Our emotions have a profound impact on our decision-making.
As business leaders it is our responsibility to ensure that our emotions are regulated and healthy.
This is why I am so passionate about wellbeing and stress: the negative consequences of poor mental health really do reach into every corner of our lives and every decision we make – literally.
Are you experiencing decision fatigue?
As busy business leaders we have to make lots of decisions throughout the day. This can become quite exhausting. In fact, decision fatigue is very real: it refers to a gradual worsening of our ability to make decisions over the course of time. The more decisions we have to make, the more decision fatigue we develop – and the harder it is to make the right choice.
When our mental energy is low, our ability to override basic desires (cake for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for example!) becomes lessened and we are more likely to choose whatever option is quicker or easier. Typically, this means the unhealthy decisions – good decisions generally take more work.
This got me thinking… what is the link between emotions and decision making? And if we can define it, surely we can ‘hack’ it?
Well, in this blog we’ll find out.
Where do emotions and decision-making originate?
Decision making happens at the front of our brain, in the aptly-titled frontal lobe. It’s the largest lobe in the brain and is actually responsible for much more than decision making: our personality characteristics, movement, language, memory and even smell involve parts of the frontal lobe.
Because the prefrontal cortex is known as the “control centre” of the brain, we can also attribute control of our emotions to this region.
However, our emotions call somewhere else home, too: the limbic system. It’s a group of interconnected primitive brain structures tucked away deep within the brain and located above the brainstem. It’s especially concerned with emotions relevant to survival: the fight or flight response, stress and adrenaline.
So now that we know where the two come from – how do they come together?
A decision making framework
Ultimately, the outcome of our decisions depends on interactions between emotional (how we feel), cognitive (the thinking we apply) and motivational (the desires we have) factors. The three work together to become our decision making framework.
When you’re faced with a choice, what is your decision-making process? Do you go with your gut instinct or carefully weigh up the pros and cons? Perhaps you have a framework you input your problem into to help you break it down?
Whatever your approach, one thing is for sure: your emotions are weighing in, whether you realise it or not.
The more complex or difficult a decision, the more complex or difficult emotions we might feel. Humans are hard-wired to avoid unpleasant feelings and emotions, which leads us to make hasty decisions to get out of that state. Of course, this leads us into an unproductive loop: the more hasty and bad decisions we make, the worse our emotional state becomes.
The link between the two
Scientific understanding of the link between emotions and decision making is relatively limited.
In 2014, The Annual Review of Psychology published a paper titled Emotions And Decision Making, which aimed to analyse the relationship between the two. Unsurprisingly, it was found that emotions play a huge role in decision making and can have both positive and negative effects on the decisions people make.
For example, a person who feels anxious about the potential outcome of a risky choice may choose the safer, yet less lucrative, option. On the other hand, research has shown that sadness can increase tendencies to favour high-risk, high-reward options. Integral emotions like anxiety or sadness can be the strongest guiding force in decision making at both a conscious and unconscious level.
It doesn’t always make sense, either. Fear might inspire us to make choices that aren’t based on rational thought. For example, someone with a fear of flying might choose to drive instead, despite the fact that the probability of being in a fatal aeroplane accident is one in 11 million versus one in 5,000 in a car!
Of course, we are all products of our experiences and this translates into the decisions we make too. As stated in the review, “researchers have found that incidental emotions pervasively carry over from one situation to the next, affecting decisions that should, from a normative perspective, be unrelated to that emotion.”
The review concludes by stating once and for all that, “Emotions powerfully, predictably, and pervasively influence decision making.”
How, then, can we ‘hack’ our emotions to ensure positive decision-making?
Hacking our emotions
Knowing now that emotions have such a powerful influence over our lives, it seems reasonable that practising emotional intelligence might offer us a little more control.
- Time delay
Pro: This involves taking a moment to pause, breathe and reflect on the situation. A time delay can help to dissipate emotional responses as emotions are usually short-lived.
Con: This may not always be feasible or effective in situations requiring immediate action.
Pro: Suppressing our emotions is generally not recommended, but there are few instances where doing so is necessary to ensure our safety or to get through a difficult moment.
Con: Suppression is counter-productive as it actually intensifies emotions or causes them to remanifest as something else.
Pro: This involves reframing the meaning of the stimuli. In other words, when we are first presented with a situation, we make an immediate appraisal of it. It would be a disservice to ourselves to stick with this immediate appraisal, as our first impressions are extremely susceptible to the unconscious bias through which we all see the world. Reappraising means deliberately and consciously reframing the situation through a different lens, for example trying to see the positive in a negative situation.
Con: It’s easier said than done! Our ego is constantly trying to “prove us right”, which means that trying to confront our unconscious biases can be difficult and uncomfortable.
- The ‘dual-emotion solution’
Pro: This involves inducing a counteracting emotional state to neutralise the effects of an unwanted emotion on decision making. For example, practising gratitude during moments of difficulty can help to dilute the negative emotion.
Understanding the difference
The truth is, we can exercise all of these emotional intelligence habits, but we are still creatures of emotion. Emotions are sticky things and can transfer from one experience to the other, even when the two are completely unrelated.
The review published by the Annual Review of Psychology highlighted the difference between integral emotions (emotions directly related to the decision) and incidental emotions (emotions unrelated to the decision but affecting it).
Understanding the difference between the two can be as simple as asking “is this emotion reasonable given the current situation or am I being triggered by a past experience?”
There are other ways we can train our brains to slow down and react rationally to a situation. Why not check out this blog on mental fitness, or this one on the power of journaling. Both practices help to create a ‘pause’ in our day and distance us from the emotions and stressors of running a busy business.