How wise are you at making decisions?  In choosing, do you rely more on cognition or intuition?  While some people would advocate for the evidence-based, logical approach, others would endorse the way of emotions and gut instinct.  Who’s right?

Let’s take a closer look at each:

For some people, rationality is the easy answer.  When entangled in a decision, they may make a long list of pros and cons, weigh their choices against a pre-determined set of criteria, evaluate their options objectively, step back, and decide.  After all, isn’t the Prometheus gift of reason precisely what separates humans from other animals, so shouldn’t we rely on that?

Plato has a great metaphor of the mind; he compares it to a charioteer controlling horses, which are representative of our emotions.  The best people or the Philosopher Kings in his time were the ones who kept the tightest reigns on their emotional horses, which can be impulsive and impetuous beasts that lead us astray.  Simply distilled, reason is good, emotions not so much.

The problem with rationality is that it can be faulty.  In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman discovered cognitive biases, showing that humans systematically make choices that defy clear logic. He explains, “When humans are left to their own devices, they are apt to engage in several fallacies and systematic errors.”  To be better at decision-making, we need to be aware of these biases and seek workarounds.

In Favor of Emotions 

Those who love to be steered by their emotions in deciding would say that it is the superior method.  Our emotions are wise, especially when we have a good relationship with them.  We can recognize when we are in a bad mood and might lash out at others who are simply trying to help, or when we are feeling overconfident and might take more risks.  We have gut instincts, and when we listen to them, they can guide us carefully and diligently.  We already know the answer or at least one version of it because it is the accumulation of our memories and experiences, revealed unconsciously at speed.  So much of what we believe and do is driven by the unconscious; it is rooted in emotions that we sometimes cannot articulate, yet strongly feel.

In Johan Lehrer’s How We Decide, he recounts a story of Michael Riley, a radar operator in the British Navy during the Persian Gulf War.  On his second day, he picked up a blip on his screen, which could have been an incoming Iraqi missile or an American Fighter Jet, even though the two signals looked identical.  In seconds, he had to decide to receive a potential strike or destroy his fellow brothers.  He fired two missiles and single-handedly saved the battleship.  Initially, he could not explain why he felt confident that it was enemy fire.  It was not until years later that he discovered how he did it – that he unconsciously picked up a subtle discrepancy in the timing of the radar signal.  When we listen to our gut, we are rightly guided.  As explained by John-Dylan Haynes, a Cognitive Neuroscientist at the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin, “the unconscious brain is intelligent enough to select the best options.” 

While our emotions can be inexplicably powerful, there is a problem when we solely rely on them to guide our decisions.  This old saying rings true: “Don’t make permanent decisions based on temporary emotions.”  When we are overwhelmed by passions, it can cloud our abilities to make clear decisions.  Believe it or not, most managers are not good at even recognizing their emotions, let alone not being consumed by them.  TalentSmart has tested more than a million people and found that only 36% of us can accurately identify our emotions as they happen.  If we are unaware of our feelings or cannot properly label them, we may not be able to use them to our advantage.

Reaching the nexus of thought and feeling

The secret to good decision-making is to harness the power of both our cognitive and instinctual forces.  The world is a complex place, especially for any one-purpose solution, so how we decide should depend on what we are thinking about and in what context.  

You can cycle back and forth between cognition and emotions.  For example, we may start with cognition to analyze data, make a pro and con list, assign weight to each aspect, analyze charts and patterns, and then use the emotional and intuitive side to see what feels right.  After the passage of some time, we can step back into the rational mode and see how those feelings impact the way we are looking at the decision.  Finally, after some more thinking, we can check back in with our hearts. This neurological see-sawing can be most effective because usually when one side of the brain is activated, the other side is turned off so it forces us to have a more comprehensive consideration. For example, you may just be thinking logically when you want to fire your employee because sales are down dramatically and you need to cut costs. But how can you tap into the emotional side and be thinking about the person’s livelihood? If you decide the layoff is the right way to go, you can be sure to let the person go with grace and compassion and provide support as the person journeys to their next endeavor.

We have wisdom deep inside of us that we can access to guide our decisions when it most counts. 

Quotes of the day: “The essential difference between emotion and reason is that emotion leads to action while reason leads to conclusions.” -Donald Calne, Canadian Neurologist

“Emotions have taught mankind to reason.” -Luc de Clapiers, Marquis de Vauvenargues, French Moralist and Writer

Q: In making a decision, do you allow more of your emotions or reasoning to guide you?  What process do you put in place to cycle between the two to get all their benefits?  Comment and share below, we would love to hear from you!

[The next blog in this series 6/8 will focus on exploring systems for better decision-making]

As a leadership development and executive coach, I work with leaders to help them make hard decisions, contact me to explore this topic further.

How do you utilize both sides of the brain for the best decision-making?