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Logic vs Emotions: The Power that Rules Decision Making

Neuroscience and mindfulness interact to solve disruptive decision making habits.

As a behaviour change specialist, I interact with people from myriads of backgrounds. Although their approach to life varies, everyone is constantly questioning their ability to make the right decisions either for themselves or for their families. So, how do we make the right decisions, or rather how to do we make decisions at all? So, what really goes on in our mind that helps us make daily decisions?

To understand that, we first need to know that our brains are constantly making decisions. In fact, we make hundreds or even thousands of decisions every day. What clothes to wear, what food to eat, how to get to work, what movie to watch and so on.

In order to reduce the amount of energy and time needed to analyze each decision, our brain takes mental shortcuts to make quick choices and decisions. This process is called heuristic, an efficient strategy to think through the possible outcomes quickly and arrive at a solution that will work for your unique problem. Because people use mental shortcuts, they tend to classify all experiences and solutions in categories or give specific meanings to them. For example, if you were bitten by a dog as a child, you tend to store ‘fear of dogs’ as an experience and you tend to avoid all dogs for most part of your life. In fact, we store each experience as a meaning or an association leading to the formation of our habits and the foundation of all our future decision makings.

Thus heuristic decision making is habitual and sub-conscious. It is quick, effortless and is rooted in past experiences and associations. Only when the brain is presented with new experiences, does it force us to weigh our options consciously. It then nudges us to opt for solutions that seem like the right ones in the given circumstance.

Another aspect that is largely ignored or under-estimated for decision making is the emotional framework of the mind. We tend to believe that decision making is based on logic. If we have facts, reasons, logic and well constructed argument, it would be easy for the another person to agree to our solutions or choices. But how many times, do we feel flustered when the other side just doesn’t ‘get it’ ?

New study reveals that we need emotions to make decisions! Emotions and feelings play a major role and provide both meaning and motivation for often advantageous decision making. In fact even with what we seem to believe are logical decisions, the very point of choice is arguably always based on emotion.

Given the nature of decision making as sub-conscious and driven by emotions, both heuristic strategies and emotional votality can often lead to disruptive or self-sabotaging decision making. Each could provide biases and illusory context that may not be based in reality. Just because we have had positive experience in the past doesn’t mean something is going to play out the same way. The context for each experience changes as does the physical environment and it’s content. And sometimes emotions become overwhelming and interfere with sound decision making, leading to poor decisions that have far reaching impact.

So, in a scenario where everything seems to be influenced by factors beyond our control, what should we do? The situation is not as dire as it seems. Smarter decisions can be made on a daily basis.

Self awareness and mindful meditation are critical tools for better decision making! Choosing to be aware of your emotions and feelings in any given circumstance could help reduce disruptive outcomes. By becoming aware, the focus shifts from the negative consequences in the future to the reality of today. Cognition of emotions and feelings also dissipates the power they have over the mind allowing for a more rational approach and greater clarity. Research conducted by INSEAD and Wharton School published in Psychological Science suggests that even 15 minutes of mindful meditation daily helps sharpen one’s ability to make better decisions.

Building emotional intelligence brings clarity and internal harmony between our goals and actions. It also provides for a vantage point when interacting with the external world. Empathy led interactions allow for better negotiations and agreements leading to a ‘win-win’ in all your relationships.

So, how do we make the right decisions? By starting to allow an open-mindedness to things. To allow for the truth that we may not necessarily be in control and letting go of some of that control. And lastly, to achieve better decisions for ourselves and for our families, we need to consciously provide positive emotional environments that are truly based on love and trust.