Smart and informed people can still make bad decisions. People who spend a long time thinking and weighing their options can still make bad decisions. Research shows that emotions play a critical role in good decision making.
Often dismissed as “silly,” “irrational,” or “unimportant,” emotions play a key role in the way that we process information. Anxiety, stress, and fear can create tunnel vision, restricting your ability to consider multiple pieces of information and options. Additionally, anxiety also causes people to attempt to avoid risk. One way of attempting to avoid risk is to simply follow the guidance of a perceived expert, which may not be the best choice.
We all show bias in decision making. The nature of humans is to take mental shortcuts because we are faced with so much information and so many small decisions to make on a daily basis. Mental shortcuts and bias may be okay or even beneficial when deciding what to have for lunch or what to buy on a shopping trip. However, mental shortcuts can be disastrous when larger decisions are at stake.
Positive emotions, such as confidence and optimism, can also harm good decision making. A common mental shortcut involves focusing on any information that agrees with the outcome that we want and dismissing information that does not agree. This kind of overly optimistic thinking may help explain why people engage in unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking or driving recklessly. Often we are able to convince ourselves that we are somehow immune to the potential negative consequences of these behaviors.
The most common decision making strategy taught in school is making a list of pros and cons. Consulting others, “sleeping on it,” or conducting research are also commonly recommended. While these are important strategies, they ignore the significant impact of emotion and cognitive bias on decision making.
Decision making can be especially difficult for college students, who suddenly find themselves faced with multiple large and small decisions their parents used to make for them. Additionally, the adjustment to college can create excessive stress, which further impairs decision making. College students who struggle with decision making may benefit from counseling or coaching to improve core psychological skills.
The goal is not to simply get rid of emotions. Mindfully acknowledging your feelings may help decrease the impact of emotions on decision making. Being aware of emotions will allow you to have a better understanding of how your emotions may be creating a bias in your thinking.
The good news is that emotional awareness can be strengthened, much like any skill. As you learn more about your emotions and deepen your awareness of these emotions, you are likely to experience greater wisdom and better decision making.