The Crossroads of Affect and Cognition: Counterfactuals
as Compensatory Cognition
Neal J. Roese
Simon Fraser University
The opposition of emotion and rational thought is perhaps one of the oldest dichotomies invoked to explain the vagaries of human behavior. Capricious acts become scrutable when observers can attribute divergent extremes of action to momentary victories by opposing psychological forces. Probably for this reason, the placement of passion and rational thought in a state of tension served many thinkers well in their quest to understand human nature. Hume (1740/1985) wrote that “reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them” (p. 462). On the other hand, observers from Plato to Freud believed it imperative for reason to command the passions in order to avoid wreck and ruin.
This depiction of tension served academic psychologists well through the early decades of the 20th century. 1 The view was appended from the 1960s onward by the notion that cognition is a necessary component for the subjective experience of emotion. Appearing in the 1980s was the more complex view that emotion may be a crucial linchpin in the generation of those cognitions that are essential for successful social functioning. Thus, the activation of cognitions relating to assessment, explanation, and planning may be directly instigated by negative affect; deficits in emotional functioning may impair social problem solving. The goal of this chapter is to consider these views not as contradictory theses but, as sequential developments toward a more complex yet satisfactory understanding of the interface between affect, cognition, and social functioning. Considered are two pathways through which affect can mobilize or demobilize cognition. Throughout the discussion, counterfactual thinking assumes a central position as a particularly clear example of compensatory cognition.
A tug of war between emotion and reason was an essential component of Freud's theorizing (e.g., 1920, 1923/1960). To him, emotion was the more basic, primary control mechanism, although a simple one. A crude homeostatic rule (termed the pleasure principle) governed behavior to the extent that pleasure was sought and pain was avoided. This control mechanism was capable of steering simple organisms to success under many circumstances, but situated within the complexity of human civilization, it could often be “inefficient and even highly dangerous” (Freud, 1920, p. 278). Reason, therefore, exerted a controlling force over emotion, such that it “demands and carries into effect the postponement of satisfaction…” (p. 278). For example, drives toward instant gustatory and sexual gratification may lead to theft or rape. Such low-level passions, with potentially dangerous consequences for the individual and society as a whole, are restrained by the opposing forces of reason. This view echoes through much of Western literature: Impulsivity, lack of self-control, and submission to passion have been depicted, in works such as Hamlet and Macbeth, for example, as roads to ruin. Without appropriate rational restraint, unbridled passion could lead to self-destruction (Ellis, 1994). By contrast, Rousseau's Social Contract, the Romantic movement in 19th century art and literature, and 1960s North American hippie culture exalted the primacy of affect as the pathway to enlightenment, creativity, and healthy living. Regardless of which pole was deemed superior, these various perspectives were erected on a foundation that separated affect and cognition as polar opposites.
Such a view continues to play a role in psychology, particularly in light of advances in neuroanatomy. Basic emotions have been linked in part to the limbic system—a structure functionally and anatomically distinct from the frontal neocortex, the seat of considering, deciding, and planning. To some, the distinction between emotion and reason is further reified by functional analyses of brain anatomy (see LeDoux, 1995).