The Role of Emotion in Decision-Making

decision making

“All learning has an emotional base.”
— Plato
“The heart has its reason that reason doesn’t know.”
–Blaise Pascal

We are in a world of human possibilities where decisions are made at any moment of wakefulness. Decisions range from the most casual to the most imminent with the majority of them being in any shade of their degree of importance in between. As a matter of habit, we always seem to believe that decision-making is generally a  function of the rational mind. We decide on something and we want to give the impression that the process involves a thorough logical deliberation so that once a decision has finally been made, we want others to believe that it is the best of all possible options. With this in mind, we have gotten used to the idea that decision-making is supposed to be a function of reasoning and knowledge and not simply of spur-of-the-moment resolution. The best decisions are therefore well-thought of in the most logical or critico-analytical sense of an intellectual operation.

However, a decision is made not just for the heck of coming up with a decision. Every decision is geared towards action. One is expected to act on the decision s/he has made. In this sense, a decision-maker is cognizant of the fact that the real meaningfulness of her/his decision lies on its actual operationalization. A decision not acted upon is a failed endeavor which in effect makes the process of decision-making itself an exercise in futility. As a matter  of realistic experience, within the ambit that constitutes decision-making and operationalization is a crucial interspace that magnifies the role of emotion which at the outset is not even apparent but tended to be choked off by the predominance of cerebral rationality and the desired analytic process. The push–or the will–to act on a decision made is not singularly one of rationality but more a case of emotion. Within the whole gamut of decision-making and decision-operationalization is an interplay of rationality and emotion. This is reflective of the human dynamics where reason and passion are fundamentally inseparable.

Emotion in particular could be construed as a human person’s sensitivity of varying levels of intensity that emanates from her/his state of affairs, temper or interactive relationships with other persons. It is however understood in general as an integral and spontaneous perceptiveness fundamentally distinguished from rational and epistemic awareness. Etymologically, the term “emotion” is of Old French origin, i.e, from emouvoir, meaning “to stir up,” which is further traced back to the Latin emovere, meaning “to move out” or “to remove” or “to agitate” which lead to the idea of having “a strong feeling”. ( By and large, emotion stands on a subjective platform as distinguished from analytic rationality which operates on premises unanimously accepted within a certain set of norms generally held by human convention as objective. On the one hand, we have reason and on the other, emotion. At the initial phase of the decision-making process, emotion is seemingly yet inert and hence non-functional (though extensive scientific studies have later proven otherwise). The rational mind at this point takes the driver’s seat in the identification and “materialization” of a series of valid options and supporting factors that lead to the formulation of not one but several doable and sustainable prospective decisions. Afterwards, the one single outstanding decision is taken with a determined commitment to act on it which at this point is no longer within the province of reason but of emotion. The leading issue at this juncture of the process is therefore one’s emotional readiness–one’s integral sensitivity or spontaneous perceptiveness–to prefer to act on a particular decision at a certain level of her/his intense commitment to a cause where such a decision is deemed necessary and thus relevant and proper.

Nevertheless, a closer and more in-depth look into the initial phase of decision-making process reveals the reticent role of emotion. The very act itself of identifying options and supporting factors within the problematic context at hand is primed by the decision-maker’s emotional state, i.e., her/his present circumstance, temper and relationships which actually constitute her/his integral and spontaneous sensitivity on the matter here and now. This condition is an affirmation of the plenary constitution of normal humanity realized in the balanced interplay of reason and emotion. In other words, this is humanity within the dynamics and mechanics of normal life in action. Even the very “primal” instance that goads and leads one to get to the process of decision-making is basically not a purely rational operation because the occurrence of necessity in whatever form and event is an emotional circumstance. There is no way that decision-making which is a fundamental stuff of wakeful life is outside the sphere of human emotions and this proposition is not merely a speculative concoction on the basis of some superficial observation but something that is cogently validated and justified in and by scientific studies  particularly in the area of neuroscience.

The distinguished Portuguese-American neuroscientist Antonio Damasio did a series of extensive and in-depth pioneering studies on patients with some damage in the brain part where emotions are effected. His studies yielded a surprising result that despite the damage, none of the patients’ cognitive intelligence tested by way of their logico-analytic rationality was adversely affected except the disturbing fact that all of them are absolutely incapable of making even the simplest decisions required in certain real-life situations. Such a major imbalance in the reason-emotion scale abnormally sharpens the rational side of the brain which heightens the logico-analytic profiency of the affected individual at the expense of emotional sensitivity.  This situation unconditionally drives the person to a seemingly endless and exhaustive train of critically focusing on the rationality of the pros and cons of a particular action to be taken in a specific problematization which totally precludes a functional decision. In the final analysis, Damasio conclusively reiterated in his studies that emotion plays an absolutely crucial role in a human individual’s decision-making capability.

In Damasio’s discussion of the case of one of his patients identified as Elliot in Chapter Three of his 1994 ground-breaking bestseller, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain (, titled “A Modern Phineas Gage” (page 34-51), Damasio initially gives the pre-problematic background of Elliot as a productive, responsible and extraordinarily intelligent individual. Then, later Elliot developed a brain tumor which after a series of tests turned out to be meningioma which, quoting Damasio, is a benign type of tumor:

“Meningiomas are generally benign, as far as the tumor tissue itself is concerned, but if they are not removed surgically they can be just as fatal as the tumors we call malignant. As they keep compressing brain tissue in their growth, they eventually kill it. Surgery was necessary if Elliot was to survive.”

The tumor was successfully removed by “an excellent medical team”. Further quoting Damasio:

” . . . As is usual in such cases, frontal lobe tissue that had been damaged by the tumor had to be removed too. The surgery was a success in every respect, and insofar as such tumors tend not to grow again, the outlook was excellent. . . .”

But something turned out unexpectedly. Damasio continues:

” . . . What was to prove less felicitous was the turn in Elliot’s personality. The changes, which began during his physical recovery, astonished family and friends. To be sure, Elliot’s smarts and his ability to move about and use language were unscathed. In many ways, however, Elliot was no longer Elliot.”

The operation done on the frontal lobe of Elliot’s brain to remove the damaged tissue resulted to an irreparable detriment: the total loss of his emotional faculty. In view of this, Damasio observes:

“His knowledge base seemed to survive, and he could perform many separate actions as well as before. But he could not be counted on to perform an appropriate action when it was expected. Understandably, after repeated advice and admonitions from colleagues and superiors went unheeded, Elliot’s job was terminated. Other jobs-and other dismissals-were to follow. Elliot’s life was now beating to a different drum.”

In the final analysis, Damasio conclusively remarks:

” . . . I began to think that the cold-bloodedness of Elliot’s reasoning prevented him from assigning different values to different options, and made his decision-making landscape hopelessly flat. It might also be that the same cold-bloodedness made his mental landscape too shifty and unsustained for the time required to make response selections, in other words, a subtle rather than basic defect in working memory which might alter the remainder of the reasoning process required for a decision to emerge.”

(c) Ruel F. Pepa, 25 December 2014


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