Confidence is important; it affects everything from how others will judge you to your ability to make clear decisions. A recent study has found that certain subconscious cues can influence our confidence without us even realizing. The findings uphold the old adage that you shouldn't make important decisions in the heat of the moment, and could be useful in future research on mental health conditions such as anxiety and psychosis.

Normally we are more confident with our decisions when there is less outside distraction. For example, as lead researcher Dr. Micah Allen explained to Medical Daily in an email, when looking out a window to see if a friend is passing by, we are less certain about what we see if the window is foggy or dirty than we would be if the window were clear. However, the study revealed that when we become physiologically aroused, as demonstrated by increased heart rate and pupil dilatation, the opposite rings true: we become more confident about decisions with uncertain stimuli and less confident about those with clear stimuli.

“Together, our results suggested that the brain tracks both internal 'embodied' states and also the clarity of the external world to form a feeling of confidence,” explained Allen.

The experiment consisted of showing 29 volunteers a cloud of moving dots on a screen and asking them whether the dots moved to the left or right. The volunteers were then asked to rate their confidence in their decision. The dots were sometimes shown while loud noise was made in order to disorient the volunteers. In some trials of the experiments, volunteers were briefly shown an image of a disgusted face. The image was shown too briefly for volunteers to be consciously aware of what they were seeing. Still, results showed that it had a clear impact not only on the volunteers' decisions, but also their confidence in making these decisions.

According to Allen, the team chose to use a disgusted face as the subconscious image because disgust has been proven to have a measurable physiological change in people, and allows them to be manipulated without their awareness.

“In nature, when we see someone exhibiting the symptoms of disgust (making a nasty face, perhaps gagging or vomiting), this elicits a similar response in ourselves,” explained Allen in an email. “Further, previous research suggested that 'unseen' disgusted faces could increase participant's [heartbeat] and activate parts of the brain [like the insular cortex] which are responsible for combining internal bodily states with external sensory information.”

The results, though interesting on their own, could help expand our understanding of certain mental health conditions where a patient's mental state is largely connected to their physical arousal — such as anxiety. In addition, they may even give insight into ways our own decision-making can become compromised, and suggest ways to prevent this.

"Our results show that 'hot' emotional states can really alter the way we treat uncertainty, and that it might be worthwhile taking a moment to cool down before we undertake an important decision,” concluded Allen.

Source: Allen M, Frank D, Schwarzkopf, DS, Fardo F, Winston JS, Hauser TU, Rees G. Unexpected arousal modulates the influence of sensory noise on confidence. eLife. Science. 2016

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