Decide without emotion … it’s bloody hard

#5 May 28th, The First Two Things Before Acting

OMG … There are 2 pots of gold hidden on Dartmoor

Another day another meditation. One by Marcus Aurelius, from Meditations 8.5, and he starts it with the following statement:

The first thing to do — don’t get worked up.

Easier said then done.

Ryan Holiday summarizes it as “Don’t get upset & Do the right thing”.

Ok so when I am angry, or annoyed, or sad … calm down before deciding.

Seems simple.

So how do I actually do this? In many cases your brain has already decided what it’s going to do, before your logical brain takes over.

Your two systems

Daniel Kahneman in “Thinking, Fast and Slow” writes a lot about the decisions and choices we make.

He explains that you are operated by two systems. System 1 being the automatic/intuitive one, and System 2 the logical one.

System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.
System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.

When you’re busy and occupied it is almost impossible for System 2 to interrupt your System 1 decisions.

The moral is significant: when System 2 is otherwise engaged, we will believe almost anything. System 1 is gullible and biased to believe, System 2 is in charge of doubting and unbelieving, but System 2 is sometimes busy, and often lazy.

To make things worse, its even hard to learn from your mistakes. Evaluating decisions objectively afterwards is incredibly difficult due to outcome bias.

…outcome bias makes it almost impossible to evaluate a decision properly — in terms of the beliefs that were reasonable when the decision was made.

So how do I stop System 1 from reacting automatically, and give System 2 time to catch up and ensure my decision and actions are right?

Which is worse? Happy vs Upset

While I was out on my run this morning, a second question popped into my head.

“What about happiness and excitement? How do they effect the decisions we make?”

The same applies it seems. And in my case, I am often worse trying to decide when I am happy and excited.

Luckily, Daniel Kahneman again, confirms I am not alone:

A good mood is a signal that things are generally going well, the environment is safe, and it is all right to let one’s guard down. A bad mood indicates that things are not going very well, there may be a threat, and vigilance is required.

So what is the solution?

How do I make sure I remove emotion from decision making? The key Daniel offers is to stop & slow down.

The way to block errors that originate in System 1 is simple in principle: recognize the signs that you are in a cognitive minefield, slow down, and ask for reinforcement from System 2.


What started as a simple “Dont get upset & do the right things” turned out to be somewhat of a minefield.

Maybe that was the purpose of it. To get me to realise that the actions I take are a result of decisions influenced by my emotional state.

  1. Be aware of your state
  2. Stop & slow down
  3. Reflect
  4. Decide
  5. Act

Call to Action

If you read this far, then it would be great if you could 💬 respond to share your view:

  • How do you make sure your decision and actions are right?
  • Are emotional actions always bad? Because there is a case for gut feel & intuition I think?
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