Emotions and Decision Making

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Many would consider emotions as a liability and therefore believe they would be better off without them. They may ignore or suppress, rather than figure them out. They would prefer to be logical rather than emotional when it comes to decision making.

However, it turns out that without emotions to motivate and drive us, we would be passive and do nothing. Decisions are informed by our emotional reactions since this is what emotions are designed to do. They quickly evaluate and condense an experience to inform our decision making and push us to act. While emotions serve to direct us, they communicate their messages unconsciously through our body.

It is important to note that because of their speed and survival nature, emotions are not particularly precise. Their speed and effectiveness compensate for what they lack in accuracy. This is why the emotional system has many false alarms, which requires us to reevaluate our response to check if it fits the situation.

Latest research has shown a strong connection between emotional and cognitive processes which establish that emotion is crucial in a rational decision making process[1]. You might have heard about the famous story of Phineas Gage, who dramatically changed the study of brain science. Phineas Gage was a railway worker who was responsible for drilling holes with the use of explosives and iron rods. Unfortunately, a vicious twist in the procedure sent an iron rod straight up into his skull, running through just under his left eye, and out of the top of his head.

Although Phineas survived, he became a changed man. After the accident, he was unreliable, partial to swearing and often made inappropriate remarks. He lost his inhibitions, both in a social and emotional context. For brain experts, this was an astounding revelation. For the first time, there was evidence that damage to specific parts of the brain affects our personality and behavior.

As the connection between the emotional brain to the frontal lobe had been seriously damaged, Phineas lost his ability to feel his emotions. In other words, he lacked the awareness of his own emotions. He had been cut off from his emotions. Not only did it impact his personality and behavior, it also impaired his ability to formulate decisions. He no longer had preferences, interests and concerns as he was in a state of indifference and apathy.

According to Antonio Damasio[2], who researched those phenomena, the case of Gage and other patients with similar brain impairment present persuasive evidence that the human brain's centers responsible for making decisions are solidly connected to the emotional regions.

Also, based on neurological studies done by Damasio and his colleagues[3], similar patients that still retain their memory or intelligence, but their neural connections between the emotional and cognitive centers of the brain have been broken, were unable to make choices in daily life situations, even when having all the necessary information. For example, one person, after hours of obsessing about several restaurants, analyzing seating charts, food menus and atmosphere, could not make up his mind on where to dine.

To conclude, in the absence of emotional markers, decision making is virtually unattainable. Our emotions will drive the conclusions we make, and our well-being may depend upon our ability to understand and interpret them while integrating them into rational decision making. While it is important to process and consider the emotional signals, we need to evaluate our responses and see if they are appropriate. Even more, if used wisely, emotions can also serve as a gateway to higher mental processes and greater self awareness.


[1] Keltner D, Lerner JS.( 2010). Emotion. In The handbook of social psychology, ed. DT Gilbert, ST Fiske, G Lindzey, pp. 317-52. New York, NY: Wiley

[2] Damasio, A.R. (1994). Descartes' error: Emotion, reason and the human brain. New York: Grosset/Putnam Book.

[3] Damasio, A.R. (1990). Individuals with sociopathic behavior caused by frontal damage fail to respond autonomically to social stimuli". Behavioural brain research, 41, 81-94


Moshe Ratson (MBA, MS MFT, LMFT) is a Licensed Couples Counselor and Marriage Family Therapist as well as Executive Coach based in NYC.

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