The Psychology of Emotional Decision-Making

Do you tend to make decisions based on emotions or cold logic? How can you prevent your emotions from getting in the way of important decisions?

When we’re faced with a high-stakes decision, it can be hard to think straight because our emotions run high. However, decisions based on emotions have a high chance of backfiring.

Keep reading to learn about the psychology of emotional decision-making.

Emotional Decision-Making

We often make irrational errors because we allow our emotions to influence our decision-making. Our emotions can lead us to make impulsive, unwise decisions. Here are three examples of this: 

  • You’re enthusiastic about a new job, and you take on too many commitments.
  • Your intense sexual desire for another person leads you to cheat on your spouse.
  • Your fear that a new model of phone could sell out leads you to impulsively buy it, even though you don’t need a new phone.

(Shortform note: Although Bevelin cautions against letting your emotions drive your choices, psychologist Daniel Goleman argues in Emotional Intelligence that your emotions can help you make rational decisions by making you more aware of your preferences. He explains that knowing your emotional preferences helps you choose among competing priorities. If you ignore or downplay your emotions, you might become paralyzed by indecision or make a decision you later regret. For example, imagine you earned a bonus and you’re deciding whether to spend it on a vacation or save it for a future purchase. There are rational reasons for both options, so you must look to your emotional preferences to make a choice.)

The Evolutionary Origins of Our Emotional Decision-Making

While our habit of emotional decision-making often leads us to make hasty or unwise decisions, this habit once ensured our survival. According to Peter Bevelin, our ancestors were rewarded for engaging in emotional decision-making. Early humans whose associations took the form of strong, quick emotional reactions, rather than slower rational thoughts, were more likely to survive danger. For instance, a hunter-gatherer who froze in fear when they noticed movement in the trees was less likely to draw the predator’s attention than another hunter-gatherer who thought through the situation logically before choosing to freeze. 

(Shortform note: In Brain Rules, biologist John Medina emphasizes the role that stress played in our ancestors’ responses to danger, and he clarifies why that stress reaction no longer serves us today. Medina claims that we’ve evolved to effectively manage acute stress (short-term stress that helps us respond to urgent threats). This is the type of stress our ancestors dealt with using quick emotional reactions. However, we haven’t evolved to handle chronic stress (long-term stress), a type of stress we experience often nowadays. Medina explains that chronic stress floods our brains with cortisol, a hormone that in high levels can cause memory loss and impair learning—two effects that may compromise our ability to make thoughtful decisions.)

Although we’re conditioned to engage in emotional decision-making, we can use rational thinking to prevent our emotions from compromising all of our decisions. Let’s explore two ways to do so.

A Solution: Keep Calm and Consult Pre-Established Guidelines

You should avoid making decisions under the influence of strong emotions. We make the best decisions when we take the time to rationally weigh our options. Any time you’re experiencing a strong emotion, hold off on decision-making. Focus on calming down first.

Strategies for Calming Down

What are some ways you can calm down before returning to an important decision? Experts claim that you can calm yourself down through actions that trigger your parasympathetic nervous system. This part of your nervous system controls your ability to relax. Here are several research-based strategies that calm you down by activating this system:

Immerse yourself in cold water. Take a cold shower or bath, or splash your face with icy water. Research reveals that immersing yourself in cold liquid can trigger a release of dopamine, one of the “feel-good hormones.” Studies also show that immersing your face in cold water slows down your heart rate and stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system, two physical reactions associated with a feeling of calmness.

Engage in deep breathing. One strategy is to breathe in for four seconds, then breathe out slowly for eight seconds. Not only do deep breathing techniques induce a state of relaxation, but they also help you think more clearly.

Relax your muscles. Tense muscles signal to your body that it’s stressed, which keeps it in a state of physical and emotional stress. You can disrupt this cycle by engaging in progressive muscle relaxation, a calming technique in which you tense and then relax your muscle groups one by one. Start with tensing and relaxing your hands by making and releasing a fist. Then, continue this technique as you work your way through the muscles of your arms, chest, legs, and feet. 

Once you’re calm, Bevelin argues that you should consult pre-established guidelines: a list of rules or steps that instruct you on how to act. Pre-established guidelines counteract the influence of your emotional state by reminding you what actions to take or avoid. Make these guidelines in advance so that you can reference them any time you’re faced with a decision. Bevelin bases his ideas on pre-established guidelines on the wisdom of Charles Munger and Warren Buffett, both of whom use this rational thinking strategy.

For example, imagine you’re someone who often splurges on expensive purchases and regrets it later. Here’s a set of guidelines you could consult before making any spending decision:

  • Don’t buy extra items just to reach the free shipping threshold for online purchases.
  • Don’t buy a duplicate of an item you already own if the one you own serves its purpose.
  • When you have several options for an important item to buy, opt for the second-least-expensive option.
Reinforce Your Pre-Established Guidelines by Resisting Your Temptations

Bevelin provides a detailed explanation of how and why to create pre-established guidelines, but he doesn’t offer guidance on how to ensure you actually follow these rules. When it comes time to make a decision, you may want to ignore your guidelines and give in to your temptations. To prevent this, follow these experts’ advice on resisting your temptations.

In Atomic Habits, James Clear claims that you’re more likely to resist temptations if you eliminate reminders of those temptations. For example, to help reinforce your spending guidelines, you could unsubscribe from your favorite stores’ marketing lists. That way, you won’t be reminded of what products you’re missing out on.

Furthermore, consider making your temptations inconvenient so you’re less likely to engage in them. For instance, delete your credit card information from your online shopping accounts. The inconvenience of re-entering this information may dissuade you from purchasing something you don’t need. 
The Psychology of Emotional Decision-Making

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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