How to Tame Your Emotions and Make Better Choices
Aligning rational and emotional information processing.
Posted August 27, 2022 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- Emotions can improve choices, but can interfere with cognition.
- Make a habit of reviewing how emotions impact your outcomes.
- Focus on creating alignment between your rational and emotional processes.
- To do this, it can be helpful to practice deep breathing, mindful listening, modulation, and improvement.
Have you noticed that you rarely think at your best when you get really upset?
As I watched the Will Smith “slapping” incident at the Oscars earlier this year, I was reminded of how a simple comment from another individual can trigger wildly different behavior in us. Similarly, when we are experiencing fear—whether physical or psychological—we tend to be less focused on long-term outcomes.
Although this is natural, many people live in this chronic, stress-induced, narrow lens type of decision-making. It makes complete sense if you’re escaping a traumatic or dangerous situation—but it's important not to make it a habit. Repeatedly making these types of choice patterns creates chronic decision fatigue, as well as other issues.
The other day, I was trying to commute to work to give a presentation at a conference. I factored in normal traffic and wasn’t even running late.
But during my short two-mile trip, I hit nearly all forms of detours, construction, accidents, and delays. Two miles took nearly 45 minutes of driving! Worse yet, I thought I could outsmart my maps app and kept looking for shortcuts—all of which ended up with detours and construction.
No matter what choice I made, it just kept getting worse. And I allowed all that stress to alter my mood.
Most of us would agree that anger and fear destroy our decision-making.1 But we are a little less sure of how other emotions—including joy, sadness, and indifference—might impact our decision process and quality.
One major theoretical model of how the human brain works posits that we rationally assess what we intend to achieve and work on the best path to get there. Of course, we all know this is not reality at all. Emotions affect our brain’s internal circuity and disrupt patterns and rational thought. While disruption can be good (like disrupting negative habits), it can also be quite destructive.
Unless we stop to think about it, we are often unaware of how important our mood and emotions are in our daily choices—especially those that involve our precious resources, such as time or money. But if you think back on some of the big decisions you’ve made through the years, a specific emotion will usually be attached—whether sadness, joy, rage, jealousy, or anxiety. Some emotion probably helped you quit that job. Some emotion probably was involved when you were negotiating for that expensive car or decided to open up your own business.
While I would love to think that we have perfectly rational minds—minds that ponder if we need something, what the best alternatives are, endlessly research pros and cons, and then analyze and elect the best one—we just don’t. (Well, at least the majority of us don’t. Some people might, but it’s not the norm.)
Our emotions range from really positive to really negative. Sometimes our emotions (moods, feelings, disposition) can help us immensely. They help us be excited and leap at a new job, opportunity, or partner. Other times, they can destroy us—falling for scams, paying too much, buying a warranty we didn’t need, or just not understanding what we’re committing to.
As with everything, the key is balance. Healthy individuals seek balance, alignment, or congruity between our emotions and our analytical patterns. Use your emotions to your advantage and activate your analytical mind to confirm things. This can be difficult.
Emotion Identification and Self-Awareness
Start by identifying how you feel about something. Ask yourself: "Why am I feeling like this? What makes me feel like this?" Make a regular practice of reviewing or assessing how emotions impact your outcomes every day. Review your choices each night, and consider making appropriate changes for tomorrow if a similar situation arises. Journals can be especially helpful for creating long-term memories and help us learn.
If you can create self-awareness, you're in a much better place to know when not to make a decision. If you find yourself extremely emotional, try to practice decision abstinence—abstain from making important life choices.
Modulation and Improvement
Once you identify how and why you are feeling a certain way and the impact you observe, work on improving your physiological responses to the emotions, and practice deep breathing to get more oxygen flowing into the brain anytime you notice strong positive or negative emotions. Practice mindful observation and listening to your thoughts. This can help us tune in to our thoughts and feelings. Work on self-modulation and regulating your emotions, and aim to gain insight from observing yourself regularly. When you do this, you keep yourself in a continuous improvement mode.
Remember, you're in control. Taming your emotions can help you improve your decisions.
1. Lerner JS and Shonk K (2010). How Anger Poisons Decision Making. Harvard Business Review.
2. Bechara A (2004). The role of emotion in decision-making: evidence from neurological patients with orbitofrontal damage. Brain and Cognition, 55(1):30-40.