Emotions help us make better decisions

We often think that we make the best decisions when we’re completely rational. However, neuroscience shows that emotions help us make better decisions. Here’s how.

This post is also available in Dutch.

We often think that we make the best decisions when we’re completely rational. However, neuroscience shows that emotions help us make better decisions. Here’s how.

Let’s imagine that it’s almost Valentine’s Day, and your secret crush has asked you out. How nice! But now a series of decisions need to be made. What should you do on your date: go to the cinema or go ice skating? And where should you go for dinner: to that cozy, romantic, but crammed restaurant or to that more spacious but less intimate one?

If you try to decide purely based on reason, it will be difficult to make a choice because each option has pros and cons that hardly outweigh each other. In the end, you will probably end up pulling your hair out in frustration. But you can also tune into how you feel about each option. You will probably find out that you like one option better than another not for any rational reasons but just because that’s how you feel.

It can be difficult to decide where to go for date night if you try to choose purely rationally.
But if you take your emotions into account, the choice may get easier.
Photo by bruce mars from Pexels

The inability to make a choice

Back in the 1990s, a famous neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio, was treating patients with brain damage. Some of them had lesions to an area in the front of the brain, ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Many of these patients recovered quite quickly and had no problems with cognitive tasks such as working memory, spatial navigation, or planning. They seemed to be almost unharmed by their lesion.

However, when Damasio asked them, “When should we plan our next appointment: on Tuesday or on Wednesday?” they were suddenly unable to make a choice. They said, “Well, Tuesday has these advantages but also these drawbacks, and Wednesday is convenient because of this but inconvenient because of this…” This went on for 30 minutes! (Watch Damasio describe his experience here.)

Damasio couldn’t believe it at first. Why were these otherwise well-functioning patients suddenly unable to make a simple decision? Crucially, these patients had damage to an area that processes emotions, orbitofrontal cortex, which is included in ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the site of the lesion.

Emotions drive behavior and thus decisions

Damasio (and later other scientists) discovered that emotions are critical for decision making. Damasio’s patients couldn’t process emotions properly because of the damage to their orbitofrontal cortex. This inability to process emotions also impacted their ability to make decisions.

Emotions are so tightly linked to decisions because emotions drive action. If you like somebody, you probably want to approach them and talk to them. And if you don’t like somebody, you’re more likely to avoid them. When you like something, that thing is marked as good in your mind, and when you dislike it, it’s marked as bad. The next time you need to make a decision about that thing, you don’t need to think about it too much. You immediately experience the feeling, good or bad, and you know which choice to make. In this way, your emotions serve as a shortcut to the decision.

So next time you’re trying to make a choice and making a list of all the pros and cons of something, also tune in to how you feel. What do you like and what do you dislike about each option? What does your “gut feeling” tell you? It’s important to consider the rational reasons, but it’s also helpful to listen to how you feel.

And if you’re still trying to choose where to go for dinner… Flip a coin and just pick a place already! 😉

Written by Marisha. Edited by Christienne and Monica.

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