The Role of Feelings and Emotion in Decision Making

Last Updated Apr 18, 2007 10:28 AM EDT

People love to characterize emotion and feelings as toxic to rational, objective decision making. "Be cool and dispassionate," they say. While there's some truth to that, there is also evidence to suggest that emotions are crucial in rational decision making (Antonio Damasio, author of Descartes' Error, is an influential proponent of the latter, as he presents neurobiological examples to show that we make better decisions when feelings are part of the reasoning process).

So, how do you find a balance between being passionate and emotional around a decision while also being able to step back and look at it as a dispassionate spectator, weighing benefits and costs objectively?

We can't turn off any part of our brain or chemical processes, but we can consciously emphasize certain parts. My theory -- which came to me yesterday after a question during my speech at the University of Texas, El Paso -- is that different stages of the decision making process require different emphases.

Say you're trying to decide whether or not to pursue a new idea (perhaps a new business).

Stage 1: Initial conception. This requires passion and emotion. You need to be fired up about the possibilities and not shut off any possible creative circuit by "reality checking".

Stage 2: Reality check. This is when detachment is helpful. Step back and really weigh costs and benefits. Be as rational and objective as possible.

Stage 3: Action. Assuming you pursue the idea, passion and emotion are again required. The only way your idea will work is if you pour your heart into it. As Jack Welch has said, "You can't behave in a calm, rational manner. You've got to be out there on the lunatic fringe." By this stage, you will be so attached to your baby that it's impossible be objective. You need to recruit independent advisors who can do the reality checking.

This three stage format is an oversimplification but the point is that different times in the idea generation and action process call for different amounts of heart-filled "passion". Does this make sense to you or do you see it differently?