How Emotions Shape Decision-Making

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Many people I work with ask the question, “Don’t emotions interfere with good decision-making?”  This article, generously shared by my partner at the Intentional Workplace, explains the process. 

There is little disagreement that effective decision-making is one of the most important tasks we must master to achieve success in every part of life.

If we were to take a survey in the average workplace to poll what people believed was most needed for effective decision-making, which of these do you think would top the list?

  • Factual information?
  • Risk assessment?
  • Clear thinking?
  • Limited emotional interference?

If you chose the last item, I’d like you to reconsider.

In his book, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain (first published in 1994)  one of the world’s top neuroscientists, Antonio Damasio, profiled his patient, Elliott, one of his most well-known cases.  Formerly a successful businessman, model father and husband, Elliott suffered from ventromedial frontal lobe damage as a result of a tumor and subsequent surgery for removal.

Following his operation, Elliot dispassionately reported to Damasio that his life was falling apart.  While still in the 97th percentile for IQ, Elliot lacked all motivation. His marriage collapsed as did each new business he started.  Damasio found Elliott an “uninvolved spectator” in his own life, “He was always controlled. Nowhere was there a sense of his own suffering, even though he was the protagonist. I never saw a tinge of emotion in my many hours of conversation with him: no sadness, no impatience, no frustration.”

It was clear to Damasio that as a result of his surgery, Elliot was incapable of making decisions“Elliott emerged as a man with a normal intellect who was unable to decide properly, especially when the decision involved personal or social matters.” Even small decisions were fraught with endless deliberation: making an appointment took 30 minutes, choosing where to eat lunch took all afternoon, even deciding which color pen to use to fill out office forms was a chore.  Turns out Elliott’s lack of emotion paralyzed his decision-making.

In the preface to the 2005 edition of Descartes Error, Damasio wrote, Today this idea [that emotion assists the reasoning process] does not cause any raised eyebrows. However, while this idea may not raise any eyebrows today among neuroscientists, I believe it’s still a surprise to the general public.  We’re trained to regard emotions as irrational impulses that are likely to lead us astray.  When we describe someone as “emotional,” it’s usually a criticism that suggests that they lack good judgment.  And the most logical and intelligent figures in popular culture are those who exert the greatest control over their emotions–or who seem to feel no emotions at all.”

Although neuroscience has built a strong body of evidence over twenty-five years to demonstrate the inextricable link between reason, emotion and decision-making most of mainstream culture still doesn’t get it.  Continue reading