Emotions and Decision Making

We make decisions to achieve some emotional state – to become happy or satisfied, to avoid disappointment or regret. It is the anticipation of some future state of feeling that influences the choice. These are known as expected emotions, the ones we hope to experience. The emotions we actually experience while considering a decision also affect our judgment. These are known as immediate emotions.  At the simplest level, our emotions affect the decision making process when we ask “How do I feel about this?” and then base a choice on those feelings. Some decisions are more likely than others to elicit an emotion. For example, deciding your current mood may strongly influence where you decide to eat dinner but it is less likely to affect the brand of toothpaste you purchase.

The research literature identifies six universal emotions: happiness, surprise, fear, sadness, anger, and disgust. Each of these, and the moods they can create, has the potential to affect the ability to make good decisions. Arousal caused by stress, anxiety, or anger can make it difficult to process information effectively and can lead to misunderstanding or misinterpretation. Similarly, arousal can narrow or restrict attention to data and information that has relevance to a decision. For example, those who are afraid of flying may choose instead to drive to their vacation destination even though the chances of dying in an auto accident far exceed those of dying in a plane crash.

Discomfort with ambiguity or feelings of confusion can create a need for closure that creates pressure to make a decision in order to lessen discomfort. This results in being less open to alternatives, preferring simpler solutions, being resistant to persuasion, and making a more limited search for information. These behaviors can cause leaps of judgment based on limited information and less time and effort spent on considering the choice.

Research has shown that happy moods also lead to judgments based on limited consideration of information, while sad moods are associated with a more systematic approach and thoughtful consideration of information. Happy moods decrease how critically we assess information and decrease attention to how strong an argument is when someone is trying to persuade us. This can lead to decisions that are less optimal. Because we pay less attention to detail when happy, we tend to rely more on heuristics, those short cuts based on prior experience. Conversely, negative emotions are more likely to signal the presence of a problem, which motivates people to look at things more carefully. Positive emotions make people feel safer, so caring about the details seems less important.

The more intense the emotion, the greater the influence on decision behavior. When experiencing extreme emotional states, cognitive processing can be overwhelmed to the point one feels out of control. This is what can lead people to make poor decisions under conditions of great stress or in a fit of anger. People often have a strong emotional reaction to an alternative upon hearing it, and it can be difficult to change initial preferences. Buying decisions are often driven by the emotional appeals of advertising intended to move consumers; the stronger the effect, the greater the likelihood of purchase.

There are two primary ways to reduce the unwanted effects of emotion on decision making: 1) reduce the intensity of the emotion; and, 2) keep emotion out of the decision making process in the first place. One way to lessen the influence of emotion is to pause before making a decision. The time delay can allow for a cooler head and clearer thinking to prevail. Another tactic is to reframe the situation by reappraising it in a different light. For example, viewing a job loss positively as an opportunity to try something new may prevent you from saying something you regret to your soon-to-be ex-employer.

Two practices that insulate the decision making process from emotions altogether derive from the rational approach to decision making. The first is to emphasize facts and analysis; this will drive out any tendency to indulge one’s emotional state. The second way is to be self-critical of the judgments you make to be sure you are making decisions rationally, not emotionally. For example, having to explain the decision to others such as a boss or co-worker serves as an accountability mechanism that focuses attention on factors that can be justified objectively.


Lerner, J.S., Y. Li, P. Valdesolo, and K. Kassam. “Emotion and Decision Making.” Annual Review of Psychology 66 (2015): 799-823.

Loewenstein, G. and J.S. Lerner. “The Role of Affect in Decision Making.” Handbook of Affective Sciences, edited by R.J. Davidson, K.R. Scherer, & H.H. Goldsmith, Oxford University Press, 2003, 619-642.

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