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Thinking about feelings in decisions

Emotions are ‘critically important,’ says lawyer
By Simon Hally
January 29 2016 issue

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When you have to make a difficult business decision, are you able to detach yourself emotionally from the matter at hand and come to a decision using only logic and reason?

If your answer to that question is “yes” or even “sometimes,” then you are, regrettably, wrong. The human brain is constructed in such a way that our decisions are inextricably linked to our emotions.

When Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California, studied people who had experienced brain injuries that left them unable to feel emotion, he found they were also unable to make decisions — even as simple as what kind of sandwich to eat. As there is no rational way to choose between chicken and turkey, they could not decide at all.

When the stakes are much higher than what to have for lunch, and when there are clear logical approaches to weighing various choices, emotion still has a major role to play.

“Whether we like it or not, we are puppets of our emotion,” Swiss author Rolf Dobelli wrote in his bestselling book, The Art of Thinking Clearly.

“We make complex decisions by consulting our feelings, not our thoughts. Against our best intentions, we substitute the question, ‘What do I think about this?’ with ‘How do I feel about this?’”

Toronto lawyer and arbitrator Marvin Huberman is well aware of the connection between emotions and decisions.

“I can say without hesitation and with great conviction as a specialist in civil litigation and dispute resolution that emotions play a critically important role in our decision-making processes,” he says.

“This is well supported by early rhetoricians like Aristotle and later Cicero and by modern-day research from behavioral economics, psychology and neuroscience.”

Huberman refers to Daniel Kahneman, an Israeli-American expert on the psychology of decision-making, who said, “We think, each of us, that we’re much more rational than we are. And we think that we make our decisions because we have good reasons to make them. Even when it’s the other way around. We believe in the reasons, because we’ve already made the decision.”

That does not mean emotions necessarily produce worse decisions than we would make if we were entirely rational.

“Emotion can be very useful. Your gut will tell you if you’re making a good decision,” says Todd Camp, director of coaching at Negotiator-Pro, an organization that teaches negotiation skills using a system based on the idea that decisions are emotional, not logical.

“Important decisions — especially those involving people — must include emotion,” adds Huberman, “because emotion incorporates values, concepts like right and wrong, principles, the higher ideals in life.”

But it’s also evident that excessive emotion can impair our judgment and lead to poor decisions. Anyone can have “bad days” — perhaps starting with an argument at home or a traffic jam on the way to work — when we are upset by feelings of anger or frustration that inhibit our ability to think clearly. An overly positive or euphoric mood can also cloud our judgment — leading us to ignore the potential downsides of a decision, for example, or become too optimistic or trusting in a negotiation.

The interplay between emotion and reason is rooted in the structure of the human brain, says Toronto family lawyer Nathalie Boutet, a pioneer in the field of integrating neuroscience and the psychology of negotiation into law.

In the simplest terms, the brain consists of three regions. At the base is the brain stem, inherited from our reptilian ancestors, which controls the most basic motor functions necessary for physical survival. Above that is the limbic region, which we share with other mammals and where most of our emotions are centred. At the top is the neocortex, which in humans enables abstract thought, imagination and reasoning, as well as highly sophisticated feelings such as compassion and joy.  

Negotiations and other business situations can trigger fear or panic, visceral emotions that arise in the more primitive areas of the brain and hinder rational thought in the neocortex. The result is that while the higher part of our brain likes to think it is in full control of our actions and decisions, it is actually not.

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt likened the rational and emotional sides of human nature to a rider and an elephant. The rider — our intellect — holds the reins and is apparently in command, but the sheer power of the elephant — our emotional side — means that whenever it chooses to go its own way, the rider cannot stop it.

What can the rider do about this? How should you handle your inner elephant in order to improve your chances of arriving at good decisions?

First, don’t think in terms of controlling or coping with your emotions, Boutet advises.

“That is not an intelligent approach. It is simply putting a lid on your emotions. Being prepared is a better way to think of it,” she says. “For example, take precautions before an important meeting. There’s a whole body of research on how to anchor yourself: get enough sleep, eat good energy foods, don’t drink alcohol of coffee — they will reduce your cognitive stability.”

The key is to aim for a neutral emotional state, neither overly negative nor positive, says Camp. “You need a system and method to manage your emotions. If you know you’re in a bad mood, focus on what’s really important. In our negotiating courses, we call this mission and purpose. Concentrating on your mission and purpose will improve your decision-making and give you more confidence in your decisions.”

Another effective technique to get a grip on your emotional side, says Huberman, is simply to slow down. “People are hardwired to make quick decisions, but that comes with risks. To manage that, slow down, think, prepare, analyze. Aim for balance, synergy between emotion and reason. Sleep on it.”

“Notice that good leaders never seem upset — they always know what to say and do,” says Boutet. “Don’t get sucked into the emotions. It’s possible to rise above them, but you must work on it. Understand and come to terms with your emotions. That will make you a better lawyer.”

Appropriately enough, she adds, “This is a subject I’m very passionate about.”

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