Decisions by emotion or intellect?

Human beings make hundreds of thousands of decisions over the course of their lifetimes; from the small, daily decisions that barely even register: ‘What shall we eat?’ ‘Which route shall I take to work this morning?’….to the big, life changing, agonising-over-for-days type of decisions: ‘Should I quit my job?’ ‘Should we buy that house?’ ‘Should we go our separate ways?’ So, do you make decisions by emotion or intellect?

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Our emotions will come into play in most decisions that we make – particularly the big, life-changing ones, and, if we consciously factor them in, often those emotions can help us to make those decisions. Let’s take your job, for example. Perhaps you have been treated unfairly in your opinion; passed over for promotion, or just not progressing as you would like, and that anger and frustration you have felt has led to you finding another job and handing your notice in. Now let’s assume you’re buying a house and you’re torn between two that would be perfect – one is your childhood home and you feel incredibly emotionally attached to it, which is making it more desirable to you than the other. However, after doing some research you discover that the area isn’t what it once was and there is a high petty-crime rate in the area.

Emotions played a part in the process of your decision making, but it was logical thought that led the way.

Now imagine you made those hugely important decisions whilst being led entirely by your emotions. You’re pissed off with work after missing out

on yet another promotion and you feel so incredibly angry that you quit right there and then. No other job to go to, not even a lead…literally no clue what you’ll do next. This decision made solely in anger means you’ll now probably take any job offered to you in a blind panic, and possibly end up in a worse position than before. And let’s think back to those two houses. If you let your emotions lead your decision you could end up with a house that lands you with more expensive insurance, stress, and a less-than-ideal living situation.

When it comes to less-important decisions, rational thought is even more likely to go out of the window. How many times have you made a quick decision when you’re feeling angry, sad or happy that turns out not to be a great idea? More than you think I should imagine. Life is great, the sun is shining, work is fabulous and you’re riding high on the wave of a new and exciting relationship. ‘Let’s move in together!’, you decide joyfully! You make this decision impulsively, based entirely on how you feel right in the moment….and before you know it you’ve given up your flat and are living with someone you’ve only known 6 months, an hour further away from work, in a house that doesn’t really suit your needs.

Or how about when you’re feeling down and you decide to ‘treat’ yourself to something you can’t really afford…it might make you feel better for a while…until rent is due and you start to regret it. Or how about if you’re one of those people who finds it difficult to control your anger, and you find out that someone has done you wrong? Taking a baseball bat to their car might seem like a reasonable decision to make while in the throes of rage, but the police record, expense, and the possibility of losing your job that will follow, will soon have you wishing you hadn’t let your heart and emotions rule your head.

But why?

Here comes the science bit….

Our brains basically run two systems side by side every time we make a decision. The first bit is responsible for those quick, automatic responses, and the second is in charge of complex problem solving.

Every time we make a decision, both of those systems collaborate seamlessly, allowing us to make choices. However, we are fallible human beings, and when our mental energy or focus is compromised, we tend to choose poorly. For example: feeling exhausted or burnt out from work, not getting enough quality sleep, or even just anxiety and stress causing us to overthink. It’s at times like these that we might end up saying something we later regret in the heat of the moment, investing our life savings in a friend’s questionable business, or taking a job in another country.

So, controlling our emotions can help us make better decisions, and it is possible with practice.

Assess The Situation

It seems like a simple solution, but pausing and taking some time to assess and evaluate  the situation before you make a decision can give you time to make the right choice. This is a great tactic to use when:

  • You’re worried you might say something that you might regret later
  • You’re asked a complicated question
  • You can feel yourself getting agitated
  • Your response could result in either a loss or a gain

With really big decisions (think changing career or considering getting married for example), take the time to clear your mind and weigh up the pros and cons of each choice….but for situations that need quick decisions, even just pausing for a second before making a choice can be invaluable.

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Don’t (Always) Rely On Gut Instinct

This might fly in the face of everything you’ve ever thought, but ‘gut instinct’ is a basic human instinct that helps us to identify signs that help us

avoid danger and survive. You’ve probably trusted this sense many times in your life – something’s telling you not to walk that way to work, or to trust that guy trying to sell you a watch from the boot of his car. But when it comes to situations that rely on chance, for example, the stock market or investments, relying on gut instinct alone could lead to you making some questionable choices.

Write It Down

If you’re trying to make a decision right now, particularly if you are at a crossroads in life, writing down your feelings can really help when it comes to gaining perspective. Keeping notes or a journal about how you feel is basically free therapy, and allows you to review your thoughts later.

Narrow Your Options

One of the problems we have today is that we have too much choice – I’m sure we’ve all encountered a child who, when faced with making a decision between which two toys to choose from, makes their decision much quicker than when faced with an entire toy shop! The trouble with too much choice is that there is much more room to make a regrettable decision. Narrowing your options makes it less likely that  you will make a choice that you will be unhappy about later.

Get A Second Opinion

One of the best things you can do when trying to make the right decision is to get a second opinion – especially if it’s something that involves a big risk. Even if you feel confident in your decision, being overconfident can often be your downfall….getting another perspective can help you better weigh up the pros and cons and make you aware of issues you might not have even been aware of or were too focused on your end game to consider.

Next time you have a decision to make, try and consider first how you’re feeling and how a different emotion might make you process the situation differently and perhaps lead to a different choice.

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