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How to Avoid Making Emotional Decisions

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m a big fan of podcasts. Radio Lab (produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR) is one of my current favorites. A recent episode on the topic of “choice” discussed a fascinating scientific research study that had unexpected results and significant implications. Here’s a summary:

Two people are given two different sets of numbers to remember. One person gets two numbers, while the other gets seven. After being told their number sets, the two individuals are asked to walk down a hall and go to another room where they’ll be asked to recite their numbers. While walking down the hall, they’re approached (in a seemingly unplanned fashion) by a kind staff member who says that, as a special thank you for participating in the study, they can have one of two special snacks. The first snack is a big, gooey slice of chocolate cake. The second is a small, healthy bowl of fruit salad. They were asked to make a choice between the two.

Oddly, the people trying to remember two numbers almost always picked the fruit salad while people remembering seven almost always chose the cake. Coincidence? Nope.

Yes…But What Does It MEAN?

The researchers concluded that there are two parts of the brain involved in decision-making: the “rational” brain and the “emotional” brain. When the rational brain is busy trying to remember something significant (like a string of seven numbers), the emotional brain takes over in the decision-making process and, apparently, an unhealthy slice of chocolate cake is a thoroughly emotional choice. Those remembering just two numbers were more capable of using their rational brains and suppressing their emotional brains; thus, the healthier fruit salad decision was made.

It sounded like a stretch when I first heard it, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. When making decisions, we need our wits about us. When we’re distracted, even by something as simple as remembering a string of numbers, we’re more likely to make decisions that appeal to our emotions. These are the choices that feel comfortable and reassuring. They aren’t necessarily the rational, well thought-out decisions.

Let Your Rational Brain Focus on the Important Things

So, what does this teach us? The simple answer is this: If you want to make smart decisions, use your rational brain. In order to do that, you have to make sure that part of the brain isn’t distracted by something else, like your to-do list or some unresolved conflict.

If you’re trying to make rational decisions and avoid emotional ones, don’t clutter your rational brain with unnecessary fluff. Keep it as empty as possible so it has the energy to focus on the important things. An easy way to do this is to simply write things down and get them out of your head.

When I heard about this experiment, I wondered how it might have gone differently if the individuals had been allowed to write down the string of numbers. The conclusions seem to suggest that this would have led to everyone choosing fruit salad since, having written down the information, the rational brain would have been free to make all the smart decisions in the world.

Sure, it’s not always easy to keep the rational brain focused, but just being aware of this information will likely inspire you to view your decision-making process a little bit differently. Next time you find yourself at a crossroads, ask which brain is in charge. If your rational brain is busy doing something else, grab its attention and get it involved.

Photo Credit: Almoko (Flickr)

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12 Responses to “How to Avoid Making Emotional Decisions”

  1. Dia says:

    Nice post Chrissy. Thanks for sharing

  2. andrew g. says:

    Sage words of wisdom…. possibly passed along from a wise friend of yours?

  3. Chrissy says:

    Oh yeah, shout out to Andrew G for telling me to listen to Radio Lab!! What would I do with out it/him?

  4. TM says:

    This is interesting…

  5. […] perfect. Far from it, in fact. I make mistakes every single day, some bigger than others. I make emotional decisions, I let stress get the best of me, and I fail to properly manage my time. I do all the things I tell […]

  6. Phamm says:

    I have recently experienced a huge problem at my job that started with my yearly evaluation. My eval did not go as I thought. I have never had anyone say anything during the yr about my perormance therefore it was a blow when I was told my performance was chaos.I have taken FMLA so I can let my mind rest. I am way emotional. Please give me some advice. An I do not know how to be calm while trying to discuss this situation. The supervisor even admitted she handled the situation wrong. I have lost my confidence in my work even though I know I have done a good job.

  7. […] of their concern. You’re disgruntled. These are the ramblings of a mad man, they cry! It’s just emotional nonsense! And thankfully, you’re a problem they no longer have to deal […]

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  10. […] comes from a place of emotion: Frustration, anger, disappointment, etc. Do your best to set these feelings aside. The workplace […]

  11. […] daunting. How do you know you’re making wise choices? What if you’re blinded by circumstances, emotions or bad […]

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