Emotion: Friend or Foe?

Emotion has a bad rep in the world of business.  Clients regularly request my help in “getting emotion out of the way” so they can make good business decisions and foster better collaboration.  Not too long ago, a financial advisory company proudly proclaimed to me that they do better in the stock market because they base decisions solely on logic. Executives and investors spend long hours listening to endless presentations of data, in the belief that their final decisions will be based on conscious rational consideration of all that’s been put before them.  The neurological truth, however, is far more complex. In the final analysis, all decision-making is emotional.

The role of emotion in decision-making is determined by many complex variables.  One way to look at the brain is as a massive pattern detection machine.  We continuously bring in information from the environment and attempt to find recurring patterns that will allow us to predict the responses that are most favorable to our survival.  Our ability to hold information in consciousness (called working memory) is extremely limited and there is far more information present at every moment than we can ever consciously attend to.  Patterns help us sort through all that information and pay attention to what is most germane in order to survive and thrive.

Those patterns are linked to emotions. “Feelings” can be thought of as the brain’s way of letting us know, based on all the patterns we’ve stored to date, what path of action is likely to yield the optimal result.  Emotions, in this sense, are nothing more than elegant decision-making shortcuts.   While emotions have limitless nuance, in the final analysis, they simply tell us whether to move toward or away from a particular thing, experience or future state.

A rich history of neurological case studies shows that orbital frontal damage leads to an incapacity for making cogent decisions on even the most mundane matters.  The brain can crunch the information in a cool detached manner, but is unable to produce the feeling that says, “pick this one.”  We rarely stop to think about the number of unconscious decisions we make throughout our day or why, for that matter, we make them the way we do.   Decisions are made based on a combination of unconscious individual patterns acquired from a lifetime of experience, evolutionary patterns (often adapted for small nomadic tribal life on the plains of Africa) and that aforementioned extremely limited resource called working memory.

In some cases, attempting to base decisions solely on logic can lead to surprisingly suboptimal results.  In an experiment with MIT business students, one group was given extremely detailed reports on companies, while another group was just given their stock prices. The group who “bet blind” made better investments than those with copious information, who fell into classic analysis paralysis and the inability to decide what was and wasn’t important.  For those relatively inexperienced students, lacking a lifetime of patterns to guide the data sorting process, the quantity of information overwhelmed the brain’s ability to crunch the numbers effectively.

In another elegantly designed experiment, Professor Baba Shiv  (then at University of Iowa and currently at Stanford) and his coauthor, Alexander Fedorikhin (USC), asked participants in two separate cohorts to memorize a two-digit or seven-digit number.  During the course of the experiment, all participants were offered the opportunity to choose a snack: a slab of rich gooey chocolate cake or a bowl of sliced fruit.  Overwhelmingly, the seven-digit cohort preferred cake, while the two-digit cohort chose fruit.  The fully occupied working memory capacity of the seven-digit cohort responded with choices based on a primal emotional instinct imprinted by life on the African Savannah:  Yum!! Chocolate cake…lots of calories…good!  Those whose conscious capacity had not been overwhelmed by data distraction were able to recognize the impulse for cake, but override it with a healthier choice.

When we speak of “not being emotional,” what we are really talking about is developing strategies to short-circuit the often, but not always, poor decisions produced when we are operating from a position of stress, threat or emotional overwhelm.  Equally poor, are decisions made by leaders who lack the richness and wisdom provided by full access to their emotions and those of their community.  Emotion, used wisely, connects us to what we care about and has profound power to motivate and catalyze. Rather than marginalizing emotion, intelligent leaders recognize the imperative for developing emotional literacy and maturity.  Our patterns, whether personal, cultural or evolutionary, can be flawed.  When they are, we need to be able to recognize the “toward” or “away” signal that is leading us astray and be equipped with strategies to override those errant impulses.



  1. May I share this article with my freinds on Facebook?

  2. Brilliant article. Such a needed insight into how we function. And I’ll share it on facebook, too.

  3. Beautifully written article. I like the point you made about our ability to hold only so much information in our conscious mind, and therefore when we make decisions we are accessing so much more than what is referred to as rational or logical thinking. As someone who teaches about emotions, I appreciate that you emphasize the complexity of how emotions operate in our lives, and that what people refer to as being “emotional” has to do with a narrow scope of the significant role and valuable role emotions play in our lives.