How Emotion Shapes Decision Making

There is little disagreement that effective decision-making is one of the most important tasks we must master to achieve success in every part of life.
If we were to take a survey in the average workplace to poll what people believed was most needed for effective decision-making, which of these do you think would top the list?

  • Factual information?
  • Risk assessment?
  • Clear thinking?
  • Limited emotional interference?

If you chose the last item, I’d like you to reconsider.
In his book, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain (first published in 1994)  one of the world’s top neuroscientists, Antonio Damasio, profiled his patient, Elliott, one of his most well-known cases.  Formerly a successful businessman, model father and husband, Elliott suffered from ventromedial frontal lobe damage as a result of a tumor and subsequent surgery for removal.

Following his operation, Elliot dispassionately reported to Damasio that his life was falling apart.  While still in the 97th percentile for IQ, Elliot lacked all motivation. His marriage collapsed as did each new business he started.  Damasio found Elliott an “uninvolved spectator” in his own life, “He was always controlled. Nowhere was there a sense of his own suffering, even though he was the protagonist. I never saw a tinge of emotion in my many hours of conversation with him: no sadness, no impatience, no frustration.”
It was clear to Damasio that as a result of his surgery, Elliot was incapable of making decisions, “Elliott emerged as a man with a normal intellect who was unable to decide properly, especially when the decision involved personal or social matters.” Even small decisions were fraught with endless deliberation: making an appointment took 30 minutes, choosing where to eat lunch took all afternoon, even deciding which color pen to use to fill out office forms was a chore.  Turns out Elliott’s lack of emotion paralyzed his decision-making.

In the preface to the 2005 edition of Descartes Error, Damasio wrote, “Today this idea [that emotion assists the reasoning process] does not cause any raised eyebrows. However, while this idea may not raise any eyebrows today among neuroscientists, I believe it’s still a surprise to the general public.  We’re trained to regard emotions as irrational impulses that are likely to lead us astray.  When we describe someone as “emotional,” it’s usually a criticism that suggests that they lack good judgment.  And the most logical and intelligent figures in popular culture are those who exert the greatest control over their emotions–or who seem to feel no emotions at all.”
Although neuroscience has built a strong body of evidence over twenty-five years to demonstrate the inextricable link between reason, emotion and decision-making most of mainstream culture still doesn’t get it.
Management “experts” are still recommending we keep emotion out of decision-making and that professionals leave their feelings at home when they are at work.  Women, especially, wear the mantle of emotionality in the workplace and many still feel the need to compensate by subduing the expression of their feelings and thoughts.
Mainstream thinking about reason over emotion is generally based on two assumptions: the first is that we have a choice whether to feel or not, and second, that emotional “suppression” works. While there are many methods (mild to severe addictions of all types for example) used to attempt to bury or avoid emotions, literal thought or feeling stopping is a common “regulation” strategy.
Dr. Daniel Wegner found that there can be significant consequences when you try to push away thoughts and feelings.  Wegner called this the “rebound” effect. Simply put, these strategies often backfire and result in an increase of the intensity of the thoughts and emotions that are being suppressed.
According to PsyBlog author Jeremy Dean, “The trouble comes when I consciously stop trying to distract myself and the unconscious process carries on looking out for the thing I was trying to suppress. Anything it sees that looks vaguely like the target triggers the thought again and round I go in another loop of thinking the same thought I was desperately trying to forget about.”
This is, after all, the brain doing its brilliant work at pattern detection, firing and rewiring neurons in the process. Some researchers believe emotional suppression may, in part, be a reason that people with psychological conditions such as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) struggle with so many painful thoughts and feelings.

The Brain Makes Decisions Based on Feeling

The case is often made that rationality depends on emotion.  Motivation is driven by feeling, not intellect.  In fact, the root Latin word for emotion and motivation is movere, which means to move – out. 
Our prevailing misconceptions about how the brain works keep us mired in obsolete, infeasible ideas about the decision-making process.  Many of us try to rule out the emotional side of decision-making only to find we become stuck in so-called analysis-paralysis. We often avoid making decisions or make them hastily because we want to skip the feeling part, which is not only unavoidable, it’s short-sighted.
There continues to be a protracted controversy between pundits over reason and intuition, which is another version of the ancient reason over emotion battle.  Science and philosophy writer, Sam McNerney describes Plato’s Phaedrus, where the mind is likened to a charioteer that commands two horses, one that is irrational and crazed while the other is noble and of good stock. The job of the charioteer is to control the horses to proceed toward Enlightenment and the truth.
Emotional elasticity provides the evidence that emotions are rooted in the predictions of highly flexible brain cells which are constantly adjusting their connections to reflect reality. Every time you make a mistake or encounter something new, your brain cells are busy changing themselves. Emotions are profoundly smart and constantly learning, they are not simply animal instincts that must be tamed.

Why Balance is the Answer

A lot of precious neural energy is wasted on the either or debate of emotion vs. reason in decision-making In fact, it’s over thinking that tends to overwhelm our rational pre-frontal cortex.  What is known as the “7 plus or minus 2” rule is based on the research that short-term memory capacity varies from being able to hold between 4 and 9 bits of information at one time.  When faced with too many variables, the brain simply makes the wrong decision because its resources are overburdened.
In fact, over-thinking a problem or decision can add significantly to our body’s allostatic load which is the physiological consequence of a chronic response to stress.  As stress management is largely thinking management, the prudent use of our thinking process to measure or understand any problem is essential to prevent overloading the system.  This is particularly important in an era when external distractions are at epic levels, challenging the brain’s energy reservoir to stay alert and focused amidst a constant onslaught of information.
We can take steps to approach the decision-making process in a more balanced way. The time to do this isn’t just before an important and challenging decision needs to be made but as a practice to achieving greater equilibrium between what we think and how we feel and act in the normal course of our lives.
Step 1
Observe the patterns of your thinking process over time. This means doing some on-going thinking about how you think. It means bringing more of your thought process into your conscious awareness. Notice the content of your thoughts. What kind of language do you use to talk to yourself? Is it kind, harsh? Does that vary? If so, when?  What’s your decision-making style? Do you tend to over-analyze, generalize or cut, perhaps prematurely to the chase of a problem? Understanding what you think and how you think under different circumstances is critical to this process.
Step 2
Identify the beliefs you hold that could influence your decision-making process.  Beliefs are at the core of everything we do and don’t do. They are our “rules.” One reason we resist decision-making is because to decide often requires us to change our rules.  That usually takes us outside of our comfort zone (and our comfort zone is most definitely the realm of our feelings).  First step in uncovering beliefs that may limit your decisiveness is to understand what you believe about rationality vs. emotionality.
Step 3
Increase your emotional self-awareness.  If you don’t want to be ruled by feeling, you must allow your emotions to experience the light of day and give them some breathing room.  If you are ignoring, de-valuing or burying emotions, you’re not only squandering precious energetic resources, you are draining your cortical batteries trying to rationalize what is a bodily, not a mental experience.  According to Damasio, no single center of the brain dominates decision-making.  He believes that “the lower levels in the neural edifice of reason are the same ones that regulate the processing of emotions. In turn, these lower levels maintain direct and mutual relationships with virtually every bodily organ thus placing the body directly within the chain of operations that generate the highest reaches of reasoning and decision-making.”
Step 4
Place reasonable limits on the amount of information you need to make a decision.  Depending on the scope and importance of the decision this will vary.  There are ample studies that show that too much information impedes decision-making.  Make sure the information you consider takes into account your intuitive sense of the right direction to take.  Studies show that long before your reasoning mind kicks in, your emotional brain has been sensing the way to go.  Your feeling brain is listening through your body, so the information that you receive is sometimes subtle and somatically based.
To optimize your decision-making process, you have to build capacity in both your brains – the rational and the emotional. They’re brilliantly interwoven to maximize understanding the world around you and the vast world within you.

Thanks for reading!
Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants
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41 Comments

  1. Nice post! I think so much of what we do relates to unconscious desires, beliefs and expectations. As you say, the more aware we can become of these emotions and beliefs the freer we are to make appropriate choices.

    • Hello Patrick,
      Pleased that you stopped by. Glad you appreciate the post. I think we’re only seeing the smallest tip of the iceberg when it comes to unconscious motivation.
      And yes I think we can get freer from the grip of certain emotions with greater self knowledge I agree with Jonah Lehrer’s point of view that emotions are smart,
      so their persistence is a powerful clue as to whether we are moving in the direction of satisfying our needs or thwarting them.
      Thanks for the comment and the follow!
      Louise

  2. John Wenger says:

    Another stellar article Louise. I have re-read this several times and keep finding new things sparking off thoughts and recollections. Once again, it’s about developing our self-awareness, learning to embrace all of who we are, including emotions. One of my favourite quotes (I forget by whom) is “Heaven preserve me from those who pretend they are not vulgar.” As Wegner says, the rebound effect can be messier than facing the emotions in the first place. They are in there, they will find a way to come out, no matter how hard we try to suppress or ignore them.
    Warmly, John

    • Glad you appreciated the post John. In re-reading your recent post “It’s the system,” http://quantumshifting.wordpress.com/2012/03/14/its-the-system/ I am reminded how much our “thinking” and “feeling” brains operate as a system. Problem is we’re not taught to think about them systemically. We either ignore, manipulate or try to repress the system.
      The quote is perfect because I think we simply don’t want to own what we feel – the messier bits. And speaking of systems, I think another case can be made for the systemic view of emotions when we consider how emotional contagion works – how it spreads and impacts the whole system around it.
      Thanks again for the comment,
      Louise

  3. John Wenger says:

    Yes absolutely, we can feel it when we walk into a room where there has just been an argument, we can feel it when we walk into a room and people have been talking about us, we can feel it when we join a group of people telling jokes and suddenly we remember lots of jokes ourselves. The “elephant in the room” thing is a real phenomenon, we are absolutely connected to others around us, in ways that we can see and in many other ways that are more subtle and less discernible.

    • When I wrote Why Neuroscience Should Change the Way We Manage People, it should have been transform the way we manage people. I’m sure that we’ve only scratched the
      surface of how we really communicate – collectively. Powerful ideas floating around out there now. But we’re still plodding along in organizational life ignoring communication – the underlying source of everything we do.
      As for walking into a room …… ah if only I’d understood the power of the brain when I was a teenager…. (PS Dan Siegal’s new book Whole Brain Child makes a compelling case for teaching neural self-management to children as part of empowering them in their early education).
      Warmly,
      Louise

  4. […] How Emotion Shapes Decision Making(intentionalworkplace.com) […]

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  6. […] information that are calculated in the decision-making process, are emotions. Too often, however, emotions are left out of the process. We overlook or override the feelings that are often in conflict over the behavioral change we are […]

  7. Bunmi Oyeyele says:

    You are correct in all the steps you advised but you might need to add – “Reduce stress”. I have noticed that when we are unduly stressed maybe due to bad planning, laziness, procrastination etc,our emotions go into a fight or flight stance and lose the natural ability to guide us. I call this “spirit” or “psyche”. Louise in this post called it “intuitive sense”. We might not need to train it but rather nurture it with positive self esteem, and an orderly existence and it does all the decision making with minimal stress and top performance. Its literally your inner light, beacon, and ‘eyes at the back of your head’. However, from personal experience i have seen that traumatic experiences,depression and stress is like a virus for it. Its like cholesterol against the heart, weight against the limbs. When we reduce stress we are definitely more logical and make better decisions. Thanks for the enlightening post. Cheers!

    • Hello and I wholeheartedly agree with your points. Stress, which often accompanies decision-making, at certain levels, can place up in what is called “limbic arousal,” the flight or fight response. One very interesting new development is that the on-going practice of meditation (mindfulness in many forms) can have the effect of emotional regulation – even when we are not meditating.
      And yes, long-term trauma, does act to depress the entire physiology. The good news is that there is growing evidence that even under the burden of long term trauma, we can take steps to enliven and restore our natural “spirit.”
      Thanks for reading and commenting!
      Louise

  8. […] “ There is little disagreement that effective decision-making is one of the most important tasks we must master to achieve success in every part of life. If we were to take a survey in the average …”  […]

  9. […] There is little disagreement that effective decision-making is one of the most important tasks we must master to achieve success in every part of life. If we were to take a survey in the average …  […]

  10. […] There is little disagreement that effective decision-making is one of the most important tasks we must master to achieve success in every part of life. If we were to take a survey in the average …  […]

  11. […] There is little disagreement that effective decision-making is one of the most important tasks we must master to achieve success in every part of life. If we were to take a survey in the average …  […]

  12. […] Source: intentionalworkplace.com […]

  13. […] There is little disagreement that effective decision-making is one of the most important tasks we must master to achieve success in every part of life. If we were to take a survey in the average …  […]

  14. […] granted to reason, objectivity, and the rational mind of the individual. In its place, we have neuroscientific evidence which points to the intertwined nature of emotion and reason in decision-making, philosophical and […]

  15. […] granted to reason, objectivity, and the rational mind of the individual. In its place, we have neuroscientific evidence which points to the intertwined nature of emotion and reason in decision-making, philosophical and […]

  16. […] way to make your way into the human psyche than by using emotion. We, as humans, ultimately make decisions based on how we feel about something.  It is the most fundamental method of any creative or […]

  17. […] tells us today that our brain actually makes decisions based on emotions. Patients who suffer from emotional disorders (the lack of emotion) are unable to make decisions, […]

  18. […] guided by rational thoughts and influenced by deeply logical arguments. Well people are wrong. Emotion shapes our decision-making process far more than the average ‘logical’ person would like to […]

  19. […] Click here for a video of Damasio explaining his research, and here for a written explanation. […]

  20. […] Great article written by Louise Altman for the Intentional Workplace. The original is available here. […]

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  22. […] I am putting you on? Check out this story out from one of the world’s top neuroscientists, Antonio Damasio, about one of his […]

  23. […] derived his theory from various experiments and experiences with patients.  One of his patients, Elliott, was a successful businessman who underwent neurosurgery for a tumor and suffered damage to his […]

  24. […] almost all of our logical decisions are based on emotion. Other researchers argue that the basis of motivation is emotion, with logic being […]

  25. […] humanize marketing, apply this truth from neuroscientist Antonio Damasio. He said, “We are not thinking machines that feel; rather, we are feeling machines that think.” […]

  26. […] predictive tools and conventional research methodologies cannot effectively gauge future behavior. We will start seeing the rise of neuroscience research as a more effective tool in understanding how…. Research firms arguing neuroscience is not effective will join the same voices that foretold us […]

  27. […] hay lugar para las emociones en la toma de decisiones”, y éste paradigma se ha roto a partir de estudios neurológicos. Que demuestran que las emociones son parte esencial en el pensamiento sistémico, e interviene en […]

  28. […] humanize marketing, apply this truth from neuroscientist Antonio Damasio. He said, “We are not thinking machines that feel; rather, we are feeling machines that think.” […]

  29. […] humanize marketing, apply this truth of the matter from neuroscientist Antonio Damasio. He explained, “We are not wondering machines that sense relatively, we are sensation machines […]

  30. […] humanize marketing, apply this truth from neuroscientist Antonio Damasio. He said, “We are not thinking machines that feel; rather, we are feeling machines that think.” […]

  31. […] Damasio’s research has proven that people are mostly driven by emotions when making decisions; he shows that it is difficult to make decisions based only on logic. […]

  32. […] to intimidated. We believe emotion drives decision making, even when it comes to money, and science backs this up. So if your customers don’t have a positive association towards your bank brand, it’s no […]

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  35. […] Emotional input is necessary for any decision. What we need to manage is the survival instinct (fight, flight or freeze) that shuts down reason. (for example, see How Emotion Shapes Decision Making) […]

  36. […] a heavily increased amount of emotions and thoughts at the person who tries to push it away. It is believed by other researchers that emotional suppression is not the best way in the rational decision-making process as it […]

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