Published on Psychreg on 11 July 2020.
What is emotion? How would you define it? A strong feeling such as joy or fear? You might be surprised to find out that emotions aren’t feelings at all.
According to the James-Lounge theory, emotions are neuro-physical changes in your body that are caused by external stimuli. Changes in your heart rate, blood flow, sweating, blushing, hormones, and digestion form emotions. When your body registers these physical changes, feelings are created. It is our feelings that we are consciously aware of and mistakenly categorise as emotions.
Suppose for example you enter your bedroom and see your favourite book torn apart. This is the stimulus your mind receives. Your body reacts by dilating your pupils, increasing heart rate and blood flow to your central organs. This is the emotion you experience. Your brain notices these changes and you feel angry. This is the feeling.
In this situation, have you noticed how difficult it is to think clearly? Under the influence of strong emotions, what we say and do seem reasonable. But afterwards, we often wonder, ‘Why did I do this?’ ‘What the hell was I thinking?’
In reality, we weren’t thinking at all. Our body’s fight-or-flight response kicked in and caused an emotional reaction. The question is, why are our minds programmed to react impulsively when this could be harmful to us?
According to Dr Antonio Damasio, this emotional response is the only way that an organism survives in a fluctuating environment. Our brain needs an up to date on the state of our body to continuously regulate the processes and actions that keep us alive. Once our brain perceives an event or object as pleasant or unpleasant, harmful or unharmful, it attempts to modify our relation with the object to protect us.
So in the above scenario (seeing your favourite book torn apart), you subconsciously perceive the person who tore it as a threat to your well-being. And by shouting, you attempt to sever your relation with them. When you later fail to understand why you reacted in that way, it’s because you are trying to link back to a chain of thought which does not exist- only a cloud of emotion is there.
We often hear the phrases: ‘blinded by love’, ‘paralysed by fear’, or ‘ill with stress’.
Emotion has the ability to overpower our senses and functions. When this happens, we are prone to making poor decisions. It’s not a new discovery that our conscious decisions have a degree of emotional-involvement (known as gut feeling or intuition) involved.
But how does the impact differ in various emotional states? Here is a roundup of how humans behave under different emotional states.
When irritated, people are likely to minimise the harms associated with an action and make riskier decisions, than if they are calm. Since anger is a fear-based self-defence mechanism, this makes sense.
Fear has the opposite effect: it decreases the likelihood of risk-averse choices. Keep in mind that when people are afraid of something, they often become angry. Thus fear may lead to riskier behaviour in the long run.
A slight melancholy may be good for decision-making. When nothing appeals much, it improves critical thinking. However, grief has the opposite effect. A 2013 study found that people feeling sad were likely to accept up to 32 times less money in order to get paid immediately.
According to a study carried out in 2011, people who are happy pursue either calming or exciting options, depending on whether they defined their happiness as ‘calm’ or ‘excited.’ Another study in 2019 revealed that though happiness does not impact risk-taking behaviour, it speeds up the decision making process.
The effects of decision-making under stress is widely-researched because of its relation to addiction. During stress, the working memory which deals with attention and decision-making is temporarily impaired, making it harder for people to control impulses.
Studies show that decisions are heavily influenced by one’s emotional state which fluctuates depending on the time of the day and situation.
If our decision making is so faulty, you may wonder how leaders and managers make rational decisions in their everyday lives. To combat this problem, people working jobs requiring them to make split-second decisions like the FBI, are trained to hone their decisions (such as whether to shoot at a target) into a habit, using environmental cues.
But for the regular person, what can be done to make better decisions during a turmoil?
Let me first narrate a story:
Once, Buddha was travelling with his disciples, and passed by a lake. He asked one of his disciples to fetch him some water. The disciple ran to the lake but when he reached, a bull-cart was passing by, rippling the water and making it muddy. So he returned empty-handed and told Buddha the reason.
After some time, Buddha sent him again, but the water was still muddy and he couldn’t give that to Buddha.
The third time he was sent, the mud had settled down, so he scooped the clear water from the surface and brought it back.
Upon this, Buddha remarked, ‘The mind is like the lake. When we are angry or upset, we must give ourselves time for the murkiness to settle down. We don’t have to put in any effort, it happens on its own. We just have to wait.’
The best way to react in an emotional situation is to not react. What seems rational during that moment will seem different a few hours later. The goal is not to make better decisions when emotional, but to develop an awareness of our emotional state and control our reactions in the moment.
Wait for the physical symptoms to subside and your mind to clear. And then try weighing the pros and cons of your decision to see what you come up with.