The daily work of lawyers involves making important decisions.  Many of these decisions can involve risk.  Anxiety, described as feelings of apprehension and tension, frequently exists in these decision contexts.  Some of this anxiety is irrelevant.  Cognitive skills alone do not provide all the tools necessary to navigate the anxiety-risk-decision mine field.  Emotional intelligence researchers recently reported about their investigation of the effect of incidental anxiety on risk taking.  Their study examined the ability to understand emotions and whether higher emotion-understanding ability can improve decision making.

Prior studies have shown that effective emotion perception ability associates with successful negotiation results and effective leadership and emotion regulation ability associates with improved social relationships.  This research addresses a gap in the current body of knowledge about the benefits of a different emotional intelligence ability – emotion understanding.

The researchers theorized that higher emotion-understanding equips a person to sort through and minimize the effects of carry-over anxiety in risk-taking decisions.  They found that higher emotion-understanding ability limits the effects of incidental anxiety.  People with lower emotion-understanding ability do not correctly identify causes of anxiety in decision contexts.  Higher emotion-understanding ability provides a benefit to the decision-maker by enabling the person with higher ability to determine the relevance of emotions to current decisions.

The researchers utilized an ability model of emotional intelligence.  They used the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT), which assesses the four (4) branch [perception; facilitating thought; understanding; regulating] model of ability-based emotional intelligence.  Emotional intelligence as assessed under this model is “the ability to perceive emotions, to access and generate emotions so as to assist thought, to understand emotions and emotional knowledge, and to regulate emotions so as to promote emotional and intellectual growth.”  This allows a person to “think and plan by taking emotions into consideration”.  Emotion-understanding ability, a core dimension of the ability model, pertains to the ability to analyze the cause and effect relations between events and emotions.  This ability involves both forward analysis, i.e. predicting future emotions based on current events, and backward analysis, i.e. identifying which past events elicited current emotions.

Simply put, people who let the effects of their emotions get the best of them may not have their optimal ability to sort through and eventually discount anxiety unrelated to the current decision.  They may not make their best risk assessment.  The scientific name for this phenomenon is the affect heuristic.  Emotion understanding ability, the researchers theorized, helps people discount the emotion effects of environmental factors unrelated to current decisions.  There is a negative side to this.  Incidental anxiety causes people to be extra careful and want to avoid risk.  This state of heightened vigilance correlates with self-preservation and preservation of resources.

This research did not involve lawyers or any legal service environment. However, lawyers should not have to engage in too many mental gymnastics to realize how the core findings of this research can possibly extend to their work and their relationships at home and work. More particularly, the discussion can extend to trial lawyers. For lawyers, emotion-understanding ability can relate to discounting the anxiety related to the car accident you had on the way to court during morning rush hour and knowing when to go for the jugular vein [great cross-examination] or when to hold back and not play with a dead fish [not great cross-examination] during your cross-examination of a core witness.

The researchers conducted two experiments.  They tested their prediction that individuals with lower emotion-understanding ability would show more pronounced effects of incidental anxiety than counterparts who had higher emotion-understanding ability.  Their findings supported their prediction.  In their second experiment, they examined the mechanism of of how this ability works.  They measured cognitive ability in the second experiment to determine if it dampened the effect of incidental anxiety on risk taking.  The statistical analyses indicated that the role of emotion-understanding ability occurred independently of cognitive ability.  Overall, the results showed that emotion-understanding ability limits the effects of anxiety on risk taking.  Persons with higher emotion-understanding ability have less difficulty becoming aware of the intimate connections between events and emotions and which emotions related to incidental anxiety have no relevance to current decisions involving risk.

Lawyers have emotional lives.  Emotions affect the practice of law.    Those with less emotion-understanding ability relative to others may allow incidental anxiety to derail them in executing the most appropriate decision making strategy.  By falling prey to their emotions, these lawyers may give their opponents an additional lever to pull in front of a jury or at the settlement table.  This research has practical implications for lawyers.  “Debiasing the effect of incidental anxiety on risk taking is important because individuals may adopt an overly safe strategy if irrelevant feelings of anxiety influence their decisions.”  Researchers have developed interventions to help students build their emotion vocabulary and link feelings to real-world events.  These programs educate people on how to increase their emotion-understanding ability so that they can better identify the sources of their anxiety and reduce the effects of irrelevant anxiety on decisions involving risk.  For some lawyers, those with lower emotion-understanding ability, this may make a difference between piercing the jugular, and stopping your cross-examination, or playing with a dead fish by asking one too many questions just to be “safe”.  Who wants to stink?

Reference:  YYip, J., & Cote, S. (2012). The Emotionally Intelligent Decision Maker: Emotion-Understanding Ability Reduces the Effect of Incidental Anxiety on Risk Taking Psychological Science, 24 (1), 48-55 DOI: 10.1177/0956797612450031.  The personal webpage of the lead author, Dr. Jeremy Yip, PhD, Post-Doctoral Fellow at Yale University, including a link to the article’s manuscript, can be accessed here.  The personal webpage of co-author Dr. Stéphane Côté, Professor of Organizational Behaviour & HR Management, Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto, which also includes a link to the research article, can be accessed here.

Image Credits: Face of anxiety here

Thank you. Please visit again soon. See you next time.  Dan DeFoe JD MS – Adlitem Solutions | Organization Development for Professional Services Firms and the Legal Profession: People. Projects. Practices | | | Blog –

Credentials, Caveats, and Services.  Adlitem Solutions provides EI-based organization development interventions.  Owner and lead consultant, Dan DeFoe, JD, MS, a working lawyer with over 20 years experience, also has a MS degree in organizational development psychology.  Dan is educationally qualified/certified to purchase, administer, interpret, and provide confidential feedback to clients about the results from the leading scientifically validated assessments, including the EQ-i 2.0 and the MSCEIT (See EI assessments) emotional intelligence assessments.  The results obtained are not designed to provide and do not provide a medical or psychological or mental health diagnosis. The EQ-i 2.0, MSCEIT, or any other similar assessment, should be used consistent with the publisher’s stipulations and all applicable legal and ethical principles.  Hiring entities should never use emotional intelligence assessment results as a sole determiner of candidate hiring, job termination, employment discipline, and any other occupational or job-related decisions. Training, coaching, and experience can facilitate development of emotional intelligence for personal and professional growth and development. Consumers should consult an educationally-qualified or certified provider of the desired emotional intelligence assessment.

Law Firms and Lawyers.  Adlitem Solutions specializes in providing custom emotional intelligence and related interventions for lawyers, law firms, and other professional service providers and their organizations.  Managing partners and career/professional development directors or officers have important important choices to make in the realm of EI.  Let Adlitem Solutions help you and your firm become informed consumers about emotional intelligence and EI assessments so that you can see through the fog, make reasoned decisions about EI solutions appropriate for you and your organization, navigate successfully through otherwise sometimes deceptive, rough, and treacherous waters of EI interventions, and help you and your organization to be in the best position possible to obtain your desired return on investment and EI benefits.  Thank again and see you soon.  Dan DeFoe JD MS – Adlitem Solutions |

Interested in more information about EI, Lawyers, and the Legal Profession?  Please see these prior posts on Psycholawlogy:

Emotional Intelligence – A Necessary Tool For 21st Century Lawyering

Emotional Intelligence, Lawyers, and Empathy

Emotional Intelligence and Legal Dream Teams

Emotion Recognition, Eavesdropping On Feelings, and Workplace Interventions

Emotion Recognition Ability and Association With Greater Well-Being

Professional Development and Evidence-Based Emotional Intelligence Training

Emotional Competence Training and Important Benefits

Emotional Intelligence and Legal Talent Management

EI, Abe Lincoln, and Challenges & Possibilities for the 21st Century [ EI Bibliography ]

Saints or Evil Geniuses – Dark Side of EI?

EI and Lawyers – IQ vs. EQ

Dan DeFoe

Owner and Lead consultant at Adlitem Solutions
I'm an attorney with 20+ years of experience and have an MS degree in organizational development psychology. I provide normal personality and emotional intelligence assessments, assessment interpretation and feedback, and professional development planning and training activities for lawyers, judges, other legal services providers, and their organizations.

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