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Impulses, Assumptions, and Errors – Why Hot States Spell Disaster

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Anecdotally we have all been told not to go to the grocery store when we are hungry, drive when we are raging angry, or make major life changes when dealing with a heartbreak, yet for psychologists the idea of distinct emotional states regulating our decisions is nothing new. In fact, what is known as “hot” and “cold” emotional states has long been used to explain the way in which we make moral decisions (Greene, 2001), employ emotion or logic to influence our thinking, operate out of conscious or unconscious processes, and even the parts of the brain we use when making the decision.


Hot states describe those where decisions are emotion based, and being charged with emotion, activate the fear and anger centers of the brain (known as the limbic system), much like when we are threatened (McClure, 2004). If you’ve ever had a fight with your spouse and said things you wouldn’t want repeated, dropped your groceries and sprint to save your child from an oncoming car, and engaged in a heated argument with someone over a topic you are passionate about all the while ignoring evidence that doesn’t support your argument, you’ve been in a hot state. Here, judgment is automatic, decisions are quick, reflexive, and impulse driven – and not regulated by logic. Hot states are also prone to act upon previous assumptions and biases (Kahneman and Tversky, 2003), which doesn’t often lead to well-thought out decisions.


Hot states do have a time and place – acting with lightening reflexes is exactly what helps us save someone from a burning building, avoid a car crash, and catch a child before he plummets headfirst down the stairs. The problem is, changing behavior is a game of overcoming habitual patterns, ingrained behavior, and a whole lot of impulses. And when it comes to teaching ourselves to stop doing x and start doing y, we need the cool logic of cold states.


What cold states do is allow us to use logic, planning, rational analysis, and conscious judgment to process information more fully, incorporate memory from previous experiences and use executive functions to make decisions based on logic (Stanovich & West, 2000; Kahneman, 2003). It’s the difference between reaching for that donut because it’s there and stopping yourself because you remember that the last time you ate the donut you felt bad about it later.


But that is only part of the story. Hot and cold states appear to be significantly linked to our working memory capacity (WMC). People with higher WMCs are more likely to make decisions when in cold states, probably due to the fact that cold states tend to utilize memory and employ greater cognitive engagement than hot states. On the other hand, those who are low in WMC make more decisions when in hot states, make more judgment errors (MacDonald, Just, Carpenter, 1992) and are more prone to stereotype use (Schmader and Johns, 2003).


For those low in WMC, making judgments in hot states is cognitively more efficient, as it uses less of a limited resource (WMC). The problem is that hot states consistently lead to more errors in judgment because they rely on preformed assumptions (stereotypes) as oppose to weighing these assumptions against objective information.


The story might go something like this: we convince ourselves to go on a diet because we know that maintaining a healthy weight is important to our overall health and we believe it will make us feel better. By focusing on what we eat, we have been able to follow our diet strictly, and after a few days, begin to see some results. But after a week of dieting, we are feeling the weight (no pun intended) of our restrictions, and then we are given a harsh reprimand by our boss. Feeling angry, hurt, and very nervous about our job, we also begin to feel very resentful about our diet. The more we think about it, the more we realize we hate having to control what we eat and depriving ourselves of our favorite foods, and in a moment of hotheadedness, we throw the proverbial finger up at our diet and head to our favorite restaurant. What we don’t do – that would require a high WMC – is remember that the last time we blew our diet, we didn’t feel better, we actually felt worse.


WMC is also linked to cognitive capacity, which acts like a limited resource when making decisions – especially when we are emotionally charged. Making decisions, as you know, means overriding temptations, but it also means overriding the emotions that may cause us to hit the drive through, yell at our kids, and criticize our spouse. The role of the WMC is to remind us that the last time we did these things, we regretted it. When WMC works properly, we are able to use intentional processing to override emotions and make a logic-based decision, as oppose to an emotion-based one (Moore, et. al., 2008). But when WMC is low, our emotions outweigh the cognitive capacity we have to control them, and we make errors – often those we wish we didn’t.


So just how do we make better decisions? Here are three ways:


Use self-monitoring and self -appraisal. Self-monitoring and self-appraisal are very effective ways to raise conscious awareness of our actions. By creating an assessment device, such a short questionnaire assessing our progress, or predesigned questions used to detect slips in progress, we can become much more aware of what we are doing as well as the outcome of our actions. Not only does this reduces our tendency to fall prey to unconscious impulses, but a lot more likely to catch ourselves headed for the slippery slope of rationalizing those impulses.


Begin With Why. Because our impulses are typically below the level of our awareness, they act upon us automatically. In order to make your choices more conscious then, the first step is to draw your attention to the reasons you are doing the things you do. To do this, make a list of all of the behaviors you perform during a day. Next, list a predominant reason for each behavior. For example, you may say that you go to Starbucks every day because it gives you something to look forward to, or that you get up early because you feels more productive. By teaching yourself to become more aware of the underlying reasons (and perhaps begin to question why you do the things you do) in this way, you will help yourself begin to become more conscious of your choices, and the ways they affect you.


Use Pro and Con Lists. Making impulsive decisions often involves very little conscious effort, however the quality of the decision suffers. You can help avoid impulsive tendencies and make better informed decisions, by using pro and con lists to guide your decisions. Just like they sound, pro and con lists involve writing down all of the benefits and drawbacks associated with an intended decision and then weighing them carefully before making the decision. Using pro and cons lists is not only a way to slow down the decision making process, but also to become much more mindful of it.



Greene, J. D., Sommerville, R. B., Nystrom, L. E., Darley, J. M., & Cohen, J. D. (2001). An fMRI investigation of emotional engagement in moral judgement. Science (293)5537, 2105-2108

McClure,, (2004). Separate Neural Systems Value Immediate and delayed Monetary Rewards. Science 306, 503.

Kahneman, D. (2003). A perspective on moral judgement and choice: mapping bounded rationality. American Psychologist, (58)9, 697-720

Stanovich, K. I., & West, R. F. (2000). Individual differences in reasoning: Implications for the rationality debate? Behavioral and Brain Science (23)5, 645-726

MacDonald, M.C., Just, M.A., & Carpenter, P.A. (1992). Working memory constraints on the processing of syntactic ambiguity. Cognitive Psychology. (24), 56-98

Schmader T. & Johns M. (2003). Converging evidence that stereotype threat reduces working memory capacity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 440-452.

Moore, A. B., Clark, B. A., & Kane, M. G., (2008). Who shalt not kill? Individual difference in working memory capacity, executive control and moral judgment. Psychological Science, 19, 549-557.


Claire Dorotik-Nana is the author of Leverage: The Science of Turning Setbacks into Springboards. For more information on Claire or her work, just visit

Impulses, Assumptions, and Errors – Why Hot States Spell Disaster

Claire Dorotik-Nana, LMFT

Claire Dorotik-Nana LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in post-traumatic growth, leveraging adversity, and other epic human achievements. Claire has written multiple continuing education courses for Professional Development Resources, Zur Institute, and International Sport Science Association. Claire has also authored multiple books, including:
Leverage: The Science of Turning Setbacks into Springboards and On The Back Of A Horse: Harnessing The Healing Power Of The Human-Equine Bond. For more information about Leveraging Adversity or Claire, visit

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APA Reference
Dorotik-Nana, C. (2016). Impulses, Assumptions, and Errors – Why Hot States Spell Disaster. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from


Last updated: 23 Apr 2016
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