OPINION11 August 2015

Bias in the spotlight: the hot-cold empathy gap


The hot-cold empathy gap is the tendency to underestimate how our preferences will change when in either a ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ emotional state.

A ‘cold’ state is where we are calm, collected, sensible and rational, while a ‘hot’ state is where we are emotional, excited, angry, hungry, in pain or aroused in some way. As our state of mind changes, something we might previously have found unappealing might become irresistible. This is known as going from a cold state to a hot state.

We’ve all had the ‘What was I thinking?’ sense of horror and disbelief when we retrospectively (and in a cold state) examine things we did in a hot state. A typical example is the ‘morning after’ when we vow to never drink again. Hot-cold empathy gaps also explain why going to the supermarket on an empty stomach (a hot state) can cause us to buy far too much.

A well-known experiment dreamt up by George Loewenstein and Dan Ariely tested the sexual preferences of male students in both an aroused ‘hot’ state and in a ‘cold’ state. In general, they found that opinions about and predictions of sexual behaviour varied considerably depending on whether an individual was in the heat of the moment or not, showing a desire for far riskier behaviour (eg not using a condom) in a hot state.

Test results on the students’ sexual preferences varied hugely depending on whether they were in a ‘cold, rational, unaroused’ state or, let’s say, a little more excited. When in a cold state, the majority stated they would always use a condom, would never consider date rape, were not interested in a threesome, underage sex, spanking, tying their partners up, having sex with an animal etc. But in a ‘hot, excited’ state, the answers men gave were considerably more adventurous.

For example, when asked in a non-aroused state if they would like to tie up their partners during sex only 47% said they would. In an aroused state they were a lot more enthusiastic about the prospect with 75% agreeing that this would be a good idea.

Incredibly (worryingly?), the idea of sex with animals was over twice as appealing in an aroused state. Overall, for the 19 questions about sexual preferences, students’ predictions about their propensity to indulge in risky or more adventurous sexual behaviour were 72% higher when aroused than they had predicted when they were in a cold state.

This bias is a great example of how context is king and how behavioural desires can vary wildly (and a little scarily based on the above example) between our hot and cold states of mind.

Crawford Hollingworth is founder of The Behavioural Architects