According to Herbert Simon, American Nobel Laureate scientist, “In order to have anything like a complete theory of human rationality, we have to understand what role emotion plays in it.”
As Dr. Simon and others have pointed out, emotions influence, skew or sometimes completely determine the outcome of a large number of decisions we are confronted with in a day. Therefore, it behooves all of us who want to make the best, most objective decisions to know all we can about emotions and their effect on our decision-making.
But, just in case you’re not sold on what I and Dr. Simon say, and you continue to believe you can make decisions free of emotional bias, let’s look at how emotions are formed and how they are transformed into actionable feelings.
First, every feeling begins with an external stimulus, whether it’s what someone said or a physical event. That stimulus generates an unfelt emotion in the brain, which causes the body to produce responsive hormones. These hormones enter the bloodstream and create feelings, sometimes negative and sometimes positive.
So, to review, it’s stimuli, then emotions, then hormones and, finally, feelings. In other words, your emotions impact your decision-making process by creating certain feelings.
According to another expert in the field, American-Portuguese neuroscientist Dr. Antonio R. Damasio, the brain constantly needs to update its information on the body’s state in order to regulate the many processes that keep it alive. And, it needs to translate those emotions into actionable feelings. In an ever-changing environment, this is the only way an organism can survive.
For instance, when we feel threatened by something, the initial emotion is labeled “fear.” That fear, by means of hormones, results in the production of fight-or-flight responsive feelings, allowing our body to react quickly and appropriately for its own self-preservation. This emotional reaction happens suddenly and unconsciously. Then, usually after an extremely short period of time, we become aware of those changes. We become aware of them only after responsive hormones have entered our bloodstream and we experience them as a feeling of being frightened or perhaps inferior.
Awareness that there is a constant and complex dance between emotions and feelings could significantly improve your emotional intelligence, including your decision-making ability. However, to aid in your understanding of the matter, let me introduce you to Paul Ekman’s Emotion Wheel.
To continue with our fear to frightened/inferior example above, we can look at the Emotion Wheel to more clearly visualize that “fear” on the inner circle is different from “frightened” on the outer one. Or, to switch our focus to the positive, we can use the Emotion Wheel to see that the emotion of “happy” on the inner circle can result in a feeling of “joyful,” “powerful” or even “proud” on the outside circle.
All well and good you perhaps say, but how does an understanding of this help us make choices that are actually beneficial in the long run, and not, perhaps, just perceived as beneficial in the short run? We do that by focusing on the resulting feeling. In other words, we need to consider how any particular emotion (inner circle) will translate into a feeling (outer circle).
The payoff is in understanding that the six emotions are only broad categories with little specificity, while the feelings are more akin to how we actually and specifically describe what’s going on in our brains and bodies. For example, we can readily see that the emotion of disgust is just a general revulsion. Without the Emotion Wheel, it’s impossible to see how it translates into specifics, i.e., feelings.
Only when we see this final result can we effectively utilize knowledge of emotions and feelings in the decision making process. Instead, if we try to understand that any particular emotion, say, disgust, will result in a feeling of, say, “loathing” or “judgmental” or “detestable,” then we can better evaluate the matter and take the better action.
To practice, let’s take a situation you want to deal with and make a decision about. Except, this time we will do it from the specific to the general, rather from the general (inner circle) to the specific (other circles). After you have identified and selected an item from the outer circle, track that feeling inward through the two rings until you have reached the basic emotion (inner circle).
Using this process, you can see that while you think you are experiencing a feeling, you are really dealing with an emotion. Sometimes, I think about our feelings as symptoms of our emotions. So, like dealing with most maladies, you need to get to the root cause (an emotion) rather than a symptom (a feeling).
So, how can you develop a working awareness of this process, so as to aid decision making? Here are some things I find useful:
• Name what you are deciding. You don’t need the Emotion Wheel for this, but you do need to consider exactly what the problem is and the ramifications of your proposed solution.
• Recognize and name all feelings you are experiencing in connection with the decision. These feelings will no doubt appear somewhere on the outer circle of the Emotion Wheel.
• Bring your feelings inward through the middle circle to identify its root cause (an emotion).
• Process that emotion, not one of its symptoms (a feeling).
• Be aware of whether you want to make a decision from this specific emotion or if you want to adjust the course.
Of course, you also need to do all the usual things you frequently hear about as conducive to objective decision making, such as avoiding making decisions when you are tired, stressed or being influenced by non-objective actors. Nevertheless, identifying the root or emotional basis of your feelings will go a long way toward improving your decision-making.
This article was originally published in Forbes.
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