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

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

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

In his compelling book, How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer makes the case that rationality depends on emotion.  Motivation is driven by feeling, not intellect.  Lehrer points out, “Emotion and motivation share the same Latin root, movere, which means to move. The world is full of things and it is our feelings that help us choose among them.”

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.

Jonah Lehrer makes the critical point that our emotional brains are deeply empirical and that our “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.

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

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.  Jonah Lehrer offers a good analogy here,
“The human brain (the “rational”
brain) is like a computer operating systems rushed to market with only
200,000 years of field testing…it has lots of design flaws and bugs. The
emotional brain, however, has been exquisitely refined by evolution
over the last several hundred million years. Its software code has been
subjected to endless tests, so it can make fast decisions based on very
little information.”

Food for thought, isn’t it?

As always, I appreciate your comments, subscriptions, tweets, shares
and likes.  But most important, I appreciate your readership.

Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication

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