Emotions and Decision Making

Published Categorized as emotional literacy, emotions, Understanding emotions

There is a consensus floating about ‘out there’ that emotions should be totally by-passed when it comes to making sensible decisions. It’s certainly true that we don’t always make the best decisions when we are in a heightened emotional state. And there is no doubt that – say – when we are anxious we are likely to make different decisions to when we feel happy, even if everything else about a circumstance is the same. But the influence of emotions on the decisions we make is certainly not always as detrimental as we might be led to believe.

I might even start by going so far as to say that emotions are rational (and Carl Jung said much the same) and can give us really useful information that can help us make better decisions if we learn to listen to them with discernment. It’s almost like it’s a different circuit to the thinking brain (that our culture has grown to consider the most effective decision maker) but decisions made using emotions can be quicker and their input can often be helpful. Emotions result from an amalgam of our experiences, our wishes, our expectations, our knowledge and beliefs – and therefore draw on more than a bit of logic.

Relying solely on logic doesn’t always make for a good decision made and it can sometimes torture us.

For example, one of my friends was trying to decide how to increase the size of her house to accommodate her partner’s children when they visited. She had several solutions, each with both benefits and compromises. As she started to talk about her decision out loud, it became clear that she had trapped herself into a cycle of logically talking herself in (benefits) and out (compromises) of each idea. I tried to help with presenting the most involved solution at one end and the easiest to implement at the other (with all the others sitting in between) and simply asked which one appeals to you most. Her emotions (or ‘gut’) was quick to respond with a choice. If this choice was within her means – then it seemed the obvious one to go for.

Another example of emotions having as beneficial impact was a true story I read recently (don’t ask me where!). It was in the 80s during the cold war. A Russian engineer who I think was called Petrov, was sat operating the Russian end of the early warning system, when suddenly the machines gave a very clear indication that the Americans had set off several missiles. All protocols made it extremely clear that in this circumstance, the relevant government department was to be informed so the retaliating missiles could be sent westwards. He wasn’t a military man and maybe that’s what saved us from obliteration, as he didn’t automatically follow those orders. Instead, he overrode them because his ‘gut’ made him pause.

Despite all systems blaring with certainty that the arrival of nuclear missiles in Russia was imminent and very clear response guidelines in place, he started to feel that there was a chance this was an error and that even if it wasn’t, thought retaliation wasn’t the optimum course of action. He decided to wait and after 20 minutes, assumed that the missiles were not going to arrive and reported a fault with the system. The warning system turned out to be triggered by an unusual reflection of sunlight on some clouds! Had Petrov gone with logical analysis and designed procedure alone, there would have been quite different consequences. Something bigger and further reaching than logic was at play and I would certainly speculate it was at least linked to his emotions.

The ideal that the rational brain steps in and overrides emotion is not always the optimum way to make decisions. I can see where this idea came from though. It’s the triune theory of emotions. The one that tells us that we evolved a reptilian brain first for instinctive behaviour, the reptilian brain next for emotions and lastly the neocortex for higher level thinking and each would kick in at different times. Surely those parts of the brain looking after basic instincts could not be trusted to make sensible decisions (rhetorical mark) – so goes the theory. But the triune theory has been researched away in recent years – although it does still rattle around residually. These systems are actually integrated, and emotions, instincts and thinking do not function completely independently of each other. The brain is far more complex and each of these have impact on each other.

Decisions emotions can make can also be a lot quicker than logical process. An obvious example is how fear that makes you jump out of the way of an oncoming car. Your brain didn’t have to think, you just respond with reflex. But I also think that ‘emotions and feelings’ can be the result of the input of much information you have subconsciously gathered and previous experience. When we decide quickly, we probably have relied on how we feel and by-passed extensive reasoning and that is OK. If we tortured ourselves with endless reasoning about whether to go swimming or go for a walk, we might never decide. That is a simple example of just going with what you feel like makes most sense but the same would sometimes be true of more complex decisions – as shown with the example of my friend.

I will counter this argument though with an example of when emotion gets in the way of making the most beneficial choice. This is in circumstances where an unhelpful emotion is triggered because of negative past experiences. To use a simple example, if you had had a terrible experience in an elevator such that every time you went near one fear was triggered, you could argue this would not make for a sensible decision if you were due on the 120th floor! Our past experiences trigger emotions that can influence our decisions, limit our options and reduce our ‘comfort zones’ but that’s what a lot of what therapy addresses!

So my conclusion would be – be curious about what’s at play each time you have a decision to make and sometimes let the emotions decide!