• Good intentions and healthy goals may stand little chance against the impact of emotions or stress on the brain

  • With this in mind, Crawford Hollingworth explores how we can make good choices

In neuroscience terms, a cold state is where we are calm, collected and rational. A hot state is where we are emotional, excited, hungry, in pain or aroused in some way. Research has shown that humans have a ‘hot–cold’ empathy gap – in other words, when we are in a ‘cold’ or rational state we can be poor predictors of how we might behave when we are in a ‘hot’ or emotional state, and vice versa. 

It’s why we can easily vow never to drink again in the (‘cold’ zone) morning, when we feel a little fragile after a (‘hot’ zone) big night out. And yet, once we’ve recovered and we find ourselves in a hot zone all over again, we conveniently forget all about our plans and promises. It’s why ‘in the heat of the moment’ is an expression that conjures all sorts of actions and possibilities that would be unimaginable ‘in the cold light of day’. 

Never go shopping for food when you are hungry (a ‘hot’ state) – it’s wise advice and based on scientific research that shows that the hungrier we are, the more likely we are to choose less healthily and seek foods with more calories. In fact, John Bargh would tell you never to shop for anything when you are hungry as it will encourage you to buy more of everything, not just food.

In a study among 35 male college students at the University of California, Berkeley, researchers found that opinions on sexual behaviour varied considerably depending on whether an individual was in ‘the heat of the moment’ or not. Test results concerning the sexual preferences and appetites of the students varied hugely depending on whether they were in a ‘cold, rational, unaroused’ state or in a more aroused, sexual state (don’t ask). 

When questioned about their sexual preferences in a cold state, the majority said they would always use a condom and were not interested in a threesome, having underage sex, spanking or tying their partners up, and so on. But, in an aroused frame of mind, the answers the men gave were considerably less constrained. For example, when asked in a non-aroused state if they would like to tie up their partners, ‘only’ 47 per cent answered yes. When aroused, 75 per cent said they would like to do this. 

The authors of the study concluded that expecting willpower alone to ‘protect’ us from our heat-of-the moment predilections would probably be unwise, and that we should instead adopt a more practical mindset: avoiding situations where we would find it hard to resist something. So, don’t go to the party if you don’t want to drink or smoke, for example, or have back-up protection (take a condom) should willpower alone not be enough. 

We are mercurial in our natures – ask us at 7 a.m. to make a lunch choice and we’ll make a healthier selection that we do at noon; at 7 a.m. we’re not tired and frazzled from a morning’s commute and the demands of our working day. At noon we are exactly that. Thomas Schelling, a renowned US economist who won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2005, described the dichotomy of states thus in his 1980 essay ‘The Intimate Contest for Self-Command’: 

"People behave sometimes as if they had two selves, one who wants clean lungs and long life and another who adores tobacco, or one who wants a lean body and another who wants dessert, or one who yearns to improve himself by  reading The Public Interest and another who would rather watch an old movie on television. The two are in continual contest for control."

Research by George Loewenstein addressed the implications of the hot–cold empathy gap on medical decision-making. He showed how the fact that we are so often incapable of imagining the way ‘ill’ feels when we are perfectly well, and, conversely, how ‘well’ feels when we are ill, impacts our ability to take medication. This is particularly significant in the case of those with bipolar disorder, high blood pressure or diabetes – conditions for which medication must be continued even if no obvious symptoms are apparent (diabetes is known as a silent killer for this very reason). We understand the concept of taking medication when we have tangible symptoms (the hot zone, if you like), but it is a more difficult protocol to sustain when we have no noticeable symptoms to treat. 

The effect of the hot–cold empathy gap on medical practitioners is perhaps the most unsettling. Pain-free doctors who must prescribe pain-relief medication for suffering patients may well either underprescribe because, as Loewenstein puts it, they ‘underappreciate their patients’ pain’ or, indeed, overprescribe because they ‘over’ appreciate it. And, in the case of end-of-life care, the hot–cold empathy gap prompts other concerns. In a study by consultant oncologist Maurice Slevin and colleagues, (healthy) oncologists had to make a judgement on how they would treat themselves if they were end-stage cancer sufferers having to weigh up the unpleasantness of a course of chemotherapy against the promise of more life. Most of the oncologists judged an earlier death a better option for themselves than the course of chemo in that hypothetical situation (a judgement they would presumably consider appropriate for their patients too), with only six per cent of oncologists opting for the chemo. In contrast, two fifths of actual cancer patients – those who really were facing the prospect of less life – opted for chemo, regardless of its heavy toll upon them.  

So, if we make a decision in the cold light of day or, indeed, in the heat of the moment, we should at the same time think about how we can create structures around us, strong supportive contexts, that will enable us to sustain that decision when the temperature fluctuates.

Crawford Hollingworth, with Cathy Tomlinson, is the author of How Your Brain is Wired: An Owner's Manual

Further reading

Can therapy change the way your brain works?

Why do some people get more stressed than others?

What does creativity look like in the brain?

Enough is enough: is your ambition making you happy?

How to nurture more self-compassion