Who Is Actually in Charge When We Make Decisions?
The importance of emotion to thinking.
Posted May 05, 2017
“We arrive at the truth, not by the reason only, but also by the heart.” —Blaise Pascal
How do we make decisions?
Individual decisions are best understood as the interactions between reflection and emotion (Haidt, 2006). When we are calm, the slow rational thinking guides our decisions. The emotional system acts spontaneously without consideration for the broader consequences of the action. The reflective system is clearly the grown-up in this pair, and its job is to monitor and correct the impulse of emotion. For example, our emotional mind wants to order dessert and smoke a cigarette, and our reflective brain knows we should resist the temptation and quit smoking. The final decision is determined by the relative strengths of these two systems.
The force of emotion
Although interactions run in both directions, emotion seems to play a dominant role in decision-making (Schore, 2012). Anyone who has ever been put in front of a freshly baked cookies and who has found himself eating without having made any reflection can appreciate this impulse. This is so because the connections from the emotional systems to the reflective systems are stronger than those from the reflective systems to the emotional systems. According to LeDoux (2015), while conscious control over emotions is weak, emotions can flood consciousness. This explains why it is easier for emotional information to overwhelm our conscious thought than for us to gain conscious control over our emotions.
Automatic priming is a good example of the primacy of emotion. For example, a study (North, et al., 1999) exposed customers in a supermarket drinks section to either French music or German music. The results showed that French wine outsold German wine when French music was played, whereas German wine outsold French wine when German music was played. However, a majority of customers denied that type of music playing influenced their choice of wine.
Strangers to ourselves
Most of our mental life and behavior are shaped by forces beyond our conscious control. These private thoughts are also sources of misunderstanding among people. An important implication of unconscious motivation is the recognition that we are all at some level strangers to ourselves. Indeed, when we self-examine, we routinely deceive ourselves, because we only tap into a small fraction of what is going on in our head. You know far less about yourself than you feel you do. This explains why sometimes we don’t really know why we want what we want. That is what a lot of marriage counseling about.
Social psychologists argue that people are in general quite ignorant of their motivations and that awareness of what motivate them to act is a fabrication (made-up stories) (Kiverstein, 2012). In resolving a problem, the reasoning mind often fills in information in a rather blind manner without insight or self-awareness. For example, a desire for volunteerism may mask a desire to be recognized as special.
The consequences of emotional ignorance
This lack of awareness compromises psychological freedom and perpetuates self-defeating behavior. For example, anxiety and depression may induce negative emotions, often leading to addiction. People with these types of problems, having successfully quit their “bad habits” (alcohol abuse and overeating), often find a different “habit" replacing the old one. We try to silence our painful emotions, but if we succeed in feeling nothing we lose the only means we have of knowing what we suffer from, and why (Grosz, 2013).
To uncover the essence of a particular behavior (such as addiction and overeating), we need to dig deeper, like the archaeologist in his excavations, to illuminate the mental processes between a stimulus and the individual’s response to it (Panksepp and Biven, 2012). The deeper we go into our emotional brain, the more we understand our mental origin and the origins of mental illnesses such as addiction. Problems are best solved when they are pulled out of darkness. In the words of noble laureate Eric Kandel (2012), to discover the truth about behavior, we must look below the surface appearance of things.
Emotional awareness provides insight into the working of mind, the irrationality of human nature, and the nature of decisions that people so often make that bears a mixed relationship to their own happiness. By becoming more aware of our unconscious wishes, we experience ourselves as free rather as victims. Spinoza once remarked that “Emotion which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it."
Grosz g (2013) The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves W. W. Norton & Company.
Haidt, J. (2006). The happiness hypothesis: Finding modern truth in ancient wisdom. New York: Basic Books.
Kiverstein , J. (2012) The meaning of embodiment. Topics in Cognitive Science 4(4):740–58.
Kurzban Robert (2011). Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind. Princeton University Press.
LeDoux, J. E. (1996). The emotional brain: The mysterious underpinnings of emotional life. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
North, A., Hargreaves, D., McKendrick, J., 1999. The influence of in-store music on wine selections. Journal of Applied Psychology 84, 271–276.
Panksepp J, Biven L, 2012. The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions. New York: W.W. Norton
Schore Allan A. (2012). The Science of the Art of Psychotherapy . New York: W.W. Norton & Company