Why We Sometimes Make Decisions That Mystify Us In a fit of anger or in the grip of fear, many of us make decisions that we never would have anticipated. This week, we look at situations that make us strangers to ourselves — and why it's so difficult to remember what these "hot states" feel like once the moment is over.
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In The Heat Of The Moment: How Intense Emotions Transform Us

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In The Heat Of The Moment: How Intense Emotions Transform Us

In The Heat Of The Moment: How Intense Emotions Transform Us

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SHANKAR VEDANTAM (HOST): From NPR, this is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Morgan Smalley (ph) has been performing with an improv comedy troupe since she was in college.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MORGAN SMALLEY (ACTOR): Look at me on Page 4. Somehow, my tongue left my mouth.

(LAUGHTER)

VEDANTAM: After dozens of performances, she's learned that you need more than a creative mind to get the audience laughing. You also need to be a good listener. That means not just hearing what people say; you have to pick up on everything that surrounds the words.

SMALLEY: Like, let's say I came out and instead of saying happy birthday, like, with a happy face, I could be like, happy birthday and clearly that means that I'm upset. And then we go from there. Like, why am I mad at them? Is it that when it was my birthday last time, they treated me like garbage - things like that.

VEDANTAM: Morgan prides herself on being able to pick up on subtext, on being able to read between the lines, behind the lines. When she does that well, she can hear the results immediately.

(LAUGHTER)

SMALLEY: When you get the laugh, it's just, like, such as self-esteem boost (laughter). It's, like, instant validation.

VEDANTAM: And instantly exhilarating. That's how she felt at a recent show.

SMALLEY: There's one thing I did. I was like a slug onstage. I, like, got on the floor and I, like, acted like a slug. I inchwormed across the stage.

VEDANTAM: Her fellow actors lit up. The audience exploded in laughter. When Morgan walked out of the theater that night, she was practically bursting.

SMALLEY: I just needed to do something with my energy. Like, I didn't want to just go home and, like, go to sleep.

VEDANTAM: Just then...

SMALLEY: This guy, like, walked out of nowhere.

VEDANTAM: He was carrying a tripod and a bunch of other stuff.

SMALLEY: Like, a sack with stuff in it. And he was just like, does anybody want to buy this tripod? And I was like, yeah, I want to buy this tripod. I think I could get a lot of use out of a tripod. I was like, how much? And he said, $25. And also, I'm going to give you this $50 Amazon gift card. And I was like, OK, a tripod and a $50 Amazon gift card for $25. Wow, this guy is so cool. I'm totally going to do that.

VEDANTAM: The high she felt from inchworming across the stage just got even higher. Morgan walked with the guy to an ATM.

SMALLEY: I got my money in 20s, so I had to either give him $20 or $40.

VEDANTAM: She asked if she could give him $20 rather than the full $25.

SMALLEY: He was like, you give me whatever you want to give me. And I was like, you're so cool. I'm going to give you $40. And I gave him $40. And then he gave me, like, a shoe box full of other random things. And I was like, he's so cool.

VEDANTAM: Morgan felt like she had hit the jackpot.

SMALLEY: There was a loofah in there. There was a bunch of pens. And I got really excited about the pens because - I don't know - I just love pens. There was, like, stress balls in there. There was, like, a diamond cleaner. I've never heard of a diamond cleaner before, but it's got, like, bristles at the end and, like, this juice on the inside. What else is in there? Arts and craft supplies. And he also threw in a pair of women shoes. They weren't my size, but I was like, I could sell those. This is awesome.

VEDANTAM: Morgan couldn't wait to show her roommates the loot. She burst into her apartment and told them about her unbelievable good fortune.

SMALLEY: They were like, what is wrong with you (laughter)? They were like, OK, what this guy did is he took this stuff out of cars that weren't locked, and then he sold it to you for money. I was like, no. No, he was so cool. No, he was so nice. He said he was moving. He was getting rid of the shoes. He said they were his girlfriend's shoes. He said he was distancing himself from technology. That's why he couldn't use the gift card. And he said his aunt gave him that gift card and that's why he didn't want it. And slowly, like, my universe just, like, unravelled. And I was like, no. I just bought a bunch of stolen stuff.

VEDANTAM: Why did Morgan, who prides herself on being able to read subtext and situations, fail to see what seemed obvious to her friends?

SMALLEY: I like to think of myself as, like, a pretty logical person. But in that moment, I didn't have any logic. Like, I wasn't questioning the situation. I was just being super impulsive, and so in that way, I think I was being a pretty different person.

VEDANTAM: It's as if there are two people within Morgan and neither understands the other. Logical Morgan thinks impulsive Morgan made a glaring mistake, but impulsive Morgan is just as bewildered by logical Morgan. Who would pass up a deal like this? This week on HIDDEN BRAIN, we explore how certain situations cause us to become strangers to ourselves.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And I definitely didn't maintain cool and calm.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: My entire body froze.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I was just an absolute blubbering mess.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I became filled with anger.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: And I just kind of lost it.

VEDANTAM: And we look at the deep psychological mystery that occurs during these moments. No matter how many times we discover the strangers living inside us, the next time always catches us by surprise.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIDAN MARK LAVERTY AND ANDREW ERIC HALFORD'S "SAY YOU WILL")

VEDANTAM: Quick heads up - this episode contains stories about sex, sex work and sexual harassment.

The Pittsburgh area is home to some of the steepest hills in America. George Loewenstein used to run these hills every week with his friend Jules (ph).

GEORGE LOEWENSTEIN (PROFESSOR, CARNEGIE MELLON UNIVERSITY): We would leave our offices and run down through the park all the way down to the river. And then there is a town called Greenfield with a very, very big hill.

VEDANTAM: It's so steep that stairs are built into the hill to make it easier to climb.

LOEWENSTEIN: We would get absolutely exhausted on the way up, and we'd kind of be egging one another on and be feeling very, very miserable.

VEDANTAM: On the way up to the peak, all he could think of was the pain. But moments later...

LOEWENSTEIN: It was all forgotten within maybe 10, 20 seconds.

VEDANTAM: The more George thought about it, the more it seemed like a puzzle. As he was climbing the hill, the idea of relief was inconceivable. The pain felt endless. But the moment he crested the hill, the pain faded so quickly that in his memory, it hadn't been so bad. A few days later, he would lace up his shoes and go running with Jules again. It occurred to George that this gap in perception was psychologically important and applied to more than just the pain of running.

LOEWENSTEIN: I realized that when you're not in pain or cold or experiencing a powerful emotion like anger or fear, it's very difficult to imagine yourself in that situation.

VEDANTAM: There is a reason this happens.

LOEWENSTEIN: Emotions completely transform us as people. So when we're in one emotional status, it's as if we're a different person than we are when we're in a different emotional state.

VEDANTAM: George has thought about this phenomenon a lot. As a professor of psychology and economics at Carnegie Mellon University, he has conducted dozens of studies to understand how our emotional states affect us. One of his earliest studies involved ice water.

LOEWENSTEIN: My colleague wanted to be the guinea pig for the studies, and you're supposed to put your hand in the cold water for, like, a minute. He put his hand on the cold water, and 20 seconds later, he pulled it out. And then a minute later, he said, that's ridiculous, I can do it because he couldn't remember the pain anymore...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LOEWENSTEIN: ...Expecting fully that he would be able to sustain the minute in the cold water. And then about 20 seconds later, he pulled his hand out again.

VEDANTAM: It was just like what George experienced on his runs. As soon as his colleague pulled his hand out of the freezing water, it was like he was struck with amnesia. George came up with a name for what was happening - the hot-cold empathy gap.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Usually when we think about empathy, we think about how we relate to other people. George's insight is that we regularly lack empathy for ourselves when we are in a different emotional state. When we're angry, we can't imagine being calm. When we are tranquil, it's hard to imagine being so angry that we could hurt someone. The hot-cold empathy gap can also be caused by physiological states. When we are really hungry, all our resolutions about healthy eating evaporate. When we are full, it's easy to forget what it felt like to be hungry. We imagine that we will stick to salads the next day. The hot and cold in the hot-cold empathy gap are a shorthand.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: They describe strong emotional and physiological states. When we're in a cold state, we're logical, deliberate. When we're in a hot state, our emotions overtake us. Morgan Smalley was in a hot state when a young man sold her a sack of random stuff. In her excitement, her skepticism failed to kick in. Another familiar hot state - sexual arousal.

IRENE PEMBERTON (GUEST): Can I talk about that on NPR? Like, I don't know (laughter).

VEDANTAM: The answer is yes. So parents of young children, here's your warning.

When Irene Pemberton (ph) was in middle school, she devoted as much time to sex ed as her classmates may have spent hanging out at the mall. Every Sunday evening for about a year, her parents drove her to a Unitarian church for a two-hour session.

PEMBERTON: We learned everything, you know. Like, they had, like, the condoms, you know, putting on bananas kind of deal.

VEDANTAM: Irene's family also spoke, frankly, about sex, like the time in high school when Irene got an IUD and had a conversation about it with her mom.

PEMBERTON: I just remember her saying that I still have to use condoms and, you know, to still be careful.

VEDANTAM: In other words, Irene received an unusually candid, comprehensive sex education. All those hours sitting on church couches and talking to her family made her confident that she'd make good decisions when it came to sex.

PEMBERTON: I was like, well, obviously. Obviously, I would use condoms, like, if I didn't, like, know the person very well and, like, we're not monogamous or anything. And I probably was like, I would do it every time.

VEDANTAM: And she did. That is, until she met one special suitor.

PEMBERTON: He's just kind of like a greasy guy that, like, wears, like, overalls with no underwear and, like - so I think it was cool. I thought - I was pretty charmed by that.

VEDANTAM: Wait. How did you know that he wears overalls with no underwear?

PEMBERTON: Oh, yeah. That was later. That's my take on him now.

VEDANTAM: Here's what happened before Irene figured out what was or wasn't beneath his overalls.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PEMBERTON: We, like, hung out, had dinner and stuff and then, like, go back to his place. And so I'm not the type of person that is just, like, carrying around condoms all the time. And he is the type person that never uses condoms. That was really annoying for me. But I was just like - like, the conversation did not happen until we were already getting intimate.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: This is what all her years of sex ed training had prepared her for.

PEMBERTON: I'm like, oh, you don't have condoms. OK.

VEDANTAM: In hindsight, Irene realizes this was exactly the situation that called for condoms.

PEMBERTON: Definitely the type of people that never use condoms are probably the type of people that you should use condoms with, in my opinion at least, because they don't ever use condoms.

VEDANTAM: But in that moment, a different line of reasoning went through her head.

PEMBERTON: I can either choose to not have intercourse or just not have any sex at all - that was not what I really wanted to do. It didn't sound as fun - or like do something else sexual that still just, like, would not be my top choice or just have unprotected sex. And so I was like, this is going to be OK, like, just this one time. And it's like not a big deal and it'll be fine. And so then I did that.

LOEWENSTEIN: It's a perfect illustration of an empathy gap.

VEDANTAM: This is psychologist George Loewenstein again.

LOEWENSTEIN: When you listen to her description of what happened, it's a very kind of clinical description because when she was talking to you, she wasn't in an aroused state. So she was talking to you as if she was really making a decision when probably in the heat of the moment, she was just very kind of swept up in the course of things.

VEDANTAM: Irene wasn't thinking back to what her mom said about condoms. She also wasn't thinking about what she'd just learned in class on the history of the AIDS epidemic. Hot-state Irene didn't say what cold-state Irene would have predicted she would say.

PEMBERTON: No one has to have sex. So I would have just said, OK, another time.

VEDANTAM: I asked Irene if she felt pressured into having sex.

PEMBERTON: I really wanted to do it, so I feel like it was fully my choice. It was a good time. Like, I felt like I was pretty satisfied with the results aside from me feeling like, jeez, I shouldn't have done the, you know, unprotected sex part.

VEDANTAM: Once the night was over, it wasn't long before coolheaded Irene reappeared. She was reading for class about the risks of unprotected sex and HIV.

PEMBERTON: So, like, my brain immediately is like, oh, my God. I have made a mistake. This is the one time you have unprotected sex. Like, it could be, like, really bad or something like that.

VEDANTAM: Three days after their first date, she went out again with the same guy. Before the date, Irene clearly told herself what would happen and what would not.

PEMBERTON: Going into it, I was like, not tonight. I'm not going to - I'm not going to have unprotected sex tonight. And then I go and hang out with him and I'm really distracted.

VEDANTAM: The problem was cold-state Irene had not anticipated how hot-state Irene would act again.

PEMBERTON: I still did not bring condoms, and I made the same choice, although that time I was like, well, you know, that was, like, three days ago and nothing bad has happened yet from that, so maybe just one more time.

VEDANTAM: Just like Morgan Smalley can't understand why she trusted a guy selling random things on the street, Irene doesn't recognize the person who made these impulsive decisions.

PEMBERTON: I was telling my friend about this, and I'm like, I don't know that girl (laughter). Like, I don't know her.

VEDANTAM: George Loewenstein is sympathetic to Irene. Sexual arousal can lead people to do things they would never expect, downplay risks, rationalize behavior and come up with excuses, things that make people wake up the next day and go, oh, no, what did I do?

Beyond having unprotected sex with a date, sexual arousal can also drive more troubling behavior. Years ago, George ran experiments where men were given different scenarios to imagine. In one study...

LOEWENSTEIN: They went on a date with a woman named Susan (ph) and things were going well on the date. At some point, they're kind of on the verge of getting into more serious physical things. And Susan says she wants to stop. And we ask people, what would you do in this situation?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: The studies put some men into a state of sexual arousal. In one experiment, the men were shown pictures of nude women. In all the studies, a control group featured men who were not sexually aroused. George found that sexually aroused men were more likely to say they would encourage a woman to drink to increase her willingness to have sex. They were more likely to say they would be willing to slip a drug into her drink. They also said that if she resisted them, they would be less likely to take no for an answer. Did men realize how their behavior changed as a result of the intervention? In one experiment, George had men get sexually aroused but then brought them back to the lab the following day. These men had time to cool down.

LOEWENSTEIN: We actually got a surprising result in that condition.

VEDANTAM: The surprising result was that the men in this condition didn't just say they would respect the woman's boundaries. They indicated they would be even more mindful of consent than the men who had not been aroused. George doesn't know exactly why they got this result, but he has a guess.

LOEWENSTEIN: They can't remember that, how aroused they were, so they think, oh, you know, I saw these scantily clad women, and I wasn't very aroused. So probably I'd behave really well on the date.

VEDANTAM: George and other researchers have repeatedly found that people are worse at predicting their behavior in a hot state after they've already experienced that hot state. These findings show the hot-cold empathy gap works in two directions across time. First, we're not great at predicting how we'll behave in a different emotional state.

LOEWENSTEIN: That's prospective empathy gap.

VEDANTAM: But we also have trouble understanding our actions in the past. Our memories are faulty, especially when it comes to how intense feelings can overwhelm us. Think about George's colleague, who couldn't remember how painful it felt just one minute earlier to have his hand submerged in icy water.

LOEWENSTEIN: So that's a retrospective empathy gap.

VEDANTAM: Irene's story shows both these gaps. Before she was aroused, Irene was certain she would apply everything she had been taught by church leaders about unsafe sex. But soon after her date with the overalls guy, cold-state Irene could no longer put herself back into the shoes of hot-state Irene.

PEMBERTON: I don't know that girl (laughter).

VEDANTAM: This incomprehension led her to feel confident about how she would behave on her next date. She forgot that hot-state Irene would not be able to access her cold-state logic. This is true not just for sexual arousal. It's true for hunger, pain, addiction, depression.

LOEWENSTEIN: If you are not depressed and your friend tells you, oh, I feel really depressed, you might say, oh, that's really terrible. I feel really sorry for you. But if you're not depressed yourself, it's really very, very difficult to imagine what they're going through.

VEDANTAM: This gets at one of the most troubling consequences of the hot-cold empathy gap. Not only does it keep us from understanding ourselves, it can keep us from understanding other people.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Feelings like hunger, thirst and anger can cause us to act impulsively. When we are in these hot states, we can say and do and think things that we would never have imagined possible even minutes earlier. But sometimes hot states don't get us fired up. They paralyze us. This can be true for emotions like embarrassment or shame or fear. Nina Fuller knows this well. In her work as a psychotherapist, she often helps patients with these issues. She employs an unusual technique.

NINA FULLER (PSYCHOTHERAPIST): I work with horses and clients.

VEDANTAM: One way she does this is to bring patients into a horse pen and have them interact with the animal. Nina pays close attention to how client and horse move together.

FULLER: Just watching the way a client is leading a horse, like, instantly, I'll be able to say you have issues with control because they're holding the horse way too tight or if they're behind and being led by the horse. And we'll discuss about how they go through the world being led.

VEDANTAM: Nina remembers what it was like when she started working with a client a few years ago.

FULLER: And the horse is eating the grass. And I said, you know, just yank a little bit on the line, pull the horse's head up and start walking. And she pulls a little on the line, and she looks at me and she says, the horse doesn't want to go. I'm afraid she won't like me. I said, the horse is not judging you. I guarantee you. So she pulls a little harder; nothing happens.

VEDANTAM: Nina goes over and pulls the line just a little bit.

FULLER: And the horse's head comes up and it's like, oh, OK. And I walk around, and she sees that nothing bad happened. The horse isn't mad.

VEDANTAM: The woman took back the line and started walking. The silhouette of the woman's body had changed. Just as Nina instructed, she held her back and shoulders straight. She was in command of her body. The horse walked with her.

FULLER: And the smile on her face was one of accomplishment, like, wow, this 1,200-pound horse is walking with me.

VEDANTAM: That story is especially meaningful to Nina because there was one moment many decades ago when she did not act assertively, when she was frozen in place by embarrassment and shock.

FULLER: I really needed this horse therapy back then (laughter).

VEDANTAM: Nina was in her early 20s studying art at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Both she and her husband needed part-time jobs to pay for school. She found a listing for a job in the classifieds section of the newspaper.

FULLER: I saw this ad that said be a masseuse - no experience necessary.

VEDANTAM: It was a way to earn money, and she'd get trained on the job. Nina called the number. She was given a date and time to show up.

FULLER: I put my hair into little braids and drove myself to this place and walked in.

VEDANTAM: The space Nina entered looked like the waiting room of a dentist's office. Nina checked in.

FULLER: And somebody told me to take my hair out of the braids. I'm like, why would I do that, you know? And they were like, well - I remember they said, you know, these guys that come here, they're going home to their wives. And they have high, stressful jobs, and they want to relax before they go home. I'm like, all right, you know.

VEDANTAM: There were other women in the room. They looked about the same age as her. The women were asked to line up side by side. Behind them, there were doors to massage rooms.

FULLER: I figured, OK, the guys come in, they pick the women and go into the room and get a massage.

VEDANTAM: A man wearing a suit came in and chose Nina. She walked into one of the rooms with him. He took his clothes off.

FULLER: Then I gave him a massage. I mean, how would I even know how to do that? I don't know. I just figured what - you know, made it up as I went along.

VEDANTAM: That on-the-job training she expected to get never happened.

FULLER: And then he rolled over. And I'm alone in this room with this guy. And he rolled over, and he had an erection. And I was just - what? I mean, it wasn't until that point that I thought, oh, what have I gotten myself into, you know? Like, what the hell?

VEDANTAM: Nina says the man made it clear to her that he expected more than a massage.

FULLER: He must have said, this is why I'm here. This is what you do. I mean, I think I was probably thinking, how could I not have known that? How - what? You know, what - oh.

VEDANTAM: Nina gave in. She rubbed the man's penis until he ejaculated.

FULLER: This is the thing that I've wondered for all these years. Like, if there was an essay question or there was a multiple-choice question and it was like, OK, this happened and these are the choices - you stay and you do what that man wants; you say, no, I'm not doing that. What are you - nuts? You leave, you get - walk out, get in your car and drive home. I would have probably have checked I'd walk out and I'd get in my car and I drive home - definitely. But that's not what I did.

VEDANTAM: Nina not only didn't drive off, she stayed on the job.

FULLER: I completed my shift, which is the part that's like, what in me, what in my brain - I mean, what in my whole being made me think I needed to complete that shift? I don't know that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Nina says she doesn't remember whether she gave any more massages that day. The rest of that evening is a blank. But the one thing she does remember is that she stayed for the whole shift. I asked her why she felt compelled to stay when she herself would have predicted she would do otherwise.

FULLER: I think I was just embarrassed to think that I had - didn't know what was going on.

VEDANTAM: And so getting your bag and walking out would have meant what, would have said what?

FULLER: That I had put myself in a situation that I didn't - that I had no idea what was going on when I got there.

VEDANTAM: And that would mean what?

FULLER: Maybe that would mean that I was stupid, you know? Maybe I didn't want to appear as naive and dumb as I felt at that moment. Like, everyone else that was there knew what they were doing and why they were there. Yeah, maybe I didn't want to - I don't know. Maybe I didn't want to appear stupid.

JULIE WOODZICKA (PROFESSOR, WASHINGTON AND LEE UNIVERSITY): I think that's a very common response that people say, yeah, I went through with it because, clearly, I should've asked more on the front end and I didn't and I didn't want to look like I didn't know what I was doing, so you just go through with it.

VEDANTAM: This is psychologist Julie Woodzicka.

WOODZICKA: I am a professor at Washington and Lee University.

VEDANTAM: Julie has spent years studying how people react in situations like the one Nina found herself in. Many of these people ask themselves the same questions. Why didn't I speak up? Why didn't I protest? Why did I go through with it? Some of Julie's earliest thoughts on sexual harassment and abuse came together when she was a college student. Like millions of others, she witnessed the tectonic event in 1991 that brought the term sexual harassment into popular use. It was the Senate testimony of law professor Anita Hill. She claimed Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her while he was her supervisor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANITA HILL (PROFESSOR, BRANDEIS UNIVERSITY): After a brief discussion of work, he would turn the conversation to a discussion of sexual matters.

VEDANTAM: Before an all-male Judiciary Committee, she alleged he had made sexual advances and told explicit jokes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HILL: He commented on what I was wearing in terms of whether it made me more or less sexually attractive. He talked about pornographic materials. On several occasions, Thomas told me graphically of his own sexual prowess.

VEDANTAM: The nation was rapt and divided.

WOODZICKA: I remember really, really vividly people saying, like, no, she's lying. She's go to be lying.

VEDANTAM: There was one specific detail that led many people to that conclusion. After Anita Hill allegedly experienced harassment, she was given an opportunity to work for Clarence Thomas again. She took it. During the hearings, Senator Alan Simpson pressed her on this point.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALAN SIMPSON (FORMER R-WY, SEN): If what you say this man said to you occurred, why in God's name when he left his position of power or status or authority over you and you left it in 1983, why in God's name would you ever speak to a man like that the rest of your life?

HILL: That's a very good question. And I'm sure that I cannot answer that to your satisfaction. That is one of the things that I have tried to do today. I have suggested that I was afraid of retaliation. I was afraid of damage to my professional life. And I believe you - that you have to understand that this response - and that's one of the things that I have come to understand about harassment - that this response, this kind of response is not atypical. And I can't explain. It takes an expert in psychology to explain how that can happen. But it can happen 'cause it happened to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: By the early 2000s, Julie had become one of those experts in psychology. She and her collaborator, Marianne LaFrance, found themselves talking about how people reacted to Anita Hill's testimony.

WOODZICKA: We noticed a lot of people said, I'd never would have responded that way if I had been sexually harassed. I would've - like, I would've told him to stop, and I probably would have left the job. I definitely wouldn't have followed him to another job.

VEDANTAM: Julie realized some of the most important questions about sexual harassment had not been studied at all.

WOODZICKA: There was a lot on how women remembered responding, and there was a good amount on how they anticipated they would respond. But there was nothing at that point on looking at how women actually responded.

VEDANTAM: Julie set out to understand how women react to sexual harassment as it's happening. In the first phase of the study...

WOODZICKA: We had roughly 200 women come into the lab, and we gave them a scenario that they needed to read through.

VEDANTAM: Here's the scenario - you're interviewing for a job as a research assistant.

WOODZICKA: The interviewer is in his mid-30s. You're in an office alone with him. And, you know, after initial greeting, he starts asking you some questions.

VEDANTAM: They're standard interview questions until this one.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Do you have a boyfriend?

VEDANTAM: A few questions later...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Do people find you desirable?

VEDANTAM: The interview continues. Then he asks...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Do you think it's important for women to wear bras to work?

VEDANTAM: Remember, this is a job interview. The women who participated in Julie's study imagined the situation and were asked to describe how they thought they'd react. The response was overwhelming.

WOODZICKA: About 90% of the women thought that they would respond in a very assertive and sometimes aggressive way. So about 60% said that they would confront assertively, that they would say to him, that's inappropriate. You shouldn't ask those questions. About 30% said that they would leave the interview or that - they'd often say, I'd tell him off or I'd slap him and then leave.

VEDANTAM: Besides confronting the interviewer and leaving the interview, many participants said they do something else.

WOODZICKA: Sixty-eight percent of all respondents said that they would refuse to answer at least one of those three questions.

VEDANTAM: The women were not only asked to predict what they'd do but to describe the emotion they would feel.

WOODZICKA: A lot of women, about 30%, said that they would feel anger.

VEDANTAM: Women who predicted they'd be angry were more likely to say they'd confront the interviewer. Anger was galvanizing.

WOODZICKA: We were interested in fear, too. How many people thought they'd be a little bit afraid? And only 2% of people said that they would be afraid. And fear was not correlated with confronting.

VEDANTAM: So this doesn't sound like Nina Fuller at all. These women were all assertive, angry, indignant. They were sure they would tell the man off. In the second part of the study, Julie set up an experiment to test whether women actually did what they forecast they would do.

WOODZICKA: We had 50 women who were applying for a job.

VEDANTAM: The job was a research assistant in a lab.

WOODZICKA: The women would come into the interview and we had covert cameras set up.

VEDANTAM: Their interviewer was a man in his mid-30s.

WOODZICKA: He asked those three questions.

VEDANTAM: The same three questions from the first phase of the study.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Do you have a boyfriend? Do people find you desirable? Do you think it's important for women to wear bras to work?

VEDANTAM: What was different here was that the women weren't imagining a job interview; they were in a job interview or so they believed. So how did they react? Did 90% respond assertively, tell the interviewer off, slap him and walk out?

WOODZICKA: Nobody left.

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WOODZICKA: Every single person answered every single question.

VEDANTAM: Some women did speak up but generally not until the end of the interview.

WOODZICKA: Thirty-six percent of the participants at that point said very politely, yeah, I was just wondering, you know, why did you ask about me being desirable?

VEDANTAM: There was another important difference between the women's responses in the two parts of the study.

WOODZICKA: So you remember in the anticipated study, most women responded that they'd be angry, very few fearful. And it was the flip in this study. So we found that many women reported feeling afraid in that situation, and anger was not very much reported.

VEDANTAM: While the women who imagined being sexually harassed thought they'd be angry and that anger would propel them to act, women who are face to face with a harasser, in fact, experienced fear. There's clearly an aspect of the study that should make you uneasy. Researchers brought in unsuspecting women for what they thought were job interviews and then subjected them to harassment to see how they would behave. Julie went through a rigorous ethical clearance to conduct the study. After it was over, she debriefed the volunteers and gave them the option of pulling their data. What explains the enormous gap between what women think they do and what they actually do?

WOODZICKA: When we're asked to anticipate how we would respond, we don't take into account, one, how our emotional state in that moment - especially if it's a highly charged moment - will impact our behavior.

VEDANTAM: We're not thinking about how being in a hot state might affect us.

WOODZICKA: We also don't understand very well, I think, the strength of the situation and just what would be the cost of leaving? How would people receive us? They're not thinking about how they're going to be feeling. They're not thinking about even really the other people in the situation. They're just thinking about what would they do.

VEDANTAM: It's like wanting to build a house and showing up to the groundbreaking with only a sketch, a sketch that doesn't take into consideration any of the context or any of the obstacles - like the engineering requirements or the zoning laws or the funding. If you had outlined the scenario that Nina Fuller found herself in, she would have told you ahead of time that she would have walked out of the massage parlor. What she would not have been able to factor into her thinking was the change in her emotional state - her surprise, her fear, her shock - and how those emotions might have affected her ability to act.

WOODZICKA: You know, if you were to think about that, you would say, oh, I'd be so mad. I'd be so mad at that guy. Like, what's he thinking? But in actuality, she's alone in a room with a guy she doesn't really know, like, what this whole situation is, except that she's been hired to give a massage and she has no experience doing that. And she's probably feeling afraid. She's not feeling angry.

VEDANTAM: Wanting to confront someone turns out to be just one step in actually confronting someone. And it is not even the first step.

WOODZICKA: First, you have to interpret that something happened that actually is sexual harassment. Then, you have to interpret the event as confrontation-worthy. So is this event worthy of confrontation or is it really not that big of a deal? Then, you have to actually take responsibility to confront. Then, you have to decide - or you have to come up with different response options. What am I actually going to do? And then you actually have to do it. So when most people think about confrontation, they think about it being just one step. You know, I'm either going to confront or I'm not going to confront. I'm going to ask it - you know, someone to make it stop or I won't. But in actuality, it's five pretty separate big steps that you have to take to be able to confront at the end.

VEDANTAM: Listening to George Loewenstein and Julie Woodzicka made me think about sexual harassment prevention programs. Many of these programs try to address the abuse of power that drives so much sexual harassment. But many also ignore the hot-cold empathy gap. The advice given to participants is respect other people's boundaries. Don't say and do things you would later regret. People listening might think, sure, that's easy. They're in a cold state, and they can't imagine how sexual arousal can turn them into the kind of people who violate boundaries or make colleagues uneasy.

The training programs also tell potential victims and bystanders, don't be silent. Report problems. If you see something, say something. People listening think, of course, I would never be silent in a situation like that. They go back to their desks with the feeling that they know exactly how they would act in these situations.

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VEDANTAM: The hot-cold empathy gap doesn't just make us draw the wrong conclusions about our actions and motivations. It can make us unfairly judgmental toward others. We hear what someone else did, someone like Anita Hill, and think I would never have done that. I would have acted differently.

LOEWENSTEIN: It's very difficult to make sense of other people's behavior - people who are acting under the influence of emotions that you're not experiencing.

VEDANTAM: George Loewenstein says our unrealistic sense of how we would act is at the root of our failure to understand others. When we assess whether another person's actions are reasonable, we first imagine how we would behave in that situation. The problem is our perceptions are out of whack with reality. We think we'd be able to control an addiction or slog through pain or confront a harasser.

When we come back, we may never be able to avoid the hot-cold empathy gap. But there are ways to compensate for it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: I was like, I don't know if this is worth it. You know, my legs hurt. My body hurts. I just want to go home and go to sleep right now.

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VEDANTAM: All of us see and do things we would never anticipate saying and doing. When we're in the thrall of intense emotions, we are impulsive when we should be cautious. We freeze when we think we will be brave. When we look back on our behavior, we are often baffled because we have forgotten how we felt in the heat of the moment. Psychologist George Loewenstein calls this an empathy gap. We often can't relate to the other person we become in a different emotional state. We might think that one way to bridge this gap is to see how we behave when we are in the grip of an intense emotion. Surely, after we see how we act in one of these emotional states, we won't be as naive the next time around. We think experience functions like a powerful vaccine - once inoculated, forever protected.

LOEWENSTEIN: All my research suggests that experiencing something yourself does not provide any inoculation against the empathy gap.

VEDANTAM: If experience was a simple fix, George's colleague wouldn't have believed he'd be able to keep his hand in ice water the second time around. Irene would not have had unprotected sex with the no underwear, no condoms guy twice. Most of us don't even get to the point where we recognize how different our hot and cold selves are. But even if we did, that would not be enough to change our behavior. We have to develop the muscle memory to override our instincts in those states. George has found an effective way to do so - training.

LOEWENSTEIN: Well, I think what training often does is it diminishes the hot state. So, for example, when I started out in public speaking, I found it very, very painful, anxiety making. I would get dry mouth, things like that. And then the more I did it, the less miserable I found it. I still find radio interviews totally miserable.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

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VEDANTAM: There's an entire American institution devoted to bridging the hot-cold empathy gap in situations far more physically taxing than a radio interview. It's the Army. Military leaders have long understood that there is a way to get soldiers to perform well in battle. Put them in hot states and teach them through repetition to stifle their natural impulses.

ANASTASIA FISH (US ARMY): My name is Anastasia Fish (ph). I'm a second lieutenant in the United States Army, and I'm an armor officer.

VEDANTAM: On a February morning in 2019, Anastasia had her roommate drive her to Camp Darby in Georgia. As they approached the camp, they passed a black-and-yellow sign that Anastasia had seen her friends pose in front of in their Instagram photos. The sign read not for the weak or faint-hearted. It's a warning and a boast for Army Ranger School. The school puts recruits through a grueling training program. Graduates often go on to elite units and important assignments. On the first full day of training, Anastasia says she had to take a test.

FISH: You have two minutes to do 49 pushups. You have two minutes to do 59 situps. You have 40 minutes to run five miles, and then you have to do six pullups right afterwards.

VEDANTAM: In the weeks that followed, Anastasia had to drop from a rope into cold water and swim wearing her full uniform. She was kept awake for hours on end. She recalls a stretch of nine days where she only got 10 hours of sleep total. She was constantly distracted by hunger. We looked at some videos online of Army Ranger training. It's hard to believe human beings could survive those challenges.

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UNIDENTIFIED ARMY RANGER #1 (ARMY RANGER): Get in the water.

UNIDENTIFIED ARMY RANGER STUDENT (RANGER STUDENT): (Shouting) Ranger.

UNIDENTIFIED ARMY RANGER #1: Get back up on that log.

UNIDENTIFIED ARMY RANGER #2 (ARMY RANGER): (Unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED ARMY RANGER STUDENTS (ARMY RANGER STUDENTS): (Shouting) Rangers.

UNIDENTIFIED ARMY RANGER #2: One, two, three.

UNIDENTIFIED ARMY RANGER STUDENTS: (Shouting) Rangers.

VEDANTAM: All this suffering had a purpose - to put trainees like Anastasia into a hot state, even though her instructors called it something else.

FISH: As far as Ranger School goes, they like to use the term stress inoculation. So they create a lot of stress, and then they teach you how to live in that and how to cope with it.

VEDANTAM: The stressors were both physical and psychological. She was asked to oversee a dozen people in a simulated military mission. She had to organize a surprise attack.

FISH: At first, I was very nervous about it.

VEDANTAM: She had to force herself to calm down and think through what needed to be done.

FISH: I kind of learned how to take pieces of the task and effectively execute the pieces. And I could look at basically a five-meter target instead of a 50-meter target, and I could take my little five-meter targets and I could very, very easily accomplish those tasks.

VEDANTAM: She used simple tools - a notebook and pen - and made checklists.

FISH: And then anytime that I'd start to feel kind of panicked or anxious because I was like, things aren't happening fast enough because everyone's tired or things aren't happening fast enough because people are distracted, I was able to look at my list and think about the things that I could check off or things that were going to be checked off soon. And that really actually helped me relax because I knew that things were getting done. And the more checkmarks I had on my list, the better I knew I was doing.

VEDANTAM: Anastasia learned to control her behavior in different hot states, but it took weeks of round-the-clock training to get to that point. Few of us could handle what it takes to get our hungry, achy, exhausted selves to behave like our cold-state selves. But not all challenges involve leading a team into battle. In civilian life, there can be less daunting ways to train yourself to respond to everyday challenges. Self-defense classes are designed to teach you how to respond if you're attacked. Fire drills are designed to teach you to keep your head during an emergency. Julie Woodzicka is developing a training program to help women respond to sexist comments and jokes. It's called Fighting Fire with Fire.

WOODZICKA: So, for instance, a guy tells a sexist joke and then the woman says, wow, still single, huh, Mark, which is funny, but the guy knows that, like, oh, you know, she didn't like that. Every woman that you talk to can think of a time that they walked away from a situation where something sexist was said. And, you know, 10 minutes later they think of the perfect comeback. Like, oh, I wish I had said this. And, of course, in the moment, you don't think of it. So we're thinking if we can have a couple that are kind of in your back pocket, like, can you repeat that? I didn't hear you over my eyes rolling or just things that are, you know, easy to say and would apply to a lot of situations, maybe we can help women to confront in more subtle ways. Because it's hard. It's hard to tell people that they're being sexist.

VEDANTAM: Julie thinks that in a better world, women wouldn't have this burden of devising comebacks. But for the moment, these one-liners give women tools. George Loewenstein says some hot-cold situations are too challenging for us to manage as individuals.

LOEWENSTEIN: I think the solution is good public policy.

VEDANTAM: Specifically, he says, public policy should make it easier for people in a hot state to make the same decisions they would otherwise choose in a cold state. Condoms, he says, should be quickly and easily accessible.

LOEWENSTEIN: So, for example, condoms should be kind of ubiquitously available.

VEDANTAM: In other cases, George believes that policy should be designed to slow down our actions.

LOEWENSTEIN: If I got really angry at someone, I could just go down to Walmart and buy a gun today. That shouldn't be - you know, that shouldn't be possible. When you combine the instant availability of guns and empathy gaps, that's a very toxic mixture.

VEDANTAM: He also sees implications for our criminal justice system where judges and juries determine how to treat people who have acted in hot states. Take drug addiction, for example.

LOEWENSTEIN: People who have never experienced drug craving, they are not going to have any understanding of how powerfully motivating it can be. I sometimes ask my students, suppose you were addicted to heroin, can you imagine ever abandoning your children or stealing from your parents? And, you know, everyone says, of course, I would never do that. But if they were addicted to heroin, it's very likely that they would do that. So in so many of these different situations, like in the criminal justice system, it's so easy for people to condemn the behavior of people who are experiencing states that they themselves are not experiencing when they make the judgment.

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VEDANTAM: We might need policy to constrain our decisions. But one thing we can do on our own is to be more compassionate when we're judging others and ourselves. Nina Fuller, the woman who can't let go of that one night in the massage parlor half a century ago, doesn't consider herself judgmental of others. But for decades, she's had trouble extending such compassion to herself.

FULLER: I was ashamed that I wasn't a strong enough person. You know, it's just - it's actually like pulling up that horse's head off the grass. Just pull up the horse's head off the grass and walk away. I say, no, I can't go. I got to do this. You know, I was ashamed of that.

VEDANTAM: The hot-cold empathy gap makes other people feel more different from us than they actually are. When someone does something we can't imagine that we would do, it's easy to be judgmental, to conclude they are weak, or worse, that they are bad people. This gap also makes us feel like strangers to ourselves. So the next time we confidently announce that we would absolutely do this or we would never do that, we would be wise to remember that the people we are now are very different than the people we might become.

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VEDANTAM: This episode was produced by Rhaina Cohen and edited by Tara Boyle and Jenny Schmidt. Our team includes Parth Shah, Laura Kwerel and Thomas Lu. Special thanks to Doyle Dean, Avery Keatley, Alex Curley and Rosanna Summers (ph). Our unsung hero is NPR's Daniel Shukin. A few weeks ago, we had some technical problems getting our podcast out into the world. No matter what we tried, the audio didn't sound quite right when we tried to upload the episode. Daniel worked with us late into the evening to troubleshoot the problem and appease the podcast gods. We're so grateful. For more HIDDEN BRAIN, you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter. If you have tips on how to cope with those moments when we become strangers to ourselves, share those ideas with us on social media. Use the hashtag #hotcold.

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VEDANTAM: For me, one of the key takeaways from this episode is how our hot and cold selves don't show up at the right time. When we need to be calm and logical, we're often heated and impulsive. And when we need to take action, we're often passive or paralyzed. I want to make a connection between these ideas and the importance of supporting your local public radio station. Your support makes stories like this possible, and your local station plays a vital role in your community. Maybe you've always wanted to give but never found yourself in a hot state of generosity. Well, now is your time to make an end-of-year gift. Go to donate.npr.org/hiddenbrain. Again, that's donate.npr.org/hiddenbrain. With much gratitude, I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.

SMALLEY: Oh, you know, I actually used the Amazon gift card. I bought a dress, and the dress came and the dress was, like, so ugly. And in my head, I was like, OK, that's karma for buying a bunch of stolen stuff.

VEDANTAM: What did you do with the dress?

SMALLEY: I just have it. I just have it. Like, all of the other stuff I got from that guy just - it's just sitting in my house.

VEDANTAM: You didn't return it to Amazon.

SMALLEY: No, because, like - I was like, I deserve - I deserve an ugly dress (laughter).

VEDANTAM: Have you actually worn the ugly dress?

SMALLEY: No. It's so...

VEDANTAM: That would be karmic punishment if you had to wear it, don't you think?

SMALLEY: That's true. Maybe I should wear it so that my karma's, like, completely satisfied (laughter).

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