We all love to believe that we are rational and reasonable beings – who always make wise decisions consciously using fact and reason. However, over the years, research has shown repeatedly that much of our decision making is emotionally driven.
It’s not so much that we always weigh up the costs and benefits to make a well-informed decision. Instead, we regularly rely on feelings, hunches, gut reactions, and our current emotional state. Our ability to process emotions is fundamental to decision making.
As the neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio brilliantly detailed in his book Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain, an inability for the brain to process emotions impair a person’s decision making.
In the book, he recounts the story of a patient – Elliot – who changed after doctors removed a brain tumour that was pushing into his frontal lobes. The surgery didn’t impact his language, memory, or intellect; however, he could no longer organise himself and struggled to make routine decisions. Following a series of tests, they discovered that Elliot could no longer feel emotions. He was shown images – injured people and burning houses – and felt nothing.
Elliot is not alone. Research shows that damage to a person’s ventromedial prefrontal cortex (part of your brain’s frontal lobe) interferes with the processing of emotional signals while leaving other cognitive functions with limited or no impact.
We are emotional beings, and when we can’t process our emotions, it impacts our decision making.
At the same time, recognising our emotional state is crucial for wise decision making.
Daniel Goleman, who popularised the concept of emotional intelligence, recounts a story that highlights this beautifully.
A young child is instructed by his mother to get dressed, and he doesn’t want to. He throws a tantrum, pounding on the floor, crying, and saying, “No, I won’t do it!”. Suddenly, he stops, gets up, goes to his room, comes back with his snowsuit on and calmly starts to go out the door. His mum says, “Hey, what just happened?” He responds, “Oh, well, my guard dog got upset. So, I had my wise owl talk to it.”
I love this story, and it’s a great way to distinguish between the emotional and rational parts of our brain. Of course, the amygdala, the section of the brain that detects a threat, is the guard dog. The brain’s executive processing centre, where we can rationalise, reason and process, is the wise owl.
Your brain is constantly scanning the world in its job of trying to keep you safe. So, when your brain’s amygdala detects a threat or stress trigger, it sends a message to the hypothalamus, which in turn triggers the adrenal glands to release adrenalin, cortisol and norepinephrine. This chemical surge is part of your fight or flight response. You will feel it in your body as your heart starts to race or your breathing becomes more rapid. It will also play out in your behaviour, as your prefrontal cortex is less active. It’s at this time that you are far more likely to detect another person’s behaviour as a threat. You are far less likely to be able to solve complex problems and your memory is impacted. In short, your wise owl is nowhere to be seen.
All of this happens in less than a fifth of a second. These responses are necessary to protect us. However, if they are constantly activated, they can have very negative health consequences.
Dr Bruce Lipton eloquently expresses this process in his book The Biology of Belief. He explains the impact that arises when stress hormones are released into the bloodstream. Blood that was previously nourishing our visceral organs is forced to nourish the tissues of our limbs – providing energy to escape the stressful situation. The visceral organs include vital organs such as the heart, liver and kidney. When these organs stop receiving blood, they stop functioning. Consequently, they stop performing things like digestion, excretion and all the other essential functions you need them to do for you.
When it is in fight or flight mode, your body represses your immune system to conserve energy. That’s why you get sick when you are stressed. Lipton goes on to explain: This “… system is a brilliant mechanism for handling acute stresses. However, this protection system was not designed to be continuously activated“.
In today’s chaotic and busy world, you face many daily triggers that set this system off. These are not situations that threaten your survival; they are just the daily stresses of modern-day living. What happens is that the system is overly activated causing elevated stress levels, often at chronic levels. The choice you make about how you respond to events will either minimise stressful feelings or exacerbate them. It will also impact how you make decisions.
The choice is yours. Do you want to hang out all day with your guard dog or become best friends with your wise owl?
As you think about your choices, it’s also a perfect time to reflect on where you want your development to focus next year. If you are thinking about making some wise choices, here are some suggestions:
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Michelle Gibbings is bringing back the happy to workplace culture. The author of three books, and a global keynote speaker, she’s on a mission to help leaders, teams and organisations create successful workplaces – where people thrive and progress is accelerated.