In Defense of Emotion in Effective Decision-Making
Cognitive biases are a fascinating snapshot of what happens when our reasoning breaks down. With the rise of the internet, social media, and partisan news media – we’ve never been more empowered to construct worlds that match whatever it is that we want to see.
Increased polarization isn’t the only byproduct. Data-mining tools like psychographics and targeting marketing have emerged to profit off of the blindness to our quintessentially human vulnerabilities.
Aristotle thought rationality distinguishes humans from animals. But this is so removed from how our minds actually work. There are more than 150 named cognitive biases – distorting everything from how we evaluate science, spend our money, and assess our abilities. You want to convince someone? Try making it rhyme, like “If it doesn’t fit you must acquit!” Or say your main point over and over again, like the adage “if you repeat something long enough it will become true.” Better yet, hire someone beautiful to do all these things for you. Suspicious reasoning can be packaged in many different ways to make whatever it is seem more believable.
We’re often told that our feelings are the culprit for flawed decision-making. As if to suggest the truly intelligent person is a disembodied intellect functioning in an emotional wasteland and all we need to be these rational super-beings is to eliminate emotion and prejudice altogether. But, while it’s true that emotion can bias our thinking, it’s not true is that the best thinking comes from a lack of emotion. In fact, the very-near opposite is true.
In the early 1980s, a neuroscientist published a case study about one of his patients: a successful businessman who had a tumor removed from his brain. “Elliot” survived the surgery with his IQ unchanged but the ability to make decisions completely destroyed. But there was another surprising side effect: he also couldn’t feel anything. Even when he lost his job and his marriage failed, he felt no emotion. His brain could no longer connect reason and emotion, leaving him completely disengaged from the world.
Simply put, a brain that can’t feel can’t make up its mind. Emotion helps us screen, organize and prioritize information. It influences what information we decide is salient, or convincing, or memorable. Neuroscience isn’t the only field affected by this paradigm shift. Artificial intelligence has since moved towards probabilistic techniques, similar to the way human beings are able to make fast, intuitive choices without stopping to reason, step-wise.
Critical thinking cannot successfully direct our beliefs and actions unless it continually assesses our emotional states, as well as our implicit and explicit drives and agendas. Emotionality is not to blame for faulty reasoning. Emotion is necessary for reason. When we are cut off from our feelings, even the most routine decisions become impossible.
It’s very hard to recognize our own biases. Just because you’ve heard of errors like “confirmation bias” doesn’t make you any less vulnerable to committing them. In fact, I’d argue it makes you even more vulnerable. To this point, there’s a cognitive bias about overcoming cognitive bias – whereby the very act of trying to eliminate our cognitive biases makes it seem (to ourselves) like we’ve succeeded.
The discussion revolving around how to eliminate emotion and bias from our lives miss the point entirely. Cognitive biases, together with emotion, play an important role in decision making. There’s no way to eliminate them completely. They are fundamental to how we think – part and parcel with our ability to reason in uncertainty and creatively solve problems.
This isn’t to say ‘it is what it is’ (with an accompanying ineffectual shoulder shrug). When it comes time to making important choices, there are some things you can do to optimize your decision-making.
- Be bias tolerant: instead of pretending like you aren’t biased or blaming yourself for being biased, acknowledge bias as baseline.
- Use your feelings as a guide for your preferences, not as a gauge for the inherent “rightness” of a certain path
- Remind yourself that just because someone disagrees with you does not mean:
- They are lying
- They are more emotional than you
- They are ignorant
- Don’t be too attached to your opinions. Challenge your conclusions by seeking out alternate points of view. Go even further, and ask family or friends to play a devil’s advocate role when deliberating important life decisions.
The world is getting more and more complicated. But we can use our understanding of our own limits to work for us instead of against us. We make thousands of decisions every day, not all of them as important as others. Make sure that the ones that do matter are made reflectively, not reflexively.