Current research from the fields of neurology, behavioral economics, and cognitive psychology is showing us that — contrary to what we’ve been told — emotions actually help us make decisions.
The old wives’ tale is that we make decisions by ignoring our emotions and using only our rational faculties. Thinking was long-supposed to be better or smarter than feeling, but the truth is coming out. As we’re learning more about the brain, emotions are no longer seen as the opposite of rationality. Instead, science is helping us understand (finally) that the so-called rational aspects of our brains aren’t able to hold enough conflicting information in working memory to organize a complex decision. Instead, our emotions help us attach value, meaning, and weight to information. Emotions help us separate the wheat from the chaff, identify valid or important information, and make decisions.
Without our emotions, we can’t organize or attach value to conflicting information; we just stand around looking confused. Without our emotions, we’re actually incapable of making deep and multifaceted decisions.
But what about really bad decisions?
Good question. As your emotions help you think right now, you may be recalling multiple images of highly emotional people making highly questionable decisions. The comments sections on far too many websites these days are perfect examples, where people aren’t talking about the story; rather, they’re ranting and flaming about ideas that the story has triggered in them. They’re not being informed by their emotions; they’re acting as the unwitting puppets of their emotions, and it’s painful to witness.
We see unhealthy and irrational emotional behavior all over the web, every day. In many cases, other commenters will chime in and try to calm down the ranters, but the topic and the actual story get lost in the turmoil, and we see the worst examples of emotions influencing people’s decisions. In many people’s hands, emotions are truly ugly things, and they do lead to irrationality.
But that’s not the fault of the emotions. Emotions are an integral part of our capacity to think and experience the world, and just like any other part of human nature, they can be used for good or ill. Emotions are not rational or irrational: Emotions are simply data; you are the interpreter of those data, and your behavior determines whether the outcome is rational or not.
Because emotions stand at the center of our decision-making processes, we simply have to become smarter about how we use them. Here are some ideas: