Five Ways That Emotions Shape Your Decisions

We make hundreds of decisions every day, from simple decisions such as what to wear to significant life and business decisions. All of these decisions have an emotional component, even if we're not aware of our underlying emotion. In fact, research has shown that "emotions constitute potent, pervasive, predictable, sometimes harmful and sometimes beneficial drivers of decision making."

"We are not thinking machines that feel, we are feeling machines that think" (Damasio, 1994).

Here are five ways that emotions influence our decisions:

1. Emotions directly shape our decisions

Emotions that arise from the choice at hand directly shape our decision-making. These are called integral emotions and can be conscious or unconscious. For example, if you're feeling anxious about the potential outcome of a risky choice, you may choose a safer option, even if it's potentially less lucrative.

Integral emotions can act as a beneficial guide. The evidence comes from individuals with ventro-medial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) damage. These individuals can describe all the dishes on a restaurant menu but are unable to choose what to order. That's because the choice involves an emotion: "What do I feel like eating?" The vmPFC is a brain region that integrates emotional and cognitive information.

Integral emotions can act as a bias. For example, if you're afraid of flying, you may choose to drive, even when you know that flying is safer.  Once an integral emotion attaches itself to a decision in this way, it becomes virtually impossible to change it. 

2. Carryover emotions can influence our decisions

These are emotions that carry over from one situation to the next and are usually unconscious. An example would be where anger in one situation might lead us to blame someone in an unrelated situation.

Carryover emotions can act as a bias. A negative mood can lead us to make pessimistic judgements. Conversely, we make more positive judgements when in a good mood. Here's a surprising example: the amount of sunshine on a given day is correlated with stock market performance! That's because people are happier on sunny days.

3. Emotions shape decisions through our depth of thought

Emotions can provide information that we need to give a situation more attention. For example, a negative mood can warn of a threat, and we must be more vigilant and systematic about processing information. A positive mood can signal that the environment is safe, leading to more superficial processing. 

4. Emotions trigger a set of responses

These responses are physiological, behavioural, experiential, and communication responses and enable us to address problems or opportunities quickly. Anger, for example, leads us to want to change the situation and may lead us to want to fight. Anxiety makes us want to reduce uncertainty and may lead us to choose low-risk, low-reward options. Sadness may make us want to change our circumstances by seeking reward and lead us to choose high-risk, high-reward options.

5. Emotions help us navigate social decisions

They act as a communication system and provide information about the motives and emotions of others. "They serve at least three functions:

  1. 1
    helping individuals understand one another’s emotions, beliefs, and intentions;
  2. 2
    incentivizing or imposing a cost on others’ behaviour; and
  3. 3
    evoking complementary, reciprocal, or shared emotions in others."

"For example, expressions of anger prompt concessions from negotiation partners and more cooperative strategies in bargaining games because anger signals desire for behavioural adjustment."

How to reduce the unwanted effects of emotions on decision-making
  • Time delay: "Let some time pass before making a decision. Full-blown emotions are short-lived." However, this can be difficult when the emotion is intense.
  • Suppression: This is counter-productive and can even make the emotion more intense.
  • Reappraisal (or reframing): "Reframing the meaning of stimuli that led to an emotional response has consistently emerged as a superior strategy for dissipating the emotional response." Reframing lowers the intensity of the emotion and reduces amygdala activation.
  • Body budget: The brain regulates the body according to costs and benefits so we can grow, survive, and reproduce. Make sure that you're body budget is balanced. An unbalanced body budget colours our emotions.
  • Becoming aware of our cognitive biases: "People often lack the motivation to monitor their decision-making processes. Moreover, even when people are motivated, attaining accurate awareness of their decision processes is a difficult task. The best strategy for reducing such biases would be to control one’s exposure to biasing information in the first place."
  • Nudging: "affects behaviours automatically without restricting choices." To increase saving rates, for example, set "a default to enrol new employees in a retirement plan automatically, which is highly effective at increasing saving rates."

Damasio, A. (1994). Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. Putnam: Harper Perennial.

Lerner, J. S., Li, Y., Valdesolo, P., & Kassam, K. S. (2015). Emotion and Decision Making. Annual Review of Psychology, 66(1), 799–823.

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