Visceral Factors

Visceral Factors Definition

Visceral factors are states such as hunger, thirst, sexual desire, drug cravings, physical pain, and fervent emotion that influence how much goods and actions are valued. When experiencing a visceral state, people focus primarily on goals associated with their current state and downplay the importance of other goals. For example, when a person is thirsty, finding water becomes the most important goal and other goals tend to be overlooked. Although visceral factors can have a powerful influence on behavior, people fail to recognize this influence. That is, they don’t anticipate the influence that visceral factors will have on their future behavior, remember the influence that visceral factors have had on past behavior, or recognize the influence that visceral factors have on other people. People may think that they (or others) are acting irrationally because it is difficult for people in a “cold state” (not under the influence of a visceral factor) to predict or remember what it is like to be in a “hot state” (under the influence of a visceral factor). This difficulty in prediction is referred to as the hot-cold empathy gap.

Importance of Visceral Factors

Visceral FactorsResearchers who study decision making struggle to understand why people knowingly behave at odds with their long-term goals. Why do dieters who claim that losing weight is important to them and can avoid ordering dessert from a restaurant menu, succumb to temptation when a fresh batch of cookies is pulled from the oven? Why do people who claim that they will never have sexual intercourse without a condom find themselves doing just that when they are in a sexually arousing situation? Many decision-making models have difficulty describing such “irrational” behavior. George Loewenstein, a behavioral economist, proposed that one reason people seem to behave against their long-term interests is that long-term interests are often generated while in a cold state, and behavior often occurs while in a hot state. Loewenstein has offered several mathematical propositions to specify how visceral factors will influence behavior, the prediction of behavior, and the recollection of behavior.

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Visceral Factors Implications for Behavior

Because the experience of a visceral state leads people to focus on the goals associated with the current state at the exclusion of other goals, the more intensely people experience a visceral factor, the more they tend to act against their stated long-term goals. In other words, the more intense the visceral state, the more likely desire is to win over reason. For example, the hungrier dieters are, the more likely they are to cheat on their diets (especially if the cues to cheating are vivid, such as when the cookies can be seen or smelled). And, the more sexually aroused people are, the more likely they are to indulge their sexual desire at the expense of other goals. In a recent study, men who were sexually aroused indicated that they would be willing to go to further lengths to have sex compared to men who answered the questions when they were not aroused. Specifically, the aroused men stated that they would be more willing to tell a woman that they loved her (if they did not), to encourage their date to drink, and to slip a woman a drug in order to have sex with her. It seems that the visceral state of sexual desire crowded out their long-term goals.

Implications for Predicting and Recollecting Behavior

Despite the powerful influence that visceral states have on behavior, people underestimate this influence when predicting their future behavior. Thus, people say that they will never have sex without a condom because they fail to recognize how their sexual desire will change their feelings about various goals and actions. While predicting behavior from a cold state, the goal of being safe may be paramount. But, in the heat of the moment, the goal of having sex may crowd out the goal of being safe.

Research on pregnant women’s decisions regarding anesthesia for delivery illustrates the difficulty of predicting future visceral states. When predicting from a cold state whether or not they would want anesthesia during childbirth, a majority of women said that they would not want it, but once in the hot state of pain, most women changed their preference and chose the painkillers.

Just as people fail to anticipate the influence of visceral factors on future behavior, as time passes people forget the influence visceral factors had on their past behavior. Although people can remember the circumstances that evoked a visceral state and can remember being in a certain state, they cannot reproduce the sensation the same way they can recall words or visual images. Even pregnant women who had experienced the pain of childbirth before mispredicted their interest in painkillers for an upcoming delivery. This is because they misremembered how much the actual sensation of pain influenced their desire for painkillers.

The tendency for people to underweight the influence of visceral factors when they are not currently experiencing the visceral state also leads to a hot-cold empathy gap between people. Those in a cold state often fail to appreciate how someone in a hot state feels. When someone is in pain, hungry, or depressed, it is difficult to empathize with that person without experiencing the pain, hunger, or depression oneself. Furthermore, when people are in a hot state, research suggests that it is difficult for them to make predictions for others without being influenced by the goals associated with their own current visceral state. For example, compared to nonthirsty participants, thirsty participants were more likely to claim that lost hikers would be more bothered by a lack of water than a lack of food.

It seems, then, that recognizing the power of visceral influences may help people predict and understand their own behavior. By recognizing people’s tendency to underweight visceral factors, decision-making researchers may be better able to predict and understand when and why people will act against their stated long-term interests.


  1. Loewenstein, G. (1996). Out of control: Visceral influences on behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 65, 272-292.
  2. Metcalfe, J., & Mischel W. (1999). A hot/cool-system analysis of delay of gratification: Dynamics of willpower. Psychological Review, 106, 3-19.