Some people think that emotions are the enemy of reason and that they should be discarded during decision making. They think that emotions are a subjective perception of an objective world, and that they can cloud judgment and hurt social interactions.
This view is very widespread, but it’s very limiting, suboptimal and just plain wrong.
In this blog post, I’ll try to debunk these myths and show you why emotions are very important and why you should be paying attention to them.
I think one big issue is that many people don’t understand the difference between emotions and thoughts.
The difference is not that thoughts are rational and emotions are irrational. Thoughts can be rational, but they can also be irrational. Our logic fails us more than we’d like to admit.
Every emotion carries a message. Much like our thoughts, these messages can also be rational or irrational.
The evolution optimized emotions for speed, but in order to maximize survival, they often err on the side of caution. Luckily, for most of us, most present day situations aren’t life threatening, which allows us to take some time to think about why we feel a certain way.
The purpose of emotions is to protect or help us in some way. Unfortunately, the message is often not obvious, and generally we’re very bad at figuring it out.
For example, a man who meets a woman on a swaying, rickety bridge may misjudge his fear and nervousness and think he feels that way because he’s attracted to that woman.
So how do emotions happen? Emotions don’t happen in isolation - they happen in response to an external or internal stimulus. They are like reflexes, but more complex.
This is where self-awareness comes into play. In the previous blog post, we talked about how ignoring emotions doesn’t protect you from their influence, so it’s important to acknowledge them and analyze them consciously.
How do you improve self-awareness? As we learned from the rickety bridge study, one important rule is not to jump to conclusions too quickly.
You also need to be willing to be honest with yourself. Many people have been ignoring their emotions for such a long time that thinking about them doesn’t feel comfortable. The pattern turned into a habit that now needs to be unlearned. Give yourself time. Be patient.
For some people, looking deep inside themselves is scary. They are afraid that they might find painful things about themselves that they suppressed a long time ago, or find out things they would rather not know. This is why being self-aware requires courage.
Without the ability to understand yourself, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to effectively manage yourself, as well as understand others. Self-awareness is a prerequisite for both self-regulation and empathy.
For many people, and especially for those in leadership positions, these emotional and social competencies are precisely what leads to outstanding performance.
What about decision making? Are we supposed to consider our emotions when we make decisions?
The short answer is - regardless of what we think, we will, in some way or form.
We’re human and our brains weren’t designed to shut down our emotions. And even if you could, you probably wouldn’t want to.
Without emotions, we couldn’t make even the simplest decisions. Just to be clear, I’m not talking about applying a math formula to a problem - in that case the answer can be calculated. But how often in life do we have all the data we need and the formula we can use? Probably not that often.
In the book Descartes Error, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio described how people who suffered a physical damage to their brains, which reduced their capability to experience emotion, also had trouble making decisions. It may sound counterintuitive, but neurologically emotions actually assist our reasoning, not go against it.
Here’s a quote from the book that I liked:
“There is much wisdom in this widely held belief, and I will not deny that uncontrolled or misdirected emotion can be a major source of irrational behavior. Nor will I deny that seemingly normal reason can be disturbed by subtle biases rooted in emotion… Nonetheless, what the traditional account leaves out is [this]… Reduction in emotion may constitute an equally important source of irrational behavior.”
This means that at times, we need to be able to dismiss an emotion, but this needs to be decided on a case-by-case basis, not as a rule.
One would never want to blindly dismiss all emotions because they play huge roles: motivation, attention, learning and memory all depend on them. They also help establish our values and form our personality.
In addition, emotions make us grow. For example, many people don’t know that interest is an emotion.
On top of that, without emotions, we would probably be much more selfish and we wouldn’t be able to relate to others at all. All of our social relationships would suffer - we would connect to others purely out of self-interest. Our motto would be: take, take, take and never give.
Lastly, the reason we’re even alive is that when we were babies, there was someone who loved us and took care of us. This means that emotions are not only necessary for healthy brain functioning and optimal decision making, but also survival.