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Are You a Rational Thinker or an Emotional Thinker?

How we can reconcile reason and emotion.

Key points

  • There is no such thing as emotional decision-making.
  • Emotions influence decisions, but they do not make decisions.
  • Being a rational decision-maker is challenging.

How do you make decisions in life? Do you make them based on reason or emotion? Are the life choices you make a product of logical reasoning and critical thinking or are they consequences of the daily little battles between your fears, anxieties, passions, and joys? Are you an emotional or a rational decision-maker?

If you are like most people, you probably answered both or it depends.

When we think about making decisions, reason and emotion are often pitted against each other as competitors fighting for attention, pulling us in opposite directions, and determining the fate of our actions. A good balance between reason and emotion would provide us the benefits of both, no?

The answer is a resounding no. If you are like most people, I can assure you that you are not an emotional decision-maker.

Why am I so sure? Because there is no such thing as emotional decision-making.

No such thing as emotional decision-making

This may sound surprising and contradictory to your experience. It probably doesn’t fit with your experience of watching someone you love ruin their lives by giving in to their passions and making impulsive decisions. Uncontrollable impulses can lead to compulsive gambling that can ruin a person financially and put their family at risk. A deep emotional void can lead to excessive drinking which could then cause all sorts of complications for a person’s health and relationships, and even lead to encounters with the law. Misinterpreting a bad joke as an offensive and profane comment could elicit threats of violence. Road rage—the anger experienced while driving and feeling surrounded by idiots who should have their licenses revoked (from the road rager's perspective)—can make driving more reckless and aggressive. Our own fear of failure can make us feel small and vulnerable and prevent us from pursuing big goals and taking on challenging projects. But it is not just negative emotions that you have seen lead to poor decisions. Positive emotions have an equally strong influence. Leasing a sporty roadster convertible at age 50 can surely be explained away not only as an escape from the dread of reaching middle age but also as a symbolic gesture of pride for one’s accomplishments. And how about love at first sight? An inexplicable attraction to someone that makes you confident that you have just met the one, instead of making you skeptical about the one you just met.

It seems that there is incontrovertible evidence that many of our decisions are emotional. However, the role of emotions is not to make decisions; their role is to guide action. They adjust the body’s resources to prepare it to make its next move. They do not plan the move; they mobilize the body to execute it. To do their job well, sometimes they override the thinking process and activate reflexive reactions, like when you laugh at something unexpectedly funny. But your emotions did not determine whether what you just heard was unexpected or funny. They just made it possible for you to laugh, without having to think about how exactly to do it. Because emotions tend to form faster than thinking or decision-making occurs, sometimes we do things without having a sense that we have thought them through, like when you hit the brakes when a kitten suddenly steps into the road.

Can emotions influence our decisions? Absolutely.

First, emotions can affect whether we are motivated to engage in decision-making to begin with. It is Saturday afternoon, you have the day off, everyone is out of the house doing one activity or another, and you think that this is a good time to decide whether to keep the same health insurance plan for next year or switch to a different plan. You go to your benefits website and start scanning the options. You must compare the different plans in terms of premiums, deductibles, out-of-pocket expenses, in-network and out-of-network coverage, pharmacy privileges; and so on. Suddenly, your mind goes blank: This feels so boring and overwhelming and there are so many other things that you could be doing on this beautiful afternoon. You abort the task and move on to the next, more exciting thing on your to-do list. Your emotions paused the decision-making process.

Second, emotions affect our decisions based on our affective predictions, those we make about how we will feel when we take action in the future. For example, when you choose between two places to vacation—a desert hiking experience and an all-inclusive beach resort—you may gravitate toward the trip that you think will give you the most pleasure. Moreover, our affective predictions tend to be influenced by our present emotional states. If I am tired from a long week at work, walking around aimlessly in the desert, watching out for scorpions, sounds like punishment, not a vacation.

So, while our emotions can play a role in our decisions, they do not think, plan, problem-solve, decide, cogitate, ruminate, obsess, rationalize, or explain. Now that we have established that we are not emotional decision-makers, are we in the clear? Are we rational decision-makers?

The answer is still no, I’m afraid. We tend to think of rational and emotional approaches as opposite ends of the same spectrum. But the opposite of rational is not emotional. If you can guess what the opposite of rational is, you are definitely a rational thinker.

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