American Sociological Association

Emotions and Medical Decision-Making

Sociologists have written surprisingly little about the role emotions play in medical decision-making, largely ceding this terrain to psychologists who conceptualize emotional influences on decision-making in primarily cognitive and individualistic terms. In this article, I use ethnographic data gathered from parents and physicians caring for children with life-threatening conditions to illustrate how emotions enter the medical decision-making process in fundamentally interactional ways. Because families and physicians alike often defined emotions as useful information to guide the decision-making process, both parties could leverage them in health care interactions by eliciting or demonstrating emotional investment, strategically deploying emotionally charged symbols, and using emotions as tiebreakers to help themselves and one another make choices in the midst of uncertainty. Constructing emotions as valuable in the decision-making process and effectively marshalling them in these ways offered a number of advantages. It could make decisions easier to arrive at, help people feel more confident in the decisions they made, and reduce interpersonal conflict. By connecting the dynamic role emotions can play in the interactive process through which medical decisions are made to the social advantages they can produce, I point to an underappreciated avenue through which inequalities in health care are perpetuated.

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Amanda M. Gengler





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