The Role of Emotions in Decision Making

Blog by Dr. Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, EFO, CFO
Retired Fire Chief and Web Master for Situational Awareness Matters
It is believed by some that the best decisions are made without the interference of emotions. Economists and statisticians stand fast to this belief – the best decisions are made using pure logic. Facts and formulas lead to the best decisions because they are rational and analytical. But is it true? Imagine for a moment if the emotional control center of a person’s brain were removed. Would that person make better, non-emotional decisions?
To answer that question I want to introduce you to Phineas Gage. Gage was a construction foreman for a railroad company and on Sept. 13, 1848, he sustained an injury that made him the subject of neuro-researchers to this day. While placing an explosive charge into a rock using a tamping rod, the ordinance accidentally detonated and the 3-foot, 7-inch rod went through Gage’s skull.
Amazingly, Gage survived an injury that would, to this day, be fatal to many. His physical recovery was no less amazing to doctors. Within 10 weeks of the injury, Gage returned to work. Life was normal again. Or so some thought?
There was something fundamentally different about Gage. He suffered no memory loss and no motor-skill deficiencies – sans the loss of his left eye and the depth perception challenges it created from having monocular vision. Besides that, however, Gage was clearly “different.”
His behavior had changed. In addition to a change in his personality, one of the most notable deficits was Gage could no longer make a coherent decision. The accident destroyed a portion of his brain in the prefrontal lobe that controls emotions. Gage could no longer make good decisions for the lack of emotional input into the process.
Many subsequent studies involving patients with traumatic brain injuries, lesions and tumors have validated the importance of the emotional control center in the process of decision making. We now know that emotions are a critical component of decision making, though economists and statisticians might still choose to disagree.
Thanks to the advances in modern medicine, researchers are now able to gauge a person’s emotional response to a stimulus and predict behavior long before the (apparent) rational decision is made.
One study I recall reading involved asking a group of chief executive officers to register their “gut” (emotional) solution to a problem prior to embarking on the long, often difficult and timely journey of gathering all the facts and evidence needed to make a “good” decision. When the dust settled, in a vast majority of the cases, the emotional “gut” decision equaled or was better than the rational, non-emotional decision.
The ability of the emotional brain to solve problems and influence decision making is the very concept that Malcolm Gladwell wrote about in his best-selling novel, “Blink.” While Gladwell is not a researcher, his writing is well-researched and, for the most part, accurately portrayed.
The take away: Emotions are critical in making quality decisions, especially for those in leadership positions in the fire service. I do not advocate making purely emotional decisions. Rather, I’d say trust your gut, but validate it with some proof – facts and data – that confirm you’re on the right track. But never dismiss your gut feelings. They’re telling you something … and the message is coming right from your prefrontal cortex.
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