Role of Emotions in Decision Making


Dr. Azra Ishrat
Asst. Professor (HR)
Amity Business School
Amity University
Lucknow Campus

An assumption by rationalist dating back to the ancient Greeks has been that higher forms of human existence comprises of mentation, rationality and foresight. The pirates of emotions, it was held, could hijack decision-making. In accordance with the classical assumption that emotion wreaks havoc on human rationality, the emphasis for years in psychology has been on cognition and rationality, and on ways of diminishing the influence of subjectivity and emotions in decision-making process. Emotions were considered as a disruptive force in rational thought and adaptive actions (Bernstone et. al, 1993). However, unlike the past where emotions were typically considered outside the purview of a rational analysis, emotions are increasingly recognized for the role they play in decision-making. Emotions are not irrational. In fact, in order to behave rationally we need emotions.

Perhaps this transition was due to the finding of a researcher named Antonio Damasio. Damasio (1994) drew this finding from patients with specific brain lesion. Some patients who have suffered damage in their frontal lobes became emotionally flat and lost their ability to make decisions, while retaining other cognitive functions. From the analysis of these patients, Damasio (1994) concluded that their defective decision-making capacity or inability to make decision was due to their lack of emotions. Antonio Damasio (1994) has described vivid examples of this lack of rationality in his book "Descartes Error".  He argued that emotions actually promote rational behavior in situation of indeterminacy. He showed that emotions allow us to avoid potentially problematic choices because we have a "feeling" or a "hunch" that something about a certain choice is "off."(not worthwhile).Without this feeling we might not notice anything amiss or we might get lost trying to reason out unimportant differences between options. Thus he claimed that not only that person (who suppresses emotions while making decisions) would make irrational decision, he also claimed that in many situations this person would make no decision at all or might delay it for very long.

People at work do not always follow rationally optimal path or conform to the managerially defined rationality, as we are made to believe. Since rational actor has to be contended with the information at hand and as there are too many possible alternatives for the decision maker to evaluate, therefore rationality is subjective and bounded. Relevant informations therefore can be missed and hunches, preferences and gut feelings might play an important role in the decision-making process. Reason and emotion can be seen as two complimentary systems in human brain for making decisions. When it is important to get the answer right and we have a lot of time at our disposal, we can use the slow and clean method of reasoning things through. When we have little time and information or it is not a simple but a complex decision that needs to be made, we use emotion or feelings to decide.

Thus, decision-making is a process where both cognitions and emotions play an important role. If cognitions help us in generating ideas, emotions allow us to decide what is worth thinking about and what is not. Emotions also help us in deciding what is relevant and irrelevant. Emotions block ideas which are irrational when the time frame is narrow and our ability to test all possible alternatives is limited. They allow us to act in a manner which is compatible with long-term interest. When stakes are high and rational headed person is asked to make a decision, he frequently becomes lost as to what decision to take. When making decision at initial stage the decision maker has many rational thoughts with only a small amount of emotions. But when it comes to make a decision finally we find that ratio of rational to emotional thoughts is reversed. The intelligent and rational person changes into a different person. He may not show his emotion, but his action or tone of voice however may provide a clue. By saying "I've got to think over it" or "It's not a bright idea" the decision maker shows that she/he is not only thinking but also a feeling being. When executives are asked to make decision that involves significant considerations, risk and more importantly their honour and when their reputation and image is at stake, and then they are bound to use emotion in deciding.

Research indicates that emotion in decision making has been viewed as alternating between two contrasting positions. At one pole, researchers assume (often implicitly) that emotions are primarily impediments to adaptive action. According to this view emotions disorganize or interrupt current thought and disrupt ongoing behaviour. Emotion related thought processes are seen as lacking the direction and principled orderliness of reason (Dewey, 1985). Emotional expressions from anger to proclamation of love are seen as reflecting the more primitive and uncontrollable side of human nature that threatens the social order. At the other pole, theorists assume that emotions function in an organized and useful ways. Emotions are reliable guides to action and help in sustaining the harmony and continuity of social interaction and relationships. Emotions, according to this view, prioritize and organize the ongoing behaviour in ways that optimize the individual's adjustment to the demands of the physical and social environment (Darwin, 1872). Emotions often act as a tiebreaker in decision involving high degree of indeterminacy by enabling us to focus on the salient features of situation. Thus, emotions can facilitate as well as can hinder the decision making process and whether they would facilitate or hinder would depend on large number of factors like nature of the decision, environment and organizational constraints.

Emotions have been categorized into two types-the positive emotions and the negative emotions. Negative emotions such as anger, serve to enhance credibility of threat, while positive emotions such as love and affection ensure credibility of cooperation in decision process. Similarly whereas negative emotions can result in a limited search for new alternatives and less vigilant use of information, positive emotions can increase or enhance active generation of ideas such as inference making, productive thinking  and facilitate the integration of information in decision-making process.

Research indicates that emotions influence various stages of decision-making in decision process and the risk taking behavior of the decision maker. Sinclair and Mark (1992) argued that people experiencing negative emotions do not process information accurately as they overestimate the threat and underestimate their abilities. However, Flam (1990a) gives a different argument regarding the role of negative emotions in decision-making. According to him, fear as a warning signal, forces individuals to reconsider their normative preferences. A considered course of action as a matter of principal is subjected to cost- benefit analysis under the influence of fear. Fear he observed prompts rational calculations, helps in narrowing the range of subjective rational calculations and transforms rank ordering of desires. In other words, negative emotions help people in making rational and workable decisions. They prevent individuals from taking unnecessary risk when expected loss is bigger than gain. Individuals who had experienced failure in recent past avoid risk. The fear of failing again compels them to opt for risk avoiding rather than risk seeking behavior. Such individuals depend more on decision rules set by the organization while making decision.

When an individual is under the influence of fear and threat their attention towards the problems gets narrowed and therefore they fail to search for newer alternatives and make more attribute based comparison than alternative based comparison between choices .

People at work at times fail to think straight, when feeling threatened and as a result they get trapped in escalating commitment to the wrong course of action, pouring more and more resources into defending a lost or wrong course of action; irrational responses may be experienced by people's need to justify their previous decision and to appear consistent with their behavior.

In oragnization, employee when under threat or fear, fails to act rationally because what he sees is not necessarily a vertical reading of what is there. It is distorted by the employee imported needs and desires especially unconscious fear, shame, guilt, anxiety and these shape the way information is processed and choices are made. Emotionalized thinking twists the reality, confuses the appraisal of option and undermines organizational effectiveness.

However, in contrast to the negative emotions, positive emotions help individual in decision making and because of this decision makers arrive at a decision more quickly than people who experience negative emotions.People who are made to feel happy were better able to eliminate unimportant information and processed information in a creative way. Researchers have also indicated that positive emotion promotes simplification of complex task. At the same time people experiencing positive emotions integrate information more efficiently, show less anchoring on earlier diagnosis of problem and display more creativity in their thinking.

Positive emotions tend to increase individual's inclination to take small risks but decrease the tendency to take risk when there is possibility of heavy loss. This happens because there is a tendency in individual who is feeling good to protect his/her positive affective state. It has found that in hypothetical situations of risk and uncertainty, positive emotion leads to risk taking behavior but when there is possibility of real loss then it increases sensitivity towards loss and forces individual to behave in a manner which would protect him from the loss. However, it has been found that decision maker who is confident to tackle future event because of past experience of success in similar decision, tends to select information which are of similar nature as that of the past. His overconfidence may lead him to underestimate threat and he may perceive the problem in a biased way, thus risk aversion behavior may become risk-seeking behavior .

Contrary to the popular assumption that positive emotions would always facilitate decision-making and negative emotions would hinder it, the effect of positive and negative emotions on decision-making process have not always been parallel or symmetrical. Negative emotions do not have only negative effects. At times negative emotion leads to a more thorough treatment of information and hence to better judgments in situations were difficult and complex problems need to be solved. People who are sad seek and consider more information and process persuasive messages more thoroughly. In contrast, positive affect leads to a reduction of deliberative or systematic processing of information. People who are in a positive mood tend to prefer the use of simple heuristics and decisional shortcuts and base their judgments on stereotypes. It has also been found that often negative emotions facilitate decision-making and lead to decisions which are highly successful. To support this argument, the phenomena of escalation of commitment have been given by Staw and Ross (1987). Positive emotions play an important role in escalating commitment to a decision, which is wrong, inappropriate and bad. Managers having made a decision stick to it, despite opposition and mounting evidence that it was a poor decision. Instead of reducing the commitment to a failing venture, they keep on allocating resource to it, keep funding it and increase their commitment to it. This is because decision maker finds it extremely difficult to cut their losses and withdraw because doing so would rule out any possibility of justifying the cost already incurred. Moreover, admitting that their decision was a poor one will be inconsistent with their largely favorable self-image. Another explanation for this is that for those experiencing positive emotion it is difficult to accept the pain of loss which gets heightened and therefore they make attempt to maintain the positive state of mind sticking to their decision and continue to give irrational arguments in support of their decision.

Emotion in decision-making has been studied widely in the context of negotiation decisions. In negotiation decision, expression of positive emotions can facilitate integrative bargaining so that both parties get mutual benefits from it. However, if one goes on expressing positive emotions, it might be seen as a sign of weakness and lead to compromise in which one's gain is lesser than that of the other party. Similarly when negative emotions like anger are expressed at initial stages of negotiation process it might put off the process or even lead to no outcome situation. However, when expressed at later stages of the process it might serve as a pressurizing tactic for tilting the negotiation in one's favor (Neale & Bazerman, 1992). Thus, negative and positive emotions can facilitate as well as hinder different stages of the same decision process.

As mentioned earlier, both positive and negative emotions have both positive and negative implication. In order to maximize the positive aspects and minimize the negative aspects of both positive and negative emotions, organizations employ a variety of mechanisms to neutralize emotions at workplace. These mechanisms aim either at preventing emotions from arising in the first place or to safely control these emotions when they arise. Hence organizations adopt strategies like feeling rules and emotionalized zones

 Feeling rules play an important role in determining the nature of the decision process. Decision like layoff, demotion and dismissal are governed by feeling rules prevalent in the organizations. These decisions can be emotionally taxing; decision maker may experience guilt for being responsible for the loss of someone's job or livelihood. If such feelings were allowed to float then there would be no layoff or suspension in the organization. Feeling rules probably keep in check the personal feelings of individuals.

Decision makers are not expected to feel compassionate, guilty, ashamed, or sad as these may act an obstacle in taking decision. Managers become impersonal and rationalize their action by saying that 'it was for organization's survival' or ' it was in the interest of larger good'. Feeling rules help decision maker to adjust his focus and prioritize his preferences. When there is emphasis on being loyal towards organization, the decision maker in this case, may not mind taking decision, which involves lying, fraud and deceit. On the other hand rigid feeling rules may prevent employees to air their true feelings about various policies and decisions Similarly in organization where there is strictly demarcated emotionalized zone employees might hesitate to express their views as openly as they do when they are in their department /friend circle /cabin than when they are with the MD or in board room. An employee can   expresses vociferously his/her reservations about the policies or decisions of the organization when s/he is with his/her departmental colleague but would not pursue it very strongly when s/he is with MD or in board room. Even when s/he expresses his/her discontent s/he might do so in low voice or mellowed tone and once his /her idea is rejected s/he might not take it up again. As a consequence the employee is like to accept the suggestions or decision of the MD even though s/he does not agree with him.

Since organizations do not allow or encourage expression of emotions like fear, uncertainty, and apprehension, this might create problems at not only implementation stage but also when decision is being evaluated as being a good/bad one. Suppression of apprehension and fear might force the decision maker to take decision which he himself does not approve. So when such decisions backfire the decision maker does not feel guilty or responsible for the decisional outcome as he feels that he had already expressed his fear in decisional phase but the organization went ahead with the decision, ignoring or downplaying his fear or apprehensions. What is needed is therefore that organizations become sensitive towards the emotions of the employees. They should be able to acknowledge and understand the importance of the emotions expressed by its employees, see linkages between emotion and performance and thereby base their subsequent action on the basis of these emotional cues.

Thus emotions  play an important role in decision making. Therefore instaed of   checking, controlling  or suppressing emotion there is a need to go deep down and try to understand why such a feeling has surfaced. But first for most we need to acknowledge that person is experiencing such a feeling. We need to be sensitive towards what  and how others are feeling. Sensitivity towards emotions of the people would not only help in understanding why decisions are taken the way they are, but also make people (specially those who are affected by the decision) confident that the management had taken into consideration their opinion, and feeling (fears, doubts and apprehension) and had made those decisions impartially in the overall interest of the company. Besides it would not only enhance the quality of decisions, and their effective implementation, but also the accountability of the decision maker for that decision.

Dr. Azra Ishrat
Asst. Professor (HR)
Amity Business School
Amity University
Lucknow Campus

Source: E-mail April 20, 2010


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