Edward Schembor


Emotions Are Hurting Your Decision Making

Emotions are at the core of our daily decision making. Whether we like it or not, research has shown that our emotional state can lead to changes in how we analyze situations and make judgments.

And it is not only our immediate emotional state which can affect the decision making process. In a 2009 paper, Eduardo B. Andrade and Dan Ariely describe how “incidental emotions”, emotions unrelated to a goal, can have an effect on the decision making related to said goal. In addition, they provide evidence to support the theory that the influence of an emotional experience on decision making can exist much longer than the emotional experience itself.

When one makes a decision, the objective is to advance as much as possible towards a certain, pre-established goal — a goal that can be anything from improving your organization’s profit to losing weight. However, when emotions are allowed to sway the decision making process, the optimal path for achieving a goal may be overlooked. The emotionally satisfying solution is not always the objectively best solution.

In the United States, there’s been quite a bit of media coverage about Apple potentially moving their hardware production to the United States. People from all ends of the political spectrum have praised this potential change. The logic is that by making this move, Apple will create new jobs in the US. So, the goal is to increase the number of jobs based in the US. In the MIT Technology Review’s article “The All-American iPhone”, it’s noted that manufacturing iPhones and related components would increase iPhone prices by at least $100.

The move appeals to the emotions of a declining US manufacturing industry, but it is not necessarily the objectively best decision for achieving the goal of maximizing jobs in the United States. There has been little discussion on how an increase in phone price may lead to a decrease in iPhone sales and, therefore, a decrease in employment for dependent jobs. Or even the effects of automation should manufacturing be brought to the US.

The goal is to increase employment, but by satisfying the emotional solution, the solution which optimizes may be missed. The point is not to say that this is the wrong decision, but that emotions are clouding the decision-making process. While there has been a tendency to discuss the emotional appeal of moving Apple’s production to the United States, little talk has been had of these subtler effects.

Emotions also cloud the decision making process for immigration policy. In recent months and weeks, the idea of banning Muslim immigrants from entering the United States has become mainstream. After the mass shooting in Orlando in June 2016, about half of all surveyed US citizens were in favor of an immigration ban targeting those of Muslim faith. The presumed goal of this decision is to prevent terrorism in the United States.

Historical evidence illustrates the implications of such a decision. As the Brookings Institute put it when discussing how pagan Romans restricted followers of Judaism, “[s]ome of those Jews reacted by changing how they practiced their religion, arguing that one could be faithful to the spirit of Judaism without obeying Jewish law and faithful to Roman law without disobeying God. The change made it easier for those Jews — known as Christians — to proselytize among the Gentiles, which ultimately paved the way for their takeover of the empire.” Opposite to the goal of preventing domestic terrorism, a blanket ban may increase it.

Since the majority of ISIS-related cases the FBI has investigated have been the product of US citizens born in the country, there may be little benefit, leading to the potential for a net increase in domestic terrorist activity.

Making policy changes targeting Muslims or those from Muslim-heavy countries may be emotionally satisfying, but it does little to progress towards the actual goal of preventing terrorism.

Data has shown emotions impair the decision making process in investing. A 2005 paper published in the Psychological Science journal found that patients with focal lesions in the areas of their brain responsible for emotions made better, clearer decisions than their control counterparts. As the paper describes, “[w]hen normal participants and control patients either won or lost money on an investment round, they adopted a conservative strategy and became more reluctant to invest on the subsequent round; these results suggest that they were more affected than target patients by the outcomes of decisions made in the previous rounds.” This shows how emotions can lead to decision making obstructed by past experiences.

During the decision making process, one must be aware of how emotions are coming into play. By being aware of this factor, one can truly be objective in their decision making and and optimize for the goal at hand. When working towards a goal, look at the data to make the objectively best related decisions; do not allow emotions to cloud this process.

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