How do our emotions affect decision making?
17 May 2018 - 5 min read
When you’re faced with a big decision, do you go with your gut feeling, or do you make a careful list of pros and cons?
Following your intuition can be a great way to tune in to your true desires. But even when you think your decisions are based on logic and common sense, they are often steered by emotion.
By understanding how emotions play into our decision-making process, we can learn to find the perfect balance between reason and intuition, to make choices that serve us in living the best life we can.
How are decisions affected by emotion?
Emotions are created when the brain interprets what’s going on around us through our memories, thoughts and beliefs. This triggers how we feel and behave. All our decisions are influenced by this process in some way.
For example, if you’re feeling happy, you might decide to walk home via a sunny park. But if you’d been chased by a dog as a child, that same sunny park might trigger feelings of fear, and you’d take the bus instead. There may be logical arguments to be made either way, but in the moment, the decision is driven by your emotional state.
Different emotions affect decisions in different ways. If you’re feeling sad, you might be more willing to settle for things that aren’t in your favour, such as not putting yourself forward for promotion, or remaining in an unhealthy relationship. But sadness can also make you more generous – research shows that unhappy people are more likely to be in favour of increasing benefits to welfare recipients than angry people, who are lacking in empathy.
Emotions can affect not just the nature of the decision, but the speed at which you make it. Anger can lead to impatience and rash decision-making. If you’re excited, you might make quick decisions without considering the implications, as you surf the wave of confidence and optimism about the future. While if you feel afraid, your decisions may be clouded by uncertainty and caution, and it might take you longer to choose.
What this means is that your gut feeling plays a huge part in our decision-making process, but at times may be steering you wrong – it might lead to poor judgement, unconscious bias and recklessness or risk-aversion. But are there ever occasions when we should pay attention to our gut instinct?
Should we always ignore our intuition?
A visceral response to a situation could be a survival mechanism – the flash of fear felt by early humans who came face to face with a dangerous animal motivated them to RUN NOW! They wouldn’t have survived if they stopped to think.
Similarly, if you get a ‘bad feeling’ in the pit of your stomach because of a situation or person, it could be your body’s way of telling you it senses danger, based on your past experiences and beliefs.
Of course, this reaction might be completely unfounded, but it might also serve to protect you from danger or prevent you repeating past mistakes.
This points to one of the big advantages of instinctive decision-making – it’s quick. If you’re in a life or death situation, you don’t want to waste time working through the pros and cons.
This is true at the other end of the spectrum too, when faced with a choice about something completely insignificant. No one should spend hours considering the relative advantages of tea over coffee!
Decisions led by emotion can also be more compassionate, particularly if they affect other people. We see this at play in stories of people putting their own lives at risk to save someone else, or when we choose how to break difficult news to a friend.
So sometimes paying attention to our emotions can be a good thing. If you have a regular mindfulness or journalling practice, you probably know yourself well and enjoy a high level of self-awareness. You might be better off listening to your intuition when it comes to considering whether a romantic partner is right for you or whether you should change careers.
Being in emotional balance and knowing yourself at this deeper level means you can trust your instincts.
How can emotional intelligence help us make better decisions?
Both emotion and logic have a role to play in helping us make positive decisions. If we understand where our emotions come from and start to notice how they affect our thinking and behaviour, we can practice managing our response and learn to make better choices.
You can find out more about how to develop your emotional awareness in our guide to emotional intelligence. You’ll soon feel confident in knowing when to listen to your emotions, and when to tune them out.