For a while the science of decision-making considered emotion to be antithetical to effective, optimal decisions. We hear the almost age-old debate between cognition and emotion as the tension rational versus the irrational. The science of emotions has since come a long way, and we now know from that decisions are never purely made on the basis of reasoned, purely quantitative, cost-benefit approaches. We talk about our decisions being ‘calculated’, but emotions always have a means of seeping into our thoughts where decision-making is concerned. The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, for instance, suggests that we make decisions using emotions, and that we are better off for relying on emotions in decision-making. Damasio formulated the ‘somatic marker hypothesis’, which essentially states that emotion states bias our thoughts and actions . For instance, let’s say we were to ask you whether you would like to have really spicy cuisine from a country you’ve never heard of before. Before deciding, you might try to guess the country we are referring to. You might ask us for more information about the cuisine in general. How did you feel towards the offer? Intrigued and curious? Hesitant and wary? With only a little information regarding the cuisine, you to fall back on your emotions before deciding to take us up on the offer of sampling this new cuisine.
Psychologists and behavioural economists argue that emotions guide and bias our decisions because of our bounded and restricted rationality. We can only know so much, and can ever only have a finite amount of time and energy to seek out all the necessary pieces of information prior to arriving at a decision. Enter emotions – as rough, imperfect, but ultimately necessary guides for our decisions. Emotions are useful heuristics – cognitive short-cuts that allow us to make rapid decisions using rules of thumb, broad generalizations, and impulsive assessments of our situations. Even when we do have a substantial amount of information to guide our decisions, it is near impossible to eliminate the ‘gut feel’ we have towards a certain course of action over another. As such, some scientists refer to our decision-making ability as one that reaches ‘approximate rationality’ .
Emotions impact our decisions and actions us even when we are unaware of them doing so. One interesting study by Nicolas Guéguen, for instance, showed how pleasant scents can influence our decision to help others, by biasing how we feel in that moment. Guéguen got some assistants to ‘accidentally’ drop a glove while they walked past places with either pleasant ambient odors (like pastries), while other assistants dropped their gloves in places with no pleasant odour. The assistants were instructed to continue walking and pretend that they were not aware that they had dropped their gloves. Of the two groups, individuals passing by pleasant-smelling environments who noticed the dropped gloves were more likely to pick them up and return them to the assistants . All this happened without conscious thought – or realization that the pleasant scents were biasing mood, which them prompted intentions to help. Recognizing that decisions are never purely rational is the first step towards fine- tuning your decision-making. The next time you need to make a decision, ask yourself: