Leaders are, above all, decision makers. And the stakes are often high. One choice can impact the livelihood of employees, the security of investors, the confidence of communities. Given the pressure-cooker environment, executives often ask, “How do I take the emotions out of my decisions?” But why would you want to? Emotions are what make us human – and they play an integral role in decision making processes.
Emotion and Decision: A Case of the Chicken and the Egg
Here’s the secret: you don’t. You never completely separate emotion from decision. In the sales world, there’s an old adage that people buy emotionally, then justify the purchase rationally. Turns out, it’s true: researchers Raj Raghunathan and Szu-Chi Huang discovered that comparative features (say of an iPhone 6 vs. a Galaxy S6) are important but mostly as justification after people have made their (emotional) decision.
Here’s where the chicken comes in. Raghunathan and Huang showed study participants two pictures: one was of a nice-looking, plump chicken, the other of a thin, sickly looking chicken. They told the group that the plumb chicken was all-natural, while the thin one was genetically modified.
They split the participants in half and told one group that the natural chicken was healthy but not tasty. The genetically modified chicken wasn’t much of a looker and was less healthy – but, boy, did it taste good. They told the other group the opposite.
Both groups chose the plump chicken. One group claimed it was because it was healthier; the other, tastier. Their decision was based on emotion, and they used non-emotional factors to back it up. Each group justified the same decision in completely opposite ways. Raghunathan and Huang call this “ad hoc rationalization,” and we use it all the time.
Emotions: A Prerequisite for Decision Making?
So we use emotion to justify decisions. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio goes one step further. He argues that neurologically, we cannot make decisions without emotions. Dr. Damasio talks about a patient of his who had a terrible time making decisions. After one appointment, Damasio tried to set up the next session for the following Tuesday or Wednesday.
The patient went back and forth for 20 minutes, weighed the benefits and drawbacks of each, unable to decide. Dr. Damasio points out that the cognitive processes were intact. So why couldn’t he make this rather simple decision? Because he had an injury to the area of the brain that governs…you guessed it, emotions.
He explains that emotions allow us to “mark things as good, bad, or indifferent.” Without that emotional impetus, that way of categorizing our experiences, we cannot make decisions. So the question isn’t “Can we remove emotion from decision?” That answer’s clear: no. The question is: “How do we acknowledge and use emotions and rationality to make the best decisions?” It’s a balancing act. You don’t want completely dispassionate decision makers. Where’s the passion, the engagement that’ll provide the impetus to turn a decision into a desired result? On the other hand, you don’t want a decision that is based solely on emotions and relegate reason to the curb. Where is the rationality that will form the foundation of a solid plan?
Emotions always, always, play a role in our decisions. The key isn’t to try to take them out of the action, but to acknowledge their importance, balance them with reason, and make the best choices we can. The reality is, we’re creatures of both logic and emotion, and we need to integrate them both in our decision making processes.