“Keeping emotions out of it,” and “not being so emotional,” are the keys to making good decisions, right?

No. Nein. Non. Não. 

Contrary to popular belief and decades of scientific (mis)understanding, it turns out the exact opposite is true. Keeping emotions out of it is actually a disaster for decision making, according to a recently published study. This latest research adds to a growing body of evidence that the role emotions play in the brain is different than what most scientists have supposed for decades – and we really don’t want to be keeping emotions out of it when we make decisions.

Keeping Emotions Out of It Is Actually a Disaster for Decision Making

Even the most mundane, rational decisions rely on emotional data. It’s time to replace this outdated mode of thinking with a model based on current neuroscience.

The Myth of Keeping Emotions Out of It

For many decades, scientists have thought of cognition and emotion as two largely separate systems in the brain. And even as researchers began to find evidence of the interdependence of the two, this interaction was often seen in the light of emotions interfering with our higher level cognitive processes. As neuroscientist Mary Helen Immordino-Yang describes it in Learning Landscapes, they have traditionally been treated like two players in a china shop: cognition the valuable glassware, emotions the toddler run amok, breaking the wares.

That’s where our cultural mindset about “keeping emotions out of it” and making “rational decisions” comes from. For many, many decades, this mode of thinking dominated in the scientific community, too.

But recent findings in neuroscience have cast doubt on this traditional way of thinking. Or maybe, shattered it altogether.

Why Rational Thought Isn’t Enough On its Own

The roots of understanding this deep interconnection of cognition and emotion, like many breakthroughs in neuroscience, were found by studying patients with brain damage. The brain lesions these patients had suffered to a particular sector of the frontal lobe had not impacted their knowledge base or logical reasoning abilities. They understood what made a good business investment.  They understood and could describe the social rules and conventions that should guide one’s actions. With any decision, they could go through the pros and cons. Yet these previously upstanding men and women struggled to make even simple decisions, and began to make disadvantageous decisions in many different aspects of their lives. Why?

It was found that what they could not do was use past emotional knowledge to guide the reasoning process. Even though they knew logically that a specific business deal was risky or that a certain decision could endanger their relationship with someone close to them, they could not access the past emotional knowledge and use that to guide the reasoning process.

Emotions seem to provide an essential link between what we know to be true and the motivation to act accordingly.

“By compromising the possibility of evoking emotions associated with certain past situations, decision options, and outcomes, the patients became unable to select the most appropriate response based on their past experience. Their logic and knowledge could be intact, but they failed to use past emotional knowledge to guide the reasoning process… ”

Mary Helen Immordino-Yang

Learning Landscapes

So contrary to decades of scientific and cultural understanding, emotions play a fundamental role in rational thought, or at least in the ability to do something about those thoughts. Without the guidance of emotional learning and social feedback, rational thought and logical reasoning abilities are of little use. Emotions are the the motivator, the push. They provide the umph. To know that a decision is risky is one thing, but to feel the anxiety and appropriate fear associated with risk taking is quite another – and it’s the difference that makes the difference when it comes to making decisions.

The China Shop Analogy

This causes us to rethink our assumptions about the roles of emotion and cognition in the china shop. While cognition is still the valuable glassware, emotions are hardly the dangerous child run amok. They are more like the shelves, supporting and stabilizing the wares.

Without emotions, the higher level cognitive processes cannot function properly.

Instead of keeping emotions out of it, the new advice should be to make sure emotion and cognition are working together.

Rethinking Emotions

It may help here to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Emotions are neurohormones that the body releases in response to our perceptions of the world. They’re a sort of primary filter that focuses our attention and motivates us toward a specific course of action. Hence the importance for decision making. Even if we know that a tiger is dangerous or that a walk in the park makes us feel good, it’s the emotional response of fear and joy that really motivates us to hide from a tiger or go for a walk in the park – not knowing logically that we should. And the more we learn to recognize and respond appropriately to our emotions (fear – protect!, joy – do more of this – overwhelmed – prioritize!), the more effective we are personally and professionally.

Instead of suppressing or feeling indifferent toward emotions, what if we embraced them and listened to them?

This is a process called practicing emotional intelligence. And it’s through this process of our cognition and emotion working together that we make optimal decisions.

Keeping emotions out of it is an outdated way of thinking – and an unnecessary burden to put on yourself. It’s time to try something new, based on the latest scientific understanding of the brain.

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Michael Miller

Michael Miller

Writer at Six Seconds
Michael Miller is a writer and contributor for Six Seconds who lives in Santa Cruz, California. He is passionate about living a balanced, healthy lifestyle and helping others to do the same. You can reach him at [email protected]
Michael Miller