Are We Capable of Making Rational Decisions?

“Let go of your mind and then be mindful. Close your ears and listen!”  – Rumi


Did you pick your clothes this morning because they were the right weight for the weather or for some other reason? Did you pick your breakfast because it’s low in carbs or because it was expedient? Did you vote for President based on your core beliefs? Do you make investments based on the market? Or, most importantly, how did you decide what to do with your life?

These are all pretty straight forward questions and I’d wager that you think you can answer each one simply and logically. You can say you dressed for the weather. Or you might explain that you are good with numbers so decided to be an accountant. But, really, if you hold the notion that your answers are based purely in thought and logic, you’d be wrong! All of the latest research shows clearly and unequivocally that every decision we make, no matter how seemingly trivial or astoundingly important, whether made on the spur of the moment or after thoughtful consideration, is derived from an inextricable and interdependent combination of logic and emotion.

It turns out you can’t make a decision without emotions, feelings and instincts. You need to feel something in order to choose; the absence of feeling would cause you to be stuck, unable to move forward or backwards, unable to choose, unable to care about the outcome. Caring is at the very heart of each choice that you make.

Dr. Antonio Damasio has found that two of your brain regions are connected intrinsically to a neural circuit that is needed for judgment and decision making. “Nature appears to have built the apparatus of rationality not just on top of the apparatus of biological regulation, but also from it and with it,” he wrote in his book Descartes’ Error. Emotion and feeling act as the bridge between rational and non-rational processes. And effective decision-making, as he sees it, would not be possible in the absence of emotional input to provide both motivation and meaning.

Let’s use first a trite and easy example of the dual-mind thought process. Ask yourself why you are wearing what you are wearing today. Asking myself this question, my initial answer was simply to say that I’m dressed for winter weather here in Israel and for a casual day without work activities. But, then I realized I’d not completely looked at the other implications of my choice. I’m not in a dress because I’m not a “dress-person.” My clothes are not expensive because I would prefer to use my money for other purposes. I’ve chosen orange because I always react to that color positively. In other words, an interconnected combination of logic and emotion drove the very first decision I made when getting out of bed this morning.

Equally this theory that all decision making has components of both emotion and logic spurred me to take a look at literature about the election process and why people voted the way they did. The emotional aspect of the election goes on and appears to have no signs of abating. Read Facebook and Twitter it is eminently clear that both sides of the equation continue with either feelings of elation or dejection. Anger or despair; thrilled or gloating. It’s clear that something more than foreign policy, economic or social agenda items drove the voting decision for each and every person.

It turns out that I was not the only one who wanted to explore the neurological aspects of our voting decisions and various psychological theories have been hypothesized. Articles abound. There is one consistent conclusion in the literature about the results of the election and who each person selected as her candidate: Your vote and the extent to which you continue to feel engaged to an extent you never have before goes far beyond the views of the candidate that you supported. To believe that your decision was based on factors such as gun control, LBGT rights or trade regulations ignores scientific proof that emotional history and well-being are part and parcel of your decision. Says one source, “In the burgeoning field of neuro-politics, the science of studying how a person’s brain affects their political thoughts and actions, or why a particular person supports one candidate over the other comes down to the fact that the supporters’ underlying psychological thought processes determine, to a large extent, whether they see a candidate’s leadership style as appealing or not.”

Moreover, several studies have proven that physical differences in the brain may predispose people to being liberal or conservative. “There are some brain differences overall … that are enough that when you look at certain styles of thinking [based on responses of the amygdala], conservatives tend to process things in a more fear-based … way and liberal thinkers tend to think in more grays, and new information is more likely to change the outcome of their thoughts” says Dr. Gail Saltz, a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and bestselling author who has written widely about the psychological factors underlying relationships.

Of course it’s more than fear versus flexibility that sets the two sides apart. There are far too many variables to count. But, the bottom line is that we were stirred by one candidate rather than the other and our emotional nuanced side combined with our logical belief systems to select the candidate of our choice.

The recent U.S. elections were probably not as heated as the Middle East conflict. Why am I telling you this? I recently went on a trip to Hebron, one of the largest towns in the West Bank. I wanted to see what’s going on there with my own eyes. I had not been there for over 30 years. I admit that while it is virtually impossible to get a neutral tour, many people were upset with me for going in the first place. I felt like a traitor just because I was curious. Needless to say, I did learn a lot but mainly I walked away with a deep sadness and yet another understanding that none of the conflict in the Middle East is rational. In other words, whether you support a two-state solution to peace or not, you are driven by more than your logical thought process. It’s an emotionally charged issue for everyone concerned.

I was most interested in seeing a two-page ad in the New York Times Sunday Magazine from the giant investment Oppenheimer Funds that actually explained that our investment decisions too are dependent on a combination of reason and emotion. Who is a risk taker? Who is averse to risk? Who feels optimistic and who pessimistic about the economic future?

The ad quotes Dr. Lisa Kramer, who specializes in behavioral finance at the University of California, San Diego, as explaining, “You can’t make a decision without first experiencing some kind of emotional impulse in your brain. We need to step back from the idea that we can even make decisions in the absence of emotion.” We have reactions to color, of course subliminally, and thus when we see color or shape our emotional/decision making is directly impacted. By way of example, green elicits feelings of growth, safety and optimism.” Emotional responses to the color green relate to nature as well as to financial progress.

How this works in the financial realm is quite fascinating. We feel losses much more profoundly than gains. According to Oppenheimer, “That’s why maintaining an optimistic outlook could be the difference between making a rash financial decision (that may be costly in the long run) and remaining confident in your original plan, which is more likely to deliver the gains you expected in the first place.”

I want to extrapolate for a moment from these diverse thoughts to give you an idea how Neuro Emotional Coaching® can help you make decisions in which your emotional and logical sides communicate and interact in your personal best interest. If you are being held back from something logic is telling you that you can and should achieve, it’s your emotions that are acting as a barrier. When your emotional reaction will not allow you to make decisions to support your logical goals, then you reach an impasse. Or if your emotions are contrary to what you want to do, you can’t go forward at all. Neuro Emotional Coaching® can help you align your inner emotions with you goals, thus helping you become a better decision maker and better able to reach for your lifetime objectives.

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