The Role of Feelings and Emotion in Decision Making

People love to characterize emotion and feelings as toxic to rational, objective decision making. "Be cool and dispassionate," they say. While there’s some truth to that, there is also evidence to suggest that emotions are crucial in rational decision making (Antonio Damasio, author of Descartes’ Error, is an influential proponent of the latter, as he presents neurobiological examples to show that we make better decisions when feelings are part of the reasoning process).

So, how do you find a balance between being passionate and emotional around a decision while also being able to step back and look at it as a dispassionate spectator, weighing benefits and costs objectively?

We can’t turn off any part of our brain or chemical processes, but we can consciously emphasize certain parts. My theory — which came to me yesterday after a question during my speech at the University of Texas, El Paso — is that different stages of the decision making process require different emphases.

Say you’re trying to decide whether or not to pursue a new idea (perhaps a new business).

Stage 1: Initial conception. This requires passion and emotion. You need to be fired up about the possibilities and not shut off any possible creative circuit by "reality checking".

Stage 2: Reality check. This is when detachment is helpful. Step back and really weigh costs and benefits. Be as rational and objective as possible.

Stage 3: Action. Assuming you pursue the idea, passion and emotion are again required. The only way your idea will work is if you pour your heart into it. As Jack Welch has said, "You can’t behave in a calm, rational manner. You’ve got to be out there on the lunatic fringe." By this stage, you will be so attached to your baby that it’s impossible be objective. You need to recruit independent advisors who can do the reality checking.

This three stage format is an oversimplification but the point is that different times in the idea generation and action process call for different amounts of heart-filled "passion". Does this make sense to you or do you see it differently?

7 comments on “The Role of Feelings and Emotion in Decision Making
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  • I think another interesting topic to explore would be the role of emotion in idea formation. Countless times someone has been frustrated or angry with something and in their quest to solve the problem they develop a viable business idea. What about the other side? How many times has someone being happy with something caused the creation of a business?

    -Brad Maier

  • This is a great blueprint to avoid pitfalls and mistakes…if you don’t like tempering the idea from the very beginning.

    For me, it’s usually:

    1. Think of an idea that I want to achieve (something that may not be “rational” for someone else). I weigh the risks and benefits together (a process I would describe as “practical dreaming” more than “reality checking.”)

    2. Think of the implementation of the idea (the day-to-day details) of how I’m going to get there.

    3. Then be calmly detached.

    I’m detached in the last stage because I know that if I continue to make daily progress, I will get there. IT WILL HAPPEN. It seems my decision for action (and any analysis of the risks and benefits) is taken back on stage 1, when I’m first toying with the idea. If it gets past this screening stage, then I KNOW it’s solid (which is why only about 1% of my ideas ever get past this stage).

    But then when it does, I have absolute faith in it. And If I’m calmly detached in the latter stages, it’s because I have massive amounts of leverage on myself, and I trust myself fully.

    The leverage is so much and there’s so much at risk, that IT HAS TO SUCCEED.

    And because there’s so much at stake, I somehow fulfill the role of outsider myself: I change my own eyes, and make sure I’m aligned, because I can’t outsource this to someone who doesn’t have the same passion. It’s my baby. Only I know what my baby can do.

    Thus I gauge the situation, and so far I’ve been able to pull out without a problem if I detect it’s not going 100% the way I envisioned it.

  • I think the key–in all stages of decision making–is perspective. We don’t trust the man who always breathes fire any more than the one who bleeds ice water.

    When someone tries a swindle, a show of outrage can help prevent others from trying to make the same mistake. Should that same person try again, Mario Puzo described treating such fools with “a voice like cold death.”

    I think Jack Welch was overstating the case when he was talking about the lunatic fringe. If I recall correctly, Welch’s GE made a point of being number one or number two in every industry it was involved in; this strategy would fail if GE remained on the lunatic fringe in industries it simply wasn’t going to dominate. I suspect that Welch was overstating to make a point that you can’t always be Leonard Nimoy’s Spock.

    Friends are useful for perspective. Remember that enemies and competitors can be, too. If they’re panicking, you may be on the right track; if they’re happy, you’re probably doing something wrong.

  • I am not sure it is possible to isolate emotions while making critical decisions, because emotions mixed with intelligence is what constitutes a human mind and shutting down one while activating another is not within our capabilities. If YOU are the decision maker, your decision will as well have your emotional ring to it. It’s important to be `real’ while trying to be objective since unreal decisions would mean you were not doing your own bidding.

    I suggest you take a decision based on the analysis of given variables and then try to align your emotions to it objectively.

  • Hello Ben:

    I read a book recently that explains (I think beautifully) how to acknowledge emotions during decision making.

    It’s called Six Hats thinking by Edward De Bono.

    The basic premise is – you get to wear six differing hats – when examining an issue (either by yourself or in a group). Each hat represents a unique approach to the issue at hand – emotions, judgments, possibilities, criticism etc

    The end result for me was a repeateable “thinking process” that I use to get a holistic view of any issue I’m dealing with.

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