This is a follow-up for the post on rational decision making. And first, a boring but important bit:

“Most theories of choice assume that decisions derive from an assessment of the future outcomes of various options and alternatives through some type of cost-benefit analyses. The influence of emotions on decision-making is largely ignored. The studies of decision-making in neurological patients who can no longer process emotional information normally suggest that people make judgments not only by evaluating the consequences and their probability of occurring, but also and even sometimes primarily at a gut or emotional level.”

From the Abstract of “The role of emotion in decision-making: Evidence from neurological patients with orbitofrontal damage” by Antoine Bechara, Brain and Cognition 55, 30-40, 2004.

I want a meal

Just imagine you go to a restaurant. It turns out to be a lovely restaurant, much nicer than you have expected.

There is a classy look and feel to the place. You enter … and you are exposed to distinct but subtle smells. You like it there. You like the modern design and the combination of colors: red, orange, brown and black. The place welcomes you. It feels perfect to sit down, relax and celebrate life with a meal.

Looking at a menu, you find a number of appealing choices. What to choose? Would you eat beef or chicken today? Hmm…. What about crunchy salad or delicious pasta, instead?

But … wait.

Shouldn’t you be rational about your choices?  Of course, you should.

Please take a piece of paper and make a list of important features characterizing the meals. Let’s look at the estimated protein content, estimated fat content, estimated carbs content,  calories count, minerals and vitamins and many more. Let’s analyze what you have eaten so far, this morning, this day, this week. This month? Let’s incorporate this knowledge to the feature list. And let’s work on the weighting scheme of the features. Anything missing? Take your time…

Done? O.K. Let’s now consider a meal representative for every meat / veg option. Since it’s an evening meal we want to optimize the protein content and minimize the carbs content. But we also want to have a tasty meal. How to optimize this?

I personally don’t know and I stop here.

In fact, I even don’t start such an analysis. I choose the minimalist’s approach of following my gut. Straight and simple. What about  you?

Is it possible to follow any rational analysis concerning what your body needs at this very moment? Perhaps it is, when you limit your choices.  But in general, you will either ask the waiter for a recommendation, choose the cook’s meal of the day or decide what you feel like eating, will you not?

The importance of emotions

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has been doing an interesting research. He studied people with the brain damage who lost the ability of feeling emotions. What he found out was surprising to say at least. The decision making process has become seriously impaired for such people. Having a number of options available, they couldn’t decide what to eat or what to wear. There was simply no rationally defined cost-function to optimize between similar options. Lack of emotions set them in a deadlock, with no way out.

We learn from this that emotions are essential in decision making. Even more, Damasio proposes that emotions cannot be separated any longer from our reasoning. We may simply not recognize them in what we receive as a rational thought. Read the book Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain, where Damasio discusses how parts of the brain, related to perception of emotions, continually communicate with other parts of the body through electrical and chemical signals. The body is sending information to the brain and the brain is replying, or even initiating communication. And although thoughts and feelings are separate “information systems”, they continually talk to each other. It is our conscious self which discriminates where the emphasis lies.

See also a 3-min video of Damasio here


The heart – brain system

Damasio’s thesis is similar to the one discussed by David Servan-Schreiber, a clinical psychiatrist, about the heart-brain system, where guts and other organs reporting to the heart all together communicate with the brain. What he emphasizes is the heart coherence for our optimal functioning. Read his interesting book Healing without Freud or Prozac.

We feel feelings in the body in profound ways, such as butterflies in the stomach when we are stressed or physical lightness when we are happy. Emotions are grounded in the body. Hormones such as adrenaline creates feelings of anxiety, while oxytocin creates feelings of blissful love. Not only face expression, but also the whole body posture reflects the feelings. And the other way around,  by taking a specific posture and look we may evoke related feelings.

David Servan-Schreiber points to the early work of Andrew Armour and others that both heart and digestive system have their own networks of neurons which, although much smaller and more primitive than those of the brain, act as small brains with their own form of perception and reaction. It means that the heart (and gut) has its own intrinsic nervous system that operates and processes information independently of the brain or nervous system. As a result, both heart and guts are capable of acting independently of the brain – to learn, remember, and even sense.  How impressive is that!

Emotions are essential

Both Damasio and Servan-Schreiber explain how essential emotions are. Of course, there are different levels and degrees of you following them. Emotional decision making works by going towards the fulfilment of an emotional need. What you optimize is your perceived-to-be feeling of happiness, fulfilment or satisfaction. So, the preferred choice works towards such a goal. In the extreme case, however, emotional decision making is driven by our biological wiring for an instant gratification in some form.

As humans we are not good at planning and thinking long term. Instead, we live in a short frame of time. Uhm… we want this yummy cake and a mocha coffee. And we want them now. And the next day, the pattern repeats. And the next day as well. We want coffee and we want a cake. We may do it every day even though we rationally know that these choices contribute to a possibly devastating effect on our health some years from now. Most advertisements and sales pitches intelligently push the instant gratification button. And we are usually good at rationalizing such choices and explaining them to ourselves. We deserve our buy, don’t we?.

  • How many times did you buy something to only find out it was a miss later on?
  • How many times did you eat junk food to regret it later? Well, of course, you have to work on this important project and don’t have the time for cooking. Who does it, anyway, nowadays?
  • How many times did you sleep long instead of committing to morning exercises you wanted to? You simply did not feel like getting up so early this morning, right?

Following emotions … it’s a part of the story

I believe emotions are crucial in decision making. While rational analysis prepares the ground and enumerates possible options, emotions have the ability to simplify complex weighting of choices and calculations. They simply reduce and limit our reasoning, and thereby make reasoning possible. Or more effective.

However, I do not advocate to go with the emotional decision making per se unless you are experienced in handling your emotions. The danger is that we may allow ourselves to be totally driven by emotions and loosing ourselves. In such a situation we identify with currents of emotions and become the power station of feelings. Very intense. We forget our conscious self guarding us in the moment of now. This is what may happen in heated discussions, when people fall in love or when we emotionally identify with the idea we are going to defend with our lives. The rise of unleashed emotions leads to a flood.

The powerful integration

One-sided approaches miss a lot of information.  They are not the answer. What I like to see is to give respect to both contributions: rational analysis and emotions, maintaining a coherent balance. None of them individually equips you with the tools to make the most informative decisions.

Effective decision making simply has to address emotional and rational elements of our being. Both emotion and cognition/rational thought are separate but interacting systems, each with its unique intelligence.

What is their successful integration, do you think?

My answer is intuitive decision making. What is your answer?


Photo courtesy Fe Langdon, available under the Creative Commons license on Flickr


The series of posts on decision making


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