Decisions made by their owners: emotion and reason when deciding

More and more specialists in neuroscience affirm that we make most decisions guided by emotion, and then justify them through reason. However, it is our challenge to ensure that reason is the protagonist in corporate decisions.

In recent years, it has become very common to talk about emotions. Books, academic articles, television spots and conferences on the subject give an account of the phenomenon. Even in fiction, the theme is everywhere: first with the “Lie to Me” series, and then in the cinema, when Pixar released the children’s film, “Inside Out” in 2015. Emotions run through their plots, drawing inspiration in both cases from psychologist Paul Ekman’s research on emotional states and corresponding facial expressions.

What are emotions?

The word emotion comes from the Latin word “emovere”, which means to shake or agitate. In the origin of the word, we already see that the tendency to act is implicit. However, among scientists who study emotions, we do not find a unique, single definition. While the James-Lange theory understands them as physiological responses to sensory stimuli, others consider them to be the product of social constructions.

The only thing we know for certain is that emotion is not separate from reason, as was believed for so many years. It has been proven that the limbic system in which emotions develop and the cortex where reason operates constantly interact, permanently influencing our brain. There is no brain activity without emotion or reason: both are present in every decision.

People guided by their brain

According to some specialists in neuroscience, we make most of our decisions guided by the limbic system, where emotions reside, and then we justify them through reason.

According to this idea, many of the decisions that we believe we approach in a rational way, analyzing the elements involved and reaching an objective solution, could have been made reflexively, automatically, without us realizing it. Apparently, later we would look for the arguments to support what we have already decided “unconsciously”.

The problem with this generalization is that it puts the human being in a place of very little freedom. It is as if suddenly, we no longer have the power to choose because a kind of black box inside us is in charge of deciding for us in every possibility.

The debate on free will is extensive, has changed over time, and has been enriched by contributions from multiple disciplines. However, popular literature has the habit of presenting decisions as if they were all the same, a generalization that trivializes the discussion.

Types of decisions

It is not reasonable to think in the same terms the decision to choose which sweet topping to put on my toast, changing one’s job, or an investment of millions in a new plant.

Emotions can be protagonists in casual decisions, those that we face most frequently and in a matter of minutes or seconds: what we eat, how we dress or how we travel to work. In these cases, we are even more efficient when we avoid reason interfering and, instead of devoting time and energy to the choice, we let the brain act automatically.

On the other hand, in companies we frequently face other types of decisions that, due to their impact, require that we dedicate more time to them and that we make them consciously so that reason is what guides the decision-making process and emotions remain in the background. Deciding from emotion and justifying strategic decisions from reason will not lead us to a successful outcome.

There is a percentage of the decisions we make that, without a doubt, must have rational processes that manage to stop the automatism of the brain in order to choose how we want to approach them. And in that percentage lie the decisions we make in our companies.

As social psychologist Leon Festinger argues, the problem with emotional decisions in these cases is that the consequences of those decisions outlast the emotional conditions in which we make them.

It does not mean that company decisions should be devoid of emotions, which would be an impossible challenge: emotions are inherent to human beings.

However, in organizations we must incorporate tools that allow us to ensure that reason has a leading role in the process.

Decisions made by their owners

The first step to make emotions play in our favor, and not against, is to identify them. Stopping the brain’s automatism implies interrupting the reaction that arises from the brain process to analyze the decision and appropriate it. A conscious decision is more ours than one that is not.

To understand how an emotion may be affecting us, it is essential to take a moment to understand what we are feeling in our bodies when facing a certain decision.

Just the fact of distinguishing and recognizing the emotion will activate a process in our brain that will decrease its intensity and inhibit it. When a certain decision causes us fear, for example, identifying that fear will help us moderate its effect on the final resolution.

On the other hand, emotions can be functional or dysfunctional. That is, the same emotion can positively influence certain circumstances and negatively in others. Anxiety, for example, can lead us to make hasty decisions without considering all the elements. But on other occasions, anxiety can be the engine that drives us to decide without unnecessarily delaying the process. Identifying what emotions are going through us can help us transform dysfunctional ones into functional ones.

Lastly, it is key to understand what kind of decision you are facing and what is the best approach. Only then can we choose the appropriate methodology to be successful as rational decision makers.

In order for reason to take its rightful place in complex decisions, it is essential to make a clear diagnosis of the problem, which includes all the variables at stake, make our objectives explicit in relation to said problem, and keep in mind the different possible courses of action to accomplish those objectives.

In short, it is about not allowing emotions to guide the decision and reason that justify it, but to decide with reason, understanding that emotions will always be present in the process.

Daniela Olstein
Manager at Tandem.

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