Reason is the Steering Wheel. Emotion is the Gas Pedal.

Good decisions require a mix of dispassionate, rational analysis and emotion.

Though we often hear of emotion and passion clouding the decision making process, research shows that feelings help us make better decisions. Specifically, emotions aid decisiveness. Humans who have suffered damage to the part of their brain responsible for emotions are prone to crippling indecisiveness.

Here's a metaphor I came up with that conveys the mix: reason is the steering wheel, emotion is the gas and brake pedal.

When you get in a car, you first need to decide where to go. You need to think clearly and objectively about the best route. Once you've decided on a route, you need to press the gas pedal at different intervals to move forward, to go faster, or to slow down and come to a stop.

Suppose you brainstorm a new business idea. You want to think about the idea clearly and assess honestly the pros and cons, market size, competitive landscape, etc. You don't necessarily want your emotional side to dominate this assessment process. Once you've decided you want to pursue an idea, dreams of success and emotional excitement enable you to press the gas pedal and put in 12 hour days.

If the business is headed for the gutter, and you need to take immediate action to right the ship, emotions such as fear of failure and embarrassment will accelerate the actions prescribed by a rational cost-benefit analysis.


I frequently have to remind myself that good decisions can have bad outcomes. Also, I'm still unsure of the role of intuition in good decision making, but I agree with Auren that it's better to trust your gut when it tells you not to do something.

11 Responses to Reason is the Steering Wheel. Emotion is the Gas Pedal.

  1. I think you seriously underestimate the degree to which emotions are in the driver’s seat. For one thing, they often shape our own personal version of “reason”.

  2. Ben Casnocha says:

    Fair point; it's impossible to separate the two forces entirely.

  3. You’ve tackled a tough one here, Ben! My first thought is that emotion is more like the gas than the gas pedal. But I’m going to think about it and come back with a more considered idea later 🙂

  4. DaveJ says:

    Nice metaphor.

    Note that humans with brain damage almost anywhere tend to have their decision-making impaired, either becoming indecisive, or impulsive, perseverant, or other effects. Neuropsychology is usually not a very good guide to how normal functioning brains work.

  5. The Writer says:

    Very nice metaphor indeed. I was positive your link was going to take me to “How We Decide” by Jonah Lehrer. I assume you’ve read that book as well?

  6. Viktor says:

    I’m a strong “gut feeling” believer, but sometimes my gut can also try to cheat me not to make a courageous move or decision (normally life rewards the risk taker). How do you differentiate between the two?

  7. Ben Casnocha says:

    I haven't!

  8. Ben Casnocha says:

    I'm still trying to figure out how I differentiate between the two…

  9. The Writer says:

    I reviewed it a while ago here, enjoy!

  10. Ben
    For how we can be wrong about what we saw or felt – and dispute our earlier observations – even when presented with our observations in writing – and much more -consider reading the excellent book by Robert Burton, On Being Certain

  11. I think the truth is, both reason and emotion can act at different times as either steering wheel (decisions about where you’re going, as you described) or gas (speed, impetus, motivation). Perhaps it would be a little more accurate, though, to say that (in your view) reason is better as the steering wheel, and emotion is better as the gas. But often, feelings should appropriately inform one’s choices, and reasoning is fundamental to what powers us.


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