We are often told to keep emotion out of our decision-making, and decide on entirely rational grounds. Of course, when emotions such as anger are too strong, they affect our ability to think rationally.

But outside of these extreme circumstances, emotions are not the enemy of reason. In fact, it is impossible to make meaningful decisions without emotion, since emotion is what supplies the meaning. All decisions, even business decisions, are ultimately emotional.

In his book Descartes’ Error, the neurologist Antonio Damasio tells of a successful corporate lawyer who underwent brain surgery to remove a tumour. The surgery had the unfortunate side-effect severing the links between the amygdala (part of the limbic system or ’emotional brain’) and the neocortex, the part of the brain responsible for thinking. Although his intellectual abilities were unimpaired, the lawyer could not hold down a job, his wife left him, and he squandered his savings on foolish investments.

His thinking had become computerlike. Detached from emotion, all options had equal value so he could not choose between them. Even something as mundane as making a doctor’s appointment was beyond him, because he could find reasons for and against the date and time of any available appointment.

It is our emotions that tell us which option is preferable. It is also emotion which tells us when it is time to stop comparing the features, costs and benefits of different options and decide between them.

Finally, our emotions can alert us to factors that our conscious, rational awareness has missed, but which are nonetheless important. ‘Gut feelings’ or ‘intuition’ can alert us when something is not quite right about a person, a situation or a business deal, even when they look good on paper. Security consultant Gavin de Becker, in his splendid book The Gift of Fear, gives many examples where these gut feelings literally saved the person’s life.

This is not the same as saying that you should always follow your gut instinct. Rather, your decisions should both make sense rationally and feel right. If either your feelings or your intellect are flagging up doubts about a choice, you need to give it some more attention before you finally decide.

If you are based in the Middle East and interested in decision making, I am running the Grooming Leaders in Decision Making course for VMAC Group on 18-19 January 2010!

The role of emotion in decision-making

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One thought on “The role of emotion in decision-making

  • I found this post interesting.

    I agree with much that is said, in that intuition is essential. However, in my opinion intuition, because it is unlike an emotion, is not transient in nature. One’s gut instinct will remain the same even if one has left a problem to one side and then one revisits it to ponder it again.

    I can only speak from experience, and I have to say that every time I have gone against a strong urge to follow a course of action, having weighed all things logically against each other, the results have been to my detriment. Now I make it a rule to never go against instinct and so far it has not failed me.

    Sadly, I cannot guarantte this will be the case for everyone.

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