Decision Making and Emotions: How to Harness Your Feelings for Better Choices

emotions and logic - two parts of brain involved in decision-making
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Decision making is an essential part of our daily lives, and emotions play a significant role in shaping our choices. Whether we realize it or not, emotions always influence our decisions, either directly or indirectly, often leading to impulsive or reactive choices. However, by understanding and harnessing our emotions, we can make better decisions that align with our values and goals.

One question, same options, but people make different choices based on head or heart, whatever they prioritize. When you make decisions, you tend to choose logic and facts over emotions or gut feelings. Emotions got a bad reputation not because they are illogical but because most people don’t know how to decode them in their favor! Emotions come from the rapid processing of information, experiences, social interactions, and cultures.

Where do emotions come from?

The part of your brain responsible for expressing and experiencing different emotional states – the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) – is also involved in decision-making. Dr. Antonio Damasio, a neurologist known for his work on the relationship between emotions and decision making, in his 1994 book, Descartes’Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, shows how patients with prefrontal cortical damage cannot create emotions necessary for effective decision-making. In one example, his story of Elliot describes how, without emotion, he could not make simple choices, such as which color socks to wear.

Can you take emotions completely out of rational decision-making?

No, you cannot take emotions entirely out. Recent neurobiological studies suggest the interdependence of emotional and rational processes and that emotion is essential in rational decision-making.

For example, you have two job offers to choose from. The first offer has good pay and a decent role matching your experience. The other offer pays a little less, but the role is challenging.

The fact that you have multiple offers triggers many positive emotions in you. Isn’t it? As a matter of fact, these emotions are only responsible for making the decision challenging. 

Now, whichever offer you choose, let’s explore how emotions get in between your rational thinking.

  1. Thinking about the first offer, you get good money. Money, in turn, can help you fulfill your dreams say, a car or a home or anything. Now, you might say that this decision is based on your priority (money) and well-thought-of rational decision, but do you realize the role of emotion here? Just thinking about what dreams you can fulfill triggers your emotions – happiness. And, without you realizing it, these emotions increase the trust factor in your decision. 
  2. Thinking about the second offer, you get to do something different that you have never done before. It can be a good boost for your growth. The emotion of excitement triggers thinking about how you’ll prove your abilities and shine like a star in this role. Again, happy emotions create a trust factor.

Whether you decide to go with the first or second offer depends upon multiple factors, but without feeling an emotion (positive or negative), decision-making is not possible.

And you know the best part? It’s because of these feelings that you feel confident about your decision because you know your logic is in sync with your emotion.

Agree?

Two main types of emotions that create an impact

  1. Incidental emotions: These happen in the background and have no direct or indirect relation with the decision in the picture. For example, you started your day on a bad note, so your mood might affect your choices. You are irritated with some personal stuff, and it doesn’t let you think rationally at work. Sadness and anger are two general, incidental emotions.
  2. Integral emotions: These emotions are triggered by the decision. For example, feeling excited about hiring a new candidate. Envy and anxiety are two general integral emotions.

Now that we have a basic idea of emotions let’s explore how these emotions influence our decision-making.

How do emotions create turbulence in decision-making?

#1 Incidental emotions and decision-making

These emotions are carried over from one situation to the next. They hinder our ability to investigate different perspectives before deciding. For example, incidental anger triggered in one situation automatically pushes us to blame others or doubt their intentions even though they have nothing to do with our anger. If you are having a good day for whatever reason, you will end up making decisions in a more positive light without being able to see the big picture.

These emotions occur mainly without much awareness. It gets tricky to find the source of the feeling.

#2. Integral emotions and decision-making

These emotions are vital since they are directly related to the decision itself. For example, a person who feels anxious about taking risks would choose a safer option. A person who gets an adrenaline rush with travel tends to spend more money on traveling rather than investing or spending elsewhere.

Integral emotions are difficult to detach from and may create a bias while making decisions.

For the sake of this article, I’ll keep the scope limited. You can read in detail about all studies and research suggesting how emotions impact decision-making differently in exact technical terms here

How to take control of emotions while decision-making

It is often said that you should not make decisions when you are high on emotions. Agreed, true. But you cannot keep them out of your logical judgment as well. Then, what to do?

The best way to make a good decision is to master your emotions. 

  • Acknowledge them, 
  • Let them sink in, 
  • Think them through and then use them along with your logic. 
different reactions of same person when logic and emotions combine

This way, you mostly don’t regret your decisions (it does work for me).

How do you acknowledge emotions?

There are three critical components of every emotion:

  1. Subjective component: How you experience an emotion. For example, you felt shocked or surprised by the flash news of your promotion.
  2. Physiological component: How your body reacts to that emotion. Continuing with the above example, your hands may be shivering, or you may have an increased heart rate.
  3. Expressive component: How you behave in response to that emotion. For example, you show happiness and gratitude towards your team and boss in your acceptance speech.

How do you sit on the emotion?

Once you acknowledge the emotion, the next step is to let them sink in. The best way to do that is by practicing time delay.

Time delays keep your fight-or-flight responses in check. Though it’s not always needed to delay reaction, it is still required in most scenarios, and it is best to learn to be in control.

Research (and my experience) suggests that as little as 10 minutes between the emotional moment and your decision can improve your emotional control. This delay makes you think about the whole episode again, but this time with more openness to find out the source of the emotion.

It once happened to me that in a high emotional state, a positive one, I was too excited and motivated that I decided to quit my job and start my blog (this very blog) without doing all the calculations (financial ones especially). I left the job without thinking about finances and was only driven by emotions to write, create quality content and help people increase their work potential. Nothing wrong with it; I don’t regret the decision, but I won’t even deny that I had to face a lot of hardships. And many of them could have been avoided if I had combined my emotions with rational thinking!

When you face a decision, give yourself a 10-minute window to adapt to the situation emotionally. Remember:

  • Refrain from thinking of a solution in the first 10 minutes, as your emotional state would heavily impact them.
  • Do not suppress your emotions. Just let them be. To control an emotion, you need to feel it inside out. Otherwise, it will intensify, and the decision will either be incorrect, or you’ll be resentful.
  • Shift your focus to something that is not related to that decision. For example, take a walk, drink coffee, respond to emails, listen to music, etc. Do anything that generally helps you calm down.

How to take advantage of emotions with rational thinking?

Once the 10 minutes have passed, you can follow up with your usual decision-making process, knowing that your emotional state will no longer impair your judgment.

  • Note down all the critical points for consideration to make the decision.
  • How your emotion made you feel? Did you think something is wrong, or do you believe in the outcome of the decision despite others warning you? Keep that in mind, don’t reject your feeling or gut feeling.
  • Listen to how your body responds. It gets very easy to understand the reason behind your emotion if you focus on your body’s reactions. For example, if anxious, you’ll feel shivering, or if fear is gripping you, you’ll sweat or feel nauseous, or if you are happy, you’ll feel confident in your posture.

For example, all the facts and research indicate that flying is safe, and death rates are much lesser than driving. But if you are afraid of heights and know it would be extremely difficult for you out there (even if there are other people in the aircraft), it’s right to choose driving. Your emotional intelligence drives this decision-making. It’s your ability to understand and manage emotions

Emotions will guide your logical reasoning to be in your favor and make great decisions that benefit you and the people around you.

Surbhi Mahnot

Summary

Emotions can be persistent, complicated, powerful, or even life-changing, but they are essential to our decision-making process. They motivate us to make correct decisions by not letting us go blindly by facts and logic and instead bring an excellent outcome for us. Go ahead, feel emotions, but you be the master to control them whenever needed!

Because it’s humans we deal with, and humans are emotions.

Surbhi Mahnot

Surbhi Mahnot

Surbhi Mahnot is the owner of this blog. She has work experience of almost 10 years in the IT industry in varied roles. At present, she is working full-time on this blog. She is passionate about the importance of personal growth in individual and work life, which reflects in her writing too. Travelling, reading, and shopping are her core interest besides work.

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