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Should You Follow Your Heart or Your Head?

Research may now have an answer to this timeless question.

Key points

  • Under time pressure, people are more likely to make risky decisions when they were feeling happy, and less likely to when they feel sad.
  • With unlimited time to ponder risk, emotion makes no difference in risk-taking judgments. 
  • While taking a risk may ultimately be to one's benefit, it's best not to rush the decision.
Source: racorn/Shutterstock

You’re torn between two options—one risky, the other is safe. The risky option lures you to make a quick online purchase. Even though you know it’s more than you can or should spend, time is running out on the availability of the item. The site is telling you exactly how many are left. You're not sure exactly whether it will fit into your wardrobe but because there are only two left, you figure you need to hurry. Your heart is shouting a clear Yes, telling you how great you will look in it and how happy it will make you. Shouting No just as loudly is your head, which instructs you to take a pass and save your money.

Even more critical than online shopping decisions are those we make in relationships, as when you’re drawn to someone who probably isn’t right for you but appeals nonetheless. You’re browsing through dating-site profiles, or you’re at a party, when you’re instantly drawn to an attractive stranger. Unlike buying a purse or a pair of pants, this decision can affect not just your wallet but your overall well-being. Who knows? It might even affect the rest of your life—if this turns out to be the perfect someone for you. Your heart, again, is clamoring for your attention, encouraging you to go for it. Your head, though, has a few more questions before giving you permission to plunge into this possibly good, possibly disastrous new relationship.

Friends and family will likely tell you to “listen to your heart,” as it "knows what’s best for you.” Oprah Winfrey, too, suggests you follow your emotional inclinations rather than those logic would suggest. But is that really good advice? Think back on the times when you did follow your heart. How did it work out? Maybe there were occasions when you threw caution to the wind and let your emotions take the wheel, and all went well. But it’s likely there are at least as many times when your decision delivered the opposite outcome.

Unfortunately, we tend to be bad statisticians when it comes to taking stock of our own prior experiences. Research on reminiscence shows that we tend to remember the distinctive events in our lives, particularly those that were pleasant (e.g. Dickson et al., 2011). For most people, even traumatic memories tend to fade with time. As a result, we’re almost programmed to go with our heart because we remember the times when it provided the correct guidance.

The other side of this debate is the fact that your rational decision-making processes can have a pretty good track record. You may not remember the times when you followed logic, because they may not have been as memorable. It’s also possible that when reason prevailed, it told you not to do something; therefore, you have less to remember. Think back to the online shopping temptation: You remember the outlandish shoes you once bought because you still actually have them (if not the money you burned on them). You don’t remember what you don’t have nearly as well. You also don’t think as much about the debt you would’ve incurred for the items you passed on, because it’s not there.

What about “the one who got away?” Won’t you always regret not having followed your heart’s advice to go after that attractive stranger, instead of taking the more "rational" wait-and-see approach?

Again, remember that we’re poor statisticians: You remember the choice you didn’t make because, not knowing what the outcome would be, the best you can do is guess as to what might have happened. What won’t have happened, which you obviously can’t remember, are the bad outcomes that could have followed the wrong decision.

Taking all these factors into account, what does the research say about whether you’ll be better off trusting your feelings vs. your thoughts?

East China Normal University’s Yixin Hu and co-authors (2015) tackled this problem in an innovative experiment: They asked 72 college-age participants to make decisions about whether to take a risk or not. The conditions were designed to resemble real-life situations involving the factors of time constraints and emotional arousal. In the time crunch condition, participants were forced to make their decisions quickly; in the relaxed condition, they had unlimited time. Within those two groups, the team manipulated the emotional state of participants by priming them with pleasure-eliciting, grief-eliciting, or neutrally-toned movie clips. The job of the participant was to decide among risky or safe alternatives in a multiple-choice task. The question being explored was under which set of circumstances participants would be most willing to take a risk.

The findings showed that under the time pressure condition, the students were far more likely to make risky decisions when they were feeling happy—and far less likely to make risky decisions when they were primed to feel sad.

With unlimited time to ponder risk, though, emotion made no difference at all in risk-taking judgments.

We can think of this effect of emotional state on riskiness as reflecting the fast vs. slow thinking distinction theorized to occur in our minds by the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman. Your fast thinking, in his words, is more affected by your emotional state than your slow thinking. If the risky decision would benefit you, then you’ll miss out on opportunities by being in a bad mood. However, because risky decisions, by definition, are unlikely to lead to a satisfying outcome, your good mood will lead you to make the wrong choice.

The upshot? Listening to your heart is something that will more likely hurt you than not, especially if you’re under any kind of time pressure. Once you’ve had time to sort through all the factors, both rational and irrational, your judgment should be clearer. Decisions to take risks may in fact benefit you, but just take your time, whenever possible, to gain the most fulfillment from those decisions.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015


Dickson, R. A., Pillemer, D. B., & Bruehl, E. C. (2011). The reminiscence bump for salient personal memories: Is a cultural life script required?. Memory & Cognition, 39(6), 977-991. doi:10.3758/s13421-011-0082-3

Hu, Y., Wang, D., Pang, K., Xu, G., & Guo, J. (2015). The effect of emotion and time pressure on risk decision-making. Journal Of Risk Research, 18(5), 637-650. doi:10.1080/13669877.2014.9106

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