alter those neuronal pathways to such an extent that emotions persistently govern choice making.
The influence of anxiety on the decision-making process
More interestingly, the current paper investigates how a negative emotion such as anticipatory anxiety (induced by the threat of unpredictable electrical shocks on healthy participants) influences choices/decision-making in the context of gambling money (i.e., a paradigm for a risky situation) by observing the underlying neural activity (i.e., what happens in the brain).
The results implicate a shift in valuation coding with decreased positive valuation associated with activity in the VPMFC and VS and increased negative valuation reflecting activity in the Insula. Essentially, the brain of participants with apprehensive anxiety revealed that they expected a negative outcome more frequently than those who were in a neutral state.
Nonetheless, this shift towards increased negativity did not appear to influence their response during the gambling game, as they still managed to prevail over their emotions and made a thoughtful decision. The authors then suggested that the “anxious” participants may have used compensatory strategies, such as increasing their concentration or doing more calculations to overcome the impact of anxiety in their brain, which resonates well with previous findings showing that the brain of people with anxiety has to work harder than those without.
The authors also emphasized that although this shift towards negativity did not appear to influence their behaviors; if it is chronic, what is happening in their brain could eventually lead to a deterioration of the individual’s subjective perceptions in favor of a more negative outlook and a change of overt behaviors, which is what we see in psychiatric disorders.
Engelmann JB, Meyer F, Fehr E, Ruff CC. Anticipatory anxiety disrupts neural valuation during risky choice. J Neurosci. 2015 Feb 18;35(7):3085-99. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2880-14.2015. PMID: 25698745; PMCID: PMC6605597.