How emotions are the key to building intuition and making better decisions
We all know that feeling — something doesn’t feel right, but you just can’t put your finger on it. Maybe you’re interviewing someone for a position in your company, and despite all the boxes being ticked, you hesitate to make an offer. Or you’re trying to figure out why your child seems cranky but there’s nothing obvious to tell you she’s sick. We’ve all been in such situations, where the facts point us in one direction but our feelings pull us the opposite way. How should we decide what’s the right thing to do in such cases? Should we pay heed to reason or emotion?
This battle between the rational and emotional brain is a perennial one. According to the accepted narrative, emotion is usually unwanted noise that muddles clear thinking and only leads us astray. We’re told that to make the correct decisions we should suppress our feelings with the cold hand of reason. It is almost as if an ‘emotional decision’ is an oxymoron. However, a glut of recent research has proven that we discount our feelings at our own peril because within the deep stirrings of emotion lie extraordinary powers that we’re not even aware of.
Emotions get a bad rap primarily because we don’t understand where they come from — a rush of emotion usually feels like a malfunction wherein our mind seems to lose its bearings temporarily. In reality, however, emotions are learned signals that our subconscious brain is sending up into our awareness, pointing us towards a specific course of action. Through chemical processes involving dopamine, the brain is constantly comparing its expectations to what is actually happening in the world. Any mismatch between the two leads to a flurry of chemical activity and generation of emotion — fear, excitement, disgust or surprise — as the brain updates its models of reality.
What this means is that emotions are not just random stirrings inside us but experimentally-tested reactions to real-world situations. Our feelings not only nudge us towards the correct action, but also allow us to register new and unexpected experiences. Most importantly, it is when we make mistakes that we learn the most. The sting of failure that accompanies mistakes is actually our emotions in overdrive, redrawing our mental maps so that we don’t end up with the same outcome next time. In effect, we literally become better thinkers when we make mistakes.
Unlike the emotional brain that has been fine tuned by evolution over millions of years, the reasoning part is a more recent development in the history of the human brain. Therefore, much like new software, it is clunkier, slower and can only focus on a narrow area at a time. When we are trying to reason our way to a decision, we place emphasis on data and rely on logic rather than intuition. While this approach gives us the benefit of consistency and a starting point to tackle completely new problems, it doesn’t necessarily give us the best answers.
Firstly, rational methods of decision-making don’t take into account your subjective desires. Even by using elaborate models that assign weightages to different factors involved in a decision, we might not be able to pin down what really matters to us. Rather, by trying to define what’s important we might fall prey to the verbalisation problem wherein we start believing that the factors we are able to explain most clearly are the ones that matter the most. The easiest example is that of true love: you just know that someone is the one for you and trying to put it in words is completely futile. Secondly, the prefrontal cortex just cannot process more than 7–8 items at a time; this means that a complex decision involving multiple variables is simply beyond the capability of the rational mind.
Simply put, purely rational methods are necessary for good decision-making but not sufficient, especially in complex situations. What we need is a finely-honed intuition that can be used in tandem with our logical faculties so that we can not only make optimal decisions but also arrive at them faster. Knowing what we know now, here are five ways in which you can completely change the way you make decisions.
How to up your decision-making game
- Use your emotions to take tough decisions
When making a simple decision such as whether to have fries with our burger, we tend to go with our gut (haha). For more complex decisions, however, we call upon our reasoning abilities. For instance, when choosing a house, we make elaborate comparisons and try to arrive at a logical conclusion. As it turns out, we’ve got this completely backwards.
As we already know, the reasoning part of the brain is incapable of handling more than a few pieces of information. So when we ask it to consider many different variables, it oversimplifies the situation and tries to force fit an explanation onto the data. The emotional brain, however, has far more processing power that it can use to assess multiple variables in a situation. This solution then, is sent to awareness in the form of an emotion, which we struggle to explain but is often pointing us in the right direction. So, when faced with a complex decision, use conscious reasoning to gather all the data but let your emotions tell you what to do.
2. Jump to conclusions
Of the many sins of thinking that humans can commit, jumping to conclusions is usually considered one of the worst. A wise person, it’s claimed, always generates multiple options and then chooses one among them. While this claim makes a lot of sense, it is fundamentally misguided. Multiple studies have now proven that the real expert decision-makers rarely, if ever, produce more than one option when faced with a decision. They just know what to do. How is it possible?
The answer lies in the definition of expertise: when you have enough experience in an area, you have basically created a wealth of patterns that you can rely on to assess new situations. Without being aware of it, you are picking cues in your environment and matching them to what you already know. By being aware of the emotional response that accompanies this subtle matching, you can judge whether a certain course of action is the right one. As the final step, you can mentally rehearse the suggested course of action and assess the likelihood of its working.
3. Whenever possible, use both strategies
The true hallmark of a good decision maker is the ability to determine which situation requires which strategy. One factor that determines the method to be used is the novelty of the situation. A completely new situation necessarily requires the full force of your reasoning mind. Since you have no existing patterns that you can match to the new situation, the response of the emotional brain is not of much use. In fact, it might just get in the way of letting you consider all possible angles of the problem.
Even for situations that are familiar, the best strategy is to deploy both your faculties: use the emotional brain to guide you in the right direction but let the rational brain have its say too. While the former allows you to quickly winnow down the options and narrow in on the most workable solution, the latter lets you observe it form all angles and determine that all bases are covered.
4. Build expertise and through it, intuition
The ability to use intuition depends on your level of expertise. Following your gut when you don’t have enough experience in similar situations is a recipe for disaster. However, when you have past experience to bank on, you are doing yourself a big disservice by not paying heed to the emotional brain. The emotional response system has been encoding all your experience in an easily retrievable form and suppressing that mechanism in favor of the ‘accepted’ process will only lead to sub-optimal solutions.
In personal terms, what you like or dislike and why that is so, cannot be explained in words. You just know because your lived experience has fine-tuned your preferences. The same cannot be said of most organizations where the emphasis is on creating and following procedures. By prioritizing set models of decision making, we might gain consistency in our results but not accuracy. By overemphasizing process, not only do organizations leave no incentive for employees to develop expertise but also fail to utilize the benefits that intuitive thinking might bring. The truly aware organization does not force a tyranny of rules and operating guidelines on its people but gives them the space and opportunity to deepen their knowledge and become more intuitive thinkers.
5. Have faith that you know more than you think you know
If there is one thing you take away from this essay, it is this: you have seriously impressive machinery under the surface of conscious awareness that communicates with your rational self through emotions. Thanks to the slow, but effective, process of evolution many of the bugs that beset your conscious brain have been sorted in your emotional brain. What you have now is a system that is not only fast and accurate but is also constantly updating itself without you having to tell it to do so. Your job is to learn to trust this apparatus and harness its immense power. By doing so, you will not only see your abilities multiply manifold, but also find a window into your soul.