The Vital Role Emotions Play in Decision Making

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, November 5, 2015

In the summer of 1966, when Star Trek first appeared on television, I became fascinated by the character of Mr. Spock. Spock was half human and half Vulcan, and was constantly at war with his emotions. Vulcans believe rational beings are not emotional, so poor Mr. Spock had to use massive will-power to suppress his feelings. That appealed to me immensely. Then in the 1970s I took up various New Age pursuits that taught me to calm my mind and tame my emotions. Thus, I’ve always thought emotions were burdensome. That emotions got in the way of clear thinking. Last night I learned I was completely wrong. Brain research shows that we can’t make decisions without emotions.

Decision-making-relies-on-emotion

Now I wonder if I’ve always been a indecisive person, with little drive, because I’ve kept my emotions on a very even keel. I learned as a child to crave stress-free living, and have arranged for a very calm life. I am contemplative and philosophical, rather than active and driven. I always wanted to be a science fiction writer, but assumed I was never unhappy enough to succeed. People I know who are writers are emotional, often disturbed and even tortured by their passions. I always thought I didn’t commit to writing because I lacked the pain to inspire me. Now I wonder if didn’t pursue my goal because my lack of emotions made me indecisive. Or maybe pain inspires not as power to animate, but as a series of decisions that direct.

I am reminded of an old fantasy story, where a magical coin if found by the main character who doesn’t know it’s power. Every time he wants to decide something, he flips the coin. Because the coin is magical, each decision moves him towards a magical reality. Evidently our feelings weigh our decisions and lead us to the reality they want.

I learned about emotions and decision making last night watching episode 4 of The Brain with David Eagleman on PBS. This mind-blowing six-part series is shaking up my beliefs about how the brain works. Eagleman showed us a woman who was in a motorcycle accident and her brain was damaged in an area where her emotions and logic meet. She can no longer make even the simplest of decisions. Checking out articles on Google Scholar I learn this knowledge has been around for a while, often inspired by studies on people who had similar brain damage.

This information also makes me wonder about artificial intelligence. Machines won’t have emotions, so how will they decide? My old friend Bob Beach always argued that self-aware machines would turn themselves off. Without emotions they couldn’t even make that decision. AI machines will be able to process massive amounts of data, but how will they weigh their decisions? Up until now we’ve believed we made decisions based on logic – weighing the pros and cons, but evidently that’s wrong.

Actually, we should have deduced that without brain studies. How often do we decide on the side of illogic?

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1 thought on “The Vital Role Emotions Play in Decision Making”

  1. I think you’d be interested in The Emotional Life of Your Brain by Sharon Begley and Richard Davidson. I was. Fittingly, I enjoyed this blog post for the surprising combination of analytical thinking and … emotion.

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