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Decision-Making and Different Ways of Knowing

Should you follow your head or your heart when making a decision?

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Are decisions made with passion intrinsically flawed, or do we also fool ourselves when we make decisions that are solely based on reason? In the process of decision-making, the relative importance of what we think, as measured alongside what we feel, may be difficult to assess. After all, both cognition and emotion inform us in valuable ways. Thinking something is the truth, and sensing that it is so, are different ways of knowing.

Imagine being in a situation where you want to pursue a relationship with someone because you are intensely drawn to them emotionally, but rationally you believe the relationship is not in your best interest. When we place someone on the pejorative axis of rational versus irrational, we imply a judgment about the degree to which our reasoning has been impaired by our emotion. [i] Although passion can outweigh reason in romantic pursuits, cognition can also overshadow emotion, such as in the case of someone who seeks a relationship that will provide them with security or a tangible resource they need.

Emotion does not necessarily interfere with thinking, although many of us treat it as if it were an obstruction. We may diminish the validity of an argument because it is emotional, doubt others who seem emotionally involved in their personal concerns, and generally trust cognition more than feelings. [ii]

But cognition alone is only half the picture, even though we often give it primacy in our decision-making. A job applicant may look good on paper, but emotionally they may not resonate with you. Nevertheless, you may be drawn to hire them because cognitively you believe they will best serve your goals, in spite of the contrary information your emotions provide.

Decisions are often influenced by our emotional responses, because emotions are designed to evaluate and summarize experiences and inform our actions in a simple, quick way. Our emotions will attempt to tell us if a situation is optimal or not aligned with our goals, as well as how we might approach it.

But should we trust our feelings when making a decision, should we cognitively reflect upon various factors in order to make the best choice, or do both? Researchers compared these three strategies and found that focusing on feelings instead of thinking about details led to better decision quality for certain complex decisions, and that overthinking a decision can interfere with using emotion for decision making. [iii] The basic conclusion of the research was that when the going gets tough, follow your gut feelings, and don’t overthink your decision.

We can learn to use our emotions to think. The New York Times columnist David Brooks has recommended an interesting approach that employs emotion to help make complex personal decisions. He suggests that you flip a coin, but don’t just follow the result of the coin flip. Instead, pay attention to how you feel when you look at the result.[iv] Are you happy, relieved, distressed, or disappointed?

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Overall, our emotions amplify what’s going on at the moment, while our cognition transforms it with further information. The affect theorist Silvan Tomkins has noted that emotion without cognition would be blind, while cognition without emotion would be weak. [v] Thus, cognition gives sight to the blindness of emotion, and emotion is given strength by cognition.

This post is dedicated to Farhana, an interested student who inquired.


[i] Nathanson, D. (1992). Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self. New York, NY: Norton

[ii] Nathanson, D. (1992). Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self. New York, NY: Norton.

[iii] (Mikels, J., Maglio, S., Reed, A., and Kaplowitz, L. (2011). Should I go with my gut? Investigating the benefits of emotion-focused decision making. Emotion, 11, 743-753.

[iv] Brooks, D. (2011). Commencement Address at Rice University, Houston.

[v] Tomkins, S. S. (1995). Human being theory: A foundation for the study of personality. In E. Virginia Demos, Exploring affect: The selected writings of Silvan S. Tomkins (p. 438). Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.