How do emotions affect decision making?

Decision making is the process of making a choice. We usually think of decision making as a careful reflection and deliberation about the possible outcome. 

Making a decision would require gathering knowledge and facts. Then carefully evaluating the pros and cons of each option, before making the choice.

That is if we didn’t experience any emotions.

What are emotions?

Emotions guide our actions and influence our behavior. They help us adapt to situations quickly and with minimal participation of the cognitive parts of the brain. 

Emotions play an important role in how we react to what is happening around us. Emotions, no matter how big or small, influence your thoughts and your behavior. Recent research suggests that emotional intelligence is more important than IQ when it comes to relationships, health and overall quality of life. 

Being aware of our emotions and understanding how they influence our decisions, can help us manage how we respond to them. This would result in making better choices and building stronger, healthier relationships.

Emotion vs reason

When thinking of reason we think in terms like logic, analyzing and calculating. Emotion on the other hand is subjective and often thought of as irrational.

Emotion is the drive behind intuition, your gut feeling. We often rely on intuition when we do not have enough information or time to make the decision. 

Reason requires more cognitive resources, time and self-control. And even when you strongly believe your decision was based on logic, truth is emotion still has a say in it.

Nearly all the time making a decision is a fight between emotion and reason. Like two horses pulling us in opposite directions (as Plato puts it). 

Often we are not aware of the emotion and how it influences our judgment. Not knowing how emotion affects our thoughts could lead to making suboptimal decisions.

How do emotions influence decision making?

The stronger the emotion we feel, the less reason we use in making a decision. Emotional decisions are also taken at a greater speed, since we are not spending time thinking through pros and cons.

Evolution-wise this saved us as a species. When faced with immediate danger every second counts. Fear takes over to make snap decisions and move you away from harm’s way.

But fear could also have you make irrational choices. If you have a fear of flying, you might decide to drive instead. But the base rates for death on the road are much higher than those for death by flying. In this case fear is making you choose the more dangerous means of travel.

We are hardwired to seek positive emotions and avoid negative ones. This might seem like a reasonable thing to do as well. However avoiding anxiety and chasing comfort is at the core of procrastination

We are more likely to set our goals really low when feeling sad. Setting low expectations would prevent us from disappointment and increased feelings of sadness.

Feeling down might prevent you from applying to your dream job, or talking to that attractive colleague. Experiencing negative feelings, such as fear of failure, is what is keeping us in the comfort zone, preventing us from reaching our full potential. 

Research suggests that excitement and happiness make us take rash decisions, often underestimating the risks involved. Fear on the other hand increases the perception of risk and might make us choose a safer, though less lucrative option.

Emotions can also be carried over to other situations, unrelated to the one that caused the emotion. When we get angered at something at work we are more likely to lash out in a mild argument at home. And we remain fairly unaware that we are transferring the emotion. We convince ourselves that the argument is what brought the emotion.

Emotional awareness helps us recognize and make sense of the emotions we are experiencing. Understanding the emotions and their relation to the choices we make helps us make better, more conscious decisions.


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