You may not realize it, but all your decisions are emotional. In fact, years of research has shown that decision making skills can be improved by relying on emotions. However, the only way they can work for you is if you have an understanding of how to utilize emotional control in the decision making process.
The following framework will guide you through a series of lessons to help you understand the nature of emotions and how they work in the mind and brain. You will learn an important lesson in all this: Optimizing choice isn’t about getting rid of emotions. On the contrary. You need your emotions – both good and bad – to make the best possible choices.
Our team of psychology and neuroscience PhDs have reviewed more than fifty academic studies in decision science, behavioral- and neuro-economics to provide you this framework for addressing emotions in decision making.
The role of emotional control in decision making
Let’s take a look inside the brain to see why emotions are so important for decision making. The part of your brain that is responsible for expressing and experiencing appropriate emotional states – the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) – is also involved in decision making.
Studies show that if this part of the brain is impaired, a person’s decision making skills are dramatically hindered. For example, in the classic studies, people are presented with four separate decks of cards laid out face-down. Unbeknownst to them, the cards contain various amounts of rewards and losses (i.e., 50 or 100 dollars).
It’s up to the person to try and maximize their overall gains by the end of the game. There are 4 decks in total: 2 “advantageous” decks with low gains and low losses (with a net gain over time), and 2 “disadvantageous” decks with high gains and high losses (with a net loss over time).
The structure of the task makes it possible to objectively assess the quality of a person’s decision making over time. Most people who are good at decision making eventually figure out the rules and choose optimally.
The findings show that healthy participants (with an intact vmPFC) are able to work out (quite quickly) that two of the decks return more gains over time. So, eventually they only choose the cards from those decks to minimize their losses. On the other hand, people with damage to the vmPFC tend to choose the cards from the “disadvantageous” decks, despite the accumulated loss over time.
In healthy participants (vmPFC intact), when they draw from the “disadvantageous” decks, a twinge of negative emotion occurs (outside conscious awareness). This automatic negative affect prompts the individual to stay away from the two ‘bad’ decks. They develop an effective strategy to minimize the risk of total loss. Fascinatingly, individuals shift their decision patterns before they’re even conscious of the process.
On the other hand, people with an impaired vmPFC don’t feel that twinge of negative emotion. As a result, they don’t experience the aversion of accumulated loss, and so they make sub-optimal decisions over time.
The lesson in all this is the following: decision making is improved not in spite of emotions but because of them. It’s hardwired in the brain.
What does this mean for you?
Emotions are essential in framing optimal decisions. Ignoring your feelings has a negative impact on your decision making skills. To overcome this, here we offer you some straightforward solutions on how to exercise emotional control in the choices you make.
In what follows, we will guide you through two main types of emotions:
- The first part deals with your incidental emotions. These are emotions that happen in the background and that have nothing to do with the actual decision (for example, the mood you were in before you even faced the decision).
- The second part deals with integral emotions. These are emotions that are caused by the decision itself (for example, feeling anxious because of the uncertainty of making a choice).
How to use incidental emotions to enhance your decision making skills
Incidental emotions encompass everything that you feel in the moment of a decision but that are actually unrelated to the decision itself. For example, let’s say you are having a good day (for whatever reason). That means, you just happen to be in a more positive mood when making a decision. But the incidental “good-feeling” is unrelated to the actual choice you’re making.
Here, we will guide you through recognizing these types of incidental emotions, to ensure you’re maintaining emotional control. This happens by:
- Watching out for the emotions that are not part of your decision making
- Identifying how your current mood affects your risk perception
Watch out for ‘accidental’ emotions not part of the decision
Emotions arise spontaneously, often without you knowing their exact source. It can be tricky to pinpoint the underlying root cause of a feeling. As a result, people often misattribute their feelings to the decision itself, even if it has nothing to do with it. It’s called the misattribution of emotions, and it can be disastrous for decision making.
Your feelings can steer you in the wrong direction, but only if you are unable to correctly and reliably attribute them to the true source. For example, research indicates that positive feelings such as gratitude and happiness increase general perceptions of trust, while negative feelings such as anger or sadness lead to the opposite (i.e., incorrect attribution). However, the same emotions do not have an effect on trust if the emotional sources get correctly identified (i.e., correct attribution). In other words, if you can pinpoint what put you in a good or bad mood, you protect yourself (and your decisions) from the sway of emotional processing.
It can be mitigated by learning to attribute (correctly) the source of your mood and assessing whether or not it is related to the decision. The emotions that are directly related should be accounted for in the decision process, and the emotions that are more of a byproduct should be ignored. It looks like this:
- Identify the general mood you are currently in. Is it positive or negative?
- Evaluate whether your mood is incidental or related to your decision. You can do that by creating a timeline of your emotions, with the moment you were presented with the possible choice(s) as the reference point:
- Identify the initial moment when you faced the decision – be as clear as possible. You can either give a specific time (10am today), or refer to an event, such as getting an email from the client this morning.
- Now, think of the mood you were in before the moment you identified in the step a. Was is positive or negative?
- Then, simple as it is, compare the mood you were in before, to the mood you are in now.
- When did your current feelings emerge? Is it before or after you were presented with a choice to make? If it is before, then the emotions are incidental, if it is after, then they are integral to your decision.
Identify how your current mood affects your risk perception
Every emotional state that you experience falls somewhere on the 2-dimensional plane of valence and arousal. In other words, every emotion is either:
- Good or bad (valence) and
- Active or passive (arousal)
Interestingly, different classes of emotions affect your decision making skills differently.
For valence: Positive states will make you seek different solutions than the negative states.
- The negative emotions make you prone to go for high-risk / high-reward options, because you unconsciously seek rewards to balance the current negative state.
- The positive emotions, on the other hand, make you prone to maintain the current circumstances, by avoiding risky decisions that can change the status quo currently being enjoyed.
For arousal: Similarly, different levels of emotional arousal will differently impact your decision making skills.
- High levels of excitement are linked with sensation-seeking. If you feel active emotions, you’ll be more likely to go for risky solutions.
- Low levels of excitement on the other hand, mean that you’re more likely to go for the safe, less risky options.
Taken together, your rational evaluation of potential risks is compromised by your current mood and incidental emotional state. But most people don’t know this. They make decisions without accounting for these “background emotional states.” Follow these steps to ensure you’re maintaining emotional control in your risk-related decisions:
- First, take your top three choices and evaluate their risk factor – the proportion of potential rewards to losses that would be triggered by that particular choice. The higher the losses and rewards are, the higher the risk factor.
- Once you finish your initial analysis, ask yourself how you feel at this moment. But remember, we’re dealing with incidental emotions. This means your feelings are likely unrelated to the decision at hand. Evaluate your overall mood by asking yourself three questions:
- Do I feel good or bad?
- Do I feel relaxed or energized?
- What has happened in the last little while which likely contributed to how I feel now?On the graph below there are those two dimensions with examples of emotional states within the circle. This is meant to help you visualize your responses.
- Now, go back to your initial risk analysis and look at where you plotted yourself on the graph above. Re-evaluate them, now taking into account your overall mood. If you feel positive and/or relaxed, your risk evaluation scores can stay the same. However, if you feel either tense or negative, you need to re-adjust your risk scores. If you consider your top choices as good choices regardless of the potential risks, you need to reconsider if they are indeed worth pursuing.
How to use integral emotions to enhance your decision making skills
Facing a choice triggers an emotion in you, whether it’s positive or negative. For example:
- You experience anxiety if you face uncertainty.
- You feel excited at the potential of making a new hiring decision.
- You are grateful for the money you earn when you decide where to go on holidays next.
- You feel frustration if something is impeding your next step.
Instead of pushing such emotions aside, you can use them to improve the decision process by utilizing emotional control. The two ways to do this are by:
- Knowing how to control the emotions that come up when you are in decision making process (and minimizing their biases).
- Listening to your body to recognize which outcomes would be best for you.
Minimize the emotional biases via a time-delay
To improve your decision making skills, it is essential to recognize your feelings and maintain control over them. The best and simplest way to minimize the momentary emotional biases of integral emotions is by using a time delay.
Time delays are important because they keep your emotions in check. Consider: A classic ‘fight or flight’ response helps you address potential danger quickly. While there is an evolutionary advantage to move fast in the presence of danger, nowadays most situations are better responded to with some delay.
Research shows that even as little as 10 minutes between the moment you are given a choice and the moment you decide, is enough to bring your emotional state to the baseline and improve your emotional control. For example, a study looking at anger and decision making found that triggering anger in participants was enough to negatively sway their immediate decisions. However, delaying the moment of decision by at least 10 minutes, reduced the impact it had.
With this in mind, when you face a decision, give yourself a 10 minute window to emotionally adapt to the situation. There are two rules to remember here:
- Do not start thinking about the solution straight away. The choices you would make within the first 10 minutes would be heavily impacted by your emotional state. By holding back, you give yourself time to adjust and let your emotions return to their baseline.
- Do not suppress your emotions. Just let them be. Although it may sound counter intuitive to the idea of staying in control of your feelings, letting yourself experience them for a short period of time is good for you. Suppression, on the other hand, will not only intensify your emotional state, but it also impairs your cognition.
Once the 10 minutes has passed, you can follow up with your usual decision making process, knowing that your emotional state will no longer impair your judgement.
Bonus tip: During the delay-window, shift your attention away from the emotionally charged decision. You can focus on small activities that are emotionally neutral. Answer emails, tidy up your workspace, have a coffee break, listen to a podcast … you have plenty of options! Set up the timer for 10 minutes and do not think about your decision during that time. Research shows that by shifting your attention from emotionally-charged tasks to neutral ones, you improve your emotion regulation and increase your resilience to stress, which in turn positively affects your decision making by building emotional control.
Use your emotions to steer you towards good outcomes and away from bad ones
The body speaks volumes when you experience an emotion. The communication of feelings through bodily signals is called somatic markers. These are physical indicators of your emotional states mapped onto the body.
Being aware of these bodily signals is called interoceptive ability. It has been linked to effective decision making skills. For example, financial traders in London that were sensitive to their physiological reactions achieved higher profits and stayed in the market longer than those who ignored them.
It works like an alarm bell going off. Interoceptive ability and somatic markers help you narrow your attention on the things that matter most in a decision context. In other words, the options that evoke the strongest feelings (i.e., the loudest alarm going off) are the ones you should carefully consider. Here is how to do it:
- First, take a moment to clarify your options – what are the potential choices you can make? You can list them on a piece of paper. The following steps should be performed separately for each option.
- Take a moment to think. You don’t have to analyze them or their potential consequences. Simply hold the option in your mind for a moment.
- For each option that you think about, “listen” to your body. Check what kind of response is triggered. Although it might be difficult to name your emotional states associated with your choices, the physiological reactions tend to be easier to identify. Start with these:
Are you experiencing any tension in your body?Are you feeling more relaxed than usual?Are you experiencing any pain?Is your heart beating faster?Are you feeling lightheaded?Are you feel nauseous?
- Once you identify the physiological response to the presence of the choice, next step is to evaluate whether the physiological response is caused by a positive or negative feeling. You have to be careful here. A similar sensation in your body may actually result from stress (negative) or excitement (positive). So, ask yourself: do the physiological changes identified have a feeling of general pleasantness or unpleasantness? Mark on your list the choices that trigger positive reactions (+), the choices that trigger negative reactions (-) and the choices that feel neutral (*). Then, assign a strength score for each choice: weak/ moderate/ strong.
- Finally, you can discard all the choices that feel neutral and/or weak. Instead, focus only on ones that evoke a moderate to strong positive or negative physiological response in your body. These are the choices demanding your attention. These are the ones sounding off the alarm bell through the elicitation of various somatic markers. The positively toned ones should be approached, the negative ones avoided.
Recap for utilizing emotional control in decision making
By following this guide, you can learn simple tactics on how to maintain emotional control in decision making. Here’s a recap of what we covered:
You can use the “background” emotions outside the focal task in order to improve your decision making (incidental emotions):
- Evaluate correctly where is the source of your current mood and how it affects your judgement and thinking.
- Identify your current mood and how it affects your risk perception in decision making.
You can also use the emotions that are central to the focal task in order to improve your decision making (integral emotions):
- Minimize the emotional impact by giving yourself a time-window before you make the choice.
- Use your emotions to guide your attention, to see which options are worth pursuing.
Above all, remember that your emotions can help you make better decisions. So go ahead and feel. But feel the right way.