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Why Emotions Are Important When Making Decisions

I was recently at a restaurant and overheard the patrons to my right having a discussion. One of them said: "You should never make decisions out of fear." Everyone at the table seemed to nod approvingly at this piece of advice.
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I was recently at a restaurant and overheard the patrons to my right having a discussion. One of them said: "You should never make decisions out of fear." Everyone at the table seemed to nod approvingly at this piece of advice.

We've all heard different versions of this message, either in person or through TV and movies. The main reasons for this view are:

Fear clouds our thinking, so we should not make a decision during such vulnerable periods.

Letting fear determine your decisions in life makes you, or perhaps means you are, a weak person.

While there is some truth here, it is not as straightforward as it might seem. Since we all have to make decisions in life while feeling fear and anxiety, it helps to examine the accuracy and usefulness of this well known recommendation.

The function of emotion

Although they may feel like nuisances, emotions evolved and became part of our human experience because they serve useful functions. Put simply and broadly, the purpose of emotions is to facilitate awareness and action.

The simplest and most classic example of this is the "bear in the woods" scenario:

Imagine taking a stroll through the woods seeing a bear 20 metres away. The fear you feel (heart racing, rapid breathing) makes you immediately aware of threat to safety and motivates you to take rapid action.

All emotions have this purpose. Anger alerts us to injustice, shame to some socially undesirable behaviour, and so on.

The point is that emotions should be considered useful guides in life. However, there is no denying that emotions can be confusing, as well as a a source of distress for many people.

When it comes to using emotions to your benefit, I recommend three things.

First, be aware of the emotion you feel. Some of us have very little awareness of our emotions. When asked how they feel, some tend to reply with "bad" or "crappy" or some other general description.

And recognizing the right emotion can be difficult. Anger and frustration can feel very similar in the body, yet each one has a distinct cause. As such, it is worth distinguishing them if possible.

Imagine you've been searching for a long-term relationship and have been going on many dates but having little success.

You might feel anger if there was some perceived injustice -- other people find relationships more easily than me, it's unfair.

You might feel frustration simply because you can't attain an important goal despite repeated effort -- no matter what I do, I can't find the right person.

Knowing which emotion is present helps address the underlying problem. If it's anger due to injustice, then you may need to examine your beliefs about fairness in dating, which is a different path than if it were frustration alone.

Second, be mindful of the intensity. It is helpful to think of all emotions as ranging from zero to 10 in terms of strength. Whenever I drive on the highway, I want my anxiety to be a two or three out of 10 because this means I am somewhat alert. If it starts to snow, I want my anxiety a bit higher, perhaps a four or five. This raises my level of mental and physical readiness.

We often think of emotions as problematic only when intensity is too strong, like having anxiety be at an eight during a speech. But the opposite can be true as well -- you do not want your anxiety to be zero while driving in a snowstorm.

Third, once you know which emotion is appropriate and how strong it should be, then a decision can be made accordingly and action taken (if necessary). In other words, when emotions work properly, they help guide us to make healthy decisions. With that in mind, let's return to examining the advice of "not letting fear drive our decisions."

What to do with fear?

As an example of how this all fits together, imagine your dentist suggests that you have surgery to remove your wisdom teeth. The thought of having surgery makes you feel afraid.

How could the feeling of fear be useful in this situation?

First, are we dealing with the correct emotion? Psychologists tend to distinguish fear from anxiety. Fear involves a threat that exists in the present (e.g. standing in front of a bear), while anxiety involves a threat in the future (e.g. surgery in a month). In this case, we are technically dealing with anxiety, although the difference between the two is not totally relevant here. The point is that anxiety makes us aware of potential threat and since there are risks to having surgery, anxiety is indeed a useful emotion to have in this situation.

So, how much anxiety should you have? You need enough anxiety to motivate a search for information about relevant risks and benefits of the surgery. If your anxiety is an eight and you spend each day worrying that the general anesthesia will kill you, this is too much. If you have no anxiety at all and just simply make an uninformed decision, this too is a problem.

We want the anxiety to guide you to properly evaluate your options. If you make a decision based on this process, then the emotion has done its job.

Returning to my fellow diners' discussion of fear and decision-making, my response to that piece of advice would be "maybe."

If the fear (or any emotion) is clouding proper judgment, or if you make a decision primarily to get rid of an emotion (e.g. having the surgery to just get it over with), this is a problem. But if the fear motivates thinking and action in a healthy manner, this is the best course of action. In this instance, making a decision because of fear's help is a positive outcome.

Also, allowing emotions to help and guide us is not a sign of weakness. In fact, there is wisdom and maturity associated with being able to understand emotions, including their function in our lives.


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