Decisions are made by your emotions? Then you’d better learn their language!

Yesterday, the CBS Sunday Morning show ran a good story on how we make decisions”

It May Not Sound Rational, But Experts Say Emotions and Gut Feelings Are More Important Than Intellect in Making Choices

Photo of too many choices

The old wives’ tale is that we make decisions by ignoring our emotions and using our rational faculties. Wrong! The truth is that our rational brains can’t hold enough conflicting information to organize a complex decision; instead, it is our emotions that help us separate the wheat from the chaff. As most of us know, our emotions are vastly more able to process complexities than mere rationality can do.

Without our emotions, we’d just stand around looking perplexed. Without our emotions, we’re actually incapable of making deep and multifaceted decisions.

So … if your emotions are helping you think right now, you may be considering multiple images of highly emotional people making highly questionable decisions. The comments section on the CBS story is a perfect example, where people aren’t talking about the story; rather, they’re ranting and flaming about ideas that the story has triggered in them. They’re not being informed by their emotions; they’re the unwitting whipping boys of their emotions, and it’s painful to witness.

We see that behavior all over the web, every day, and it’s tiresomely familiar. As usual, other commenters chime in to calm the ranters down or rile them up, and the whole thread veers off into absurdity. The CBS story gets lost in the turmoil, and instead of learning more about how their emotions work, the rageful and anxiety-plagued ranters just get more cemented in their reactionary misery.

Okay, that’s a fair example of how emotions can lead to questionable decision-making and irrationality. But if emotions are at the center of our decision-making process, then we have to become smarter about them! So how do we detoxify emotions so that they can help us make decisions without turning us into anxious, blaming, ranty flamers? Here are some simple steps!

Step One

Understand that emotions are not the opposite of rationality; in fact, you can’t be rational without your emotions. Welcome your emotions and embrace the inevitable: you can’t be rational without your emotions. If you set up a hierarchy inside your psyche, where your rationality gets the throne while your emotions are forced into the dungeon, you will be less decisive, less resourceful, less resilient, and less stable. And sadly, your emotions will probably band together to violently depose your intellect (yeow!). No hierarchies! Welcome and embrace your emotions as the partners of your intellect.

Step Two

Focus your intellectual abilities and your linguistic skills on your emotions (instead of lording over them): learn what they are, what they’re for, how they arise, and how they differ. For instance, fear is a momentary intuition that focuses on the present moment, while anxiety is intuition and awareness about the future. If you call both of them fear, you’ll not only be wrong, you’ll be confused. Learn what your emotions are!

Step Three

Go forward as an emotionally intelligent person who is neither the puppet of emotions nor their strict overlord. The old, tired paradigm, where emotions were the opposite of rationality is untrue. Similarly, the even older and more tired paradigm, where emotions were the opposite of spirituality, is also untrue. Emotions are irreplaceable and absolutely necessary in the healthy and competent human brain. Our intellectual and spiritual capacities are important, but they are by no means more important than our emotions. They’re a boxed set!

Step Four

Realize that our ridiculous training in the realm of emotions is the culprit in all the “irrational” turmoil. Here’s just one example: Anger is about honor, protection, and the maintenance of the self (and the self-image of others). If you don’t know that, you may mistakenly take the power inside anger and try to attack someone with it. But if you do, your shame will come forward because you screwed up! Your anger knows what it’s for, even if you don’t.

Every emotion has a specific and vital message for you, and each emotion lends you a specific skill or ability. Turning toward your emotions and placing them on the same footing as your rationality (neither is “higher” than the other) will give you access to some of the most amazing aspects of human intelligence.

Now all we have to do is learn the language of our emotions and become their partners so that our decisions and actions can be rationally emotional and emotionally rational. And I swear, I saw a book around here that helps you do that precise thing!

4 Responses

  1. Kaine
    | Reply


    I work in the area of financial markets where effective decision making is paramount to success.

    I hear some traders say, emotions are the enemy to intelligent trading and they wish they could trade (make decisions) without any emotion!

    Others suggest, in order to act with objectivity, you need to “Trade Like A Robot” and make decisions like “Vulcan’s From Star Trek.” 🙂

    In an arena where many individuals fail to achieve consistent results, perhaps this inaccurate view of emotions in relation to decisions, is a significant contributing factor…

    Thank you Karla, for sharing your insights!

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Kaine,

      In this section of recommended books on Emotions and the Social World, there are two books that specifically deal with the mistaken idea that the emotions and the intellect are separate.

      In Descartes’ Error, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio shows that when the emotional centers of the brain are not working, people are actually incapable of making decisions! And in the book Emotion: The Science of Sentiment, Dylan Evans has a chapter entitled “Why Spock could never have evolved.”

      Behavioral economists like the wonderful Dan Ariely have been showing us for the past few years that the human brain is Predictably Irrational, and how to become aware of our neurological and behavioral tics!

      There are so many cool books out right now about how the brain actually works (and misfires), and how emotions are at the center of thought. Emotions are also at the center of markets and their fluctuations, but don’t tell the Ayn Rand folks!

      Thanks for writing!

  2. sam ludwig
    | Reply

    Emotions are vital to normal human interaction and growth however in the society we live in we learn bad habits from our environment which causes our emotions to inflate our judgement ultimately altering our decision making and our response to situations we do not have control over. There must be a balance in our emotions but unfortunately as a product of our environment our emotions run rampant creating chaos in every area of our lives. Causing financial stress, physical stress, family arguments, mid life crises etc….

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Sam, yes! We learn almost nothing about how to work with emotions, so it’s not surprising that so many people are so overwhelmed by them. What I’ve noticed through the decades is that emotions aren’t at fault at all; instead, the problem is that people don’t have Emotion Regulation skills.

      Luckily, these skills can be developed at any point in a person’s life span — and emotions are actually pretty easy to work with once people understand some basic things about them. Like this: Emotions are action-requiring neurological programs.

      There’s a good book that I refer to in The Art of Empathy, by neuroscientist Richard Davidson. It’s called The Emotional Life of Your Brain, and it’s very helpful.

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