Emotions: Handle with care

The powers humans wield has far outstripped the confines of biological evolution that has yielded a rich mosaic of emotions. The President of the United States has the nuclear codes at his fingertips, yet acts like a child while responding to insults. A modern Michelangelo painting a picture of nature handing emotions to us in a box might as well put the designation “Handle with Care” in red ink boldly over the box.

Since it is easier for people to wrap their heads around an idea when there is a name for it, I am going to use the term Emotional Salience fallacy to refer to the use of decision making frameworks that put emotions at the center. The name follows in the footsteps of giants like Daniel Kahneman. One might imagine that the Emotional Salience fallacy is generally found only in the ill-informed and unsophisticated among us. The two examples I provide below should make us question that claim.

Example 1: Regret minimization?

Jeff Bezos, now one of the richest men on the planet, credits the decision to start Amazon to a regret minimization framework. Regret, like anger, can be a useful negative emotion at times. But what one is going to regret in the future can be hard to predict. And the intensity of the regret is yet another unknown.

It seems unlikely that Jeff Bezos is running Amazon using an oversimplified and bias prone strategy like regret minimization. Another possibility I might have overlooked here is that Jeff Bezos merely interpreted his decision in a manner that he felt the press and the general public would latch onto.

Example 2: Follow your passion and happiness will follow?

Many people have parroted the advice to follow one’s passion to people facing a dilemma regarding their career choice. The most visible target for me is the Steve Jobs commencement lecture. Cal Newport has done a pretty good job in his book of capturing all that is wrong about the advice and what might be a better strategy.

Why emotions are only a starting point

So how should one think of emotions in the context of decisions? I don’t have a definitive answer for this and I don’t want to pretend to have one. Life’s decisions can be complex and one’s well being resulting from each of those decisions is multifaceted. But I can make a strong case for thinking of emotions as only a starting point.

Emotions evolved in the brain as a heuristic to help our ancestors survive and pass on their genes. See Joseph LeDoux’s book for more on this. One of the benefits of the higher order consciousness humans enjoy is the ability to pause and reflect on what we do. Given that our brains are far more plastic than we previously realized, perhaps we can think of our emotional states as putty waiting to be shaped.

Making good decisions and avoiding the Emotional Salience fallacy

Plenty of smart folks have discussed the key traits of good decision making. They all generally have the effect of making us not yield to the dominant emotion of the moment.

  1. Decisive
  2. Thinking fast and slow
  3. Good strategy and Bad strategy