Increasing your emotional self-awareness is key to making the best decisions

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

Emotions constitute powerful and dominant influence on how we live and interact with others. The choices we make, the actions we take, and the perceptions we have are all influenced by the emotions we are experiencing at any given moment. Emotions are a huge piece of our personalities, and for every emotion, there’s an emotional trigger.

In the 1970s, psychologist Paul Eckman identified six basic emotions that he suggested were universally experienced in all human cultures — happiness, sadness, disgust, fear, surprise, and anger. He later expanded his list of basic emotions to include such things as pride, shame, embarrassment, and excitement.

Research suggests that positive emotions, such as happiness, comfort, contentedness, and pleasure, help us make decisions, allow us to consider a larger set of options, and decide quicker. Harvard research also shows that it’s possible for emotions triggered by one event to spill over and affect another, unrelated situation.

Emotions influence our attitudes and judgments, which in turn, influence the decisions we make. Your success and progress largely depend on your ability to understand and interpret how you feel before making any snap judgement.

Intense sadness could prevent you from taking action. Or, fear of rejection may stop you from stepping outside of your comfort zone. When you are happy the choices you make could be different from the decisions you make when you are indifferent or sad.

Fear, hope, confidence and many other feelings have a substantial impact on the way we make financial decisions. Studies also show that intense emotions impair self-control. Anger and embarrassment may make you particularly vulnerable to high-risk, low payoff choices. Think about a time you were weighing an important decision at work, considering a big expense or making a hefty financial investment. How the choice made you feel played a role?

Emotions influence cognition

Michael Levine of Psychology Today, says rationality only represents about 20% of human decision-making. He explains: “It is said that emotions drive 80% of the choices Americans make, while practicality and objectivity only represent about 20% of decision-making. Oh, and forget about making a decision when you are hungry, angry, lonely or tried. The acronym “HALT” is axactly the point here: DON”T DO IT! If you make a decision while feeling Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired (or God-forbid some combination of more than one of the above) emotion wins 100% of the time and will likely push you in the wrong direction.”

Emotions as a strong driver of decision-making provide information about your circumstances in the quickest, and simplest way that does not involve a lot of cognition. The emotional brain is the default decision-making system. “To make the right call, you need to feel your way — or at least part of your way — there,” writes Drake Baer, The Cut.

Deliberation kicks in when the correct response is not evident — or when there is a lot at stake. When you are choosing a new career, a life partner, moving to a new city, buying a house or car, you rely on your thinking brain.

The human brain has two sides — the thinking side and the feeling side. The thinking brain is slow, ration and strives to be objective. It deliberately, methodically, and logically, reasons through a given decision. The feeling brain is more impulsive, emotional, instinctual, and sometimes unconscious.

Psychologists have been intensely interested for several decades in the two modes of thinking. Current theories suggest there are two dominant systems people use to understand and assess risk — the “analytic system” and the “experiential system.”

“The “analytic system” involves conscious and deliberate cognitive processes that employ various algorithms and normative rules to produce logical, reason-oriented, behaviour. In contrast, the “experiential system” uses past experiences, emotion-related associations, and intuitions when making decisions,” according to research on “The role of emotion in decision-making”.

Daniel Kahneman, one of the world’s most influential living psychologist says we use two primary modes of thinking to process information and make decisions. In his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, he argues that System 1 is intuitive, instant, unconscious, automatic, and emotional. System 2 is slow, rational, conscious, reflective, reasoning, and deliberate.

Deliberate thought is more reliable but we rarely stop, reflect, and make slow decisions, because, in many events, our responses are automatic. Much of our emotional life is lived unconsciously.

“Without emotions, your decision-making ability would be impaired. Emotion is always passing judgments, presenting you with immediate information about the world: here is a potential danger, there is potential comfort; this is nice, that bad. One of the ways by which emotions work is through neurochemicals that bathe particular brain centres and modify perception, decision making, and behaviour. These neurochemicals change the parameters of thought, ” explains Don Norman in his book, “Emotional Design: Why we love (or hate) everyday things.

The classic assumption is that your thinking brain should direct decisions in life, but practically, it doesn’t. The feeling brain is what truly motivates people, and control our choices. Because emotion generally dictates your decisions, logic isn’t an effective tool for changing a behavioural pattern.

Example, people know they should eat healthily, exercise more, and do more of what makes them better, but that information isn’t enough to help them make a lifestyle change — thinking about exercising or rationalising your ideal self in the process of getting fit is not appealing enough for you to choose those habits. You can leverage the powerful impact of your emotional brain on your choices by thinking about other compelling reasons to change.

Find reasons that appeal to your emotional side. Example, the joy of exercising with a close friend or someone whose company you enjoy. Or the prospect of the peace and quiet of a morning run along a river, or a lake which is more scenic and interesting. That way working out won’t feel like such a chore. The same applied to almost any habit you want to adopt. Instead of finding rational reasons to do anything, find compelling emotional rewards.

“Recognizing how emotions affect your own motivational style can help you more consciously make decisions and pursue your goals,” says Mary Lamia, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst.

Reason without emotion is impotent. And impulsive decisions and choices without rational guidance can create too many blindspots. “A happy mood loosens the control of System 2 over performance: when in a good mood, people become more intuitive and more creative but also less vigilant and more prone to logical errors, explains Kahneman. Vigilance is required when you rely on your emotions to make important decisions.

“Without a doubt, our emotions dictate our thoughts, intentions and actions with superior authority to our rational minds. But when we act on our emotions too quickly, or we act on the wrong kinds of emotions, we often make decisions that we later lament,” says Dr Carmen Harra, a psychologist and relationship expert.

By understanding how emotions affect your life and choices, you can gain a deeper understanding of how you express your emotions and the impact they have on your behaviour.

One more thing…

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