Using Emotions to Temper Decisions

Our days are filled with decisions. Some are important, but most just involve the minutiae of what we eat, wear, say, or do. Chances are you don’t even notice many of the decisions you make each day. How we decide is a combination of our emotional state and our logical expectations about the social and practical functionality of the options. As a culture, we are against deciding things entirely because of emotion. This comes from Enlightenment thinking, colonial survivalism, and the threat of extinction due to an overly emotive leader with access to nuclear warheads. 

Modern consumers are subjected to a daily barrage of surreptitious emotional messaging designed to make us buy things we don’t need, but surely want. Two recently effective advertisers have been Apple and Coca-Cola. Apple sold “cool” for many years when the iPod and iPhone first came out, while Coca-Cola still has a stranglehold on the idea that when you open a can of coke, it brings happiness, family, and unbridled joy.

These nuclear and consumption based reasons might make you hesitate to ever use emotions when making decisions. However, I think that there is a space where you can use your emotions to make incredibly effective decisions.

We tend to ignore metallurgy in our expressions about ‘temper.’ People ‘lose’ their temper, can be in a ‘bad’ temper, or can have a ‘fit’ of temper. When talking about metal, it means to harden by heating and cooling. Imagine if we spoke about our emotions in terms that involved self control, strength, and conditioning, rather than unbridled fire. A blacksmith knows that a low and slow temper produces the hardest and brittlest metals while a hot and fierce temper produces softer, more flexible metal. So when you “lose your temper” it means you’ve lost control of your temperature and are either too hot or too cool.

When you are making important decisions, they should involve logical assessments about the costs and benefits of each option. This analysis should compare and contrast the short and longer term effects as well as who will be effected. One common method parents teach their children for important decisions is a pros and cons list. This involves a logical and equivalency based approach to deciding.

One of the most important decisions we make each summer at camp is our cabin assignments. Many camps assign their counselors different cabins based on seniority, or allow them to apply for a specific age group. Since our camp is small, and puts so much weight on community, we wait until most of the way through our staff training week before assigning cabins. Each cabin gets two counselors, who live and work together for the following 8-weeks.

This decision process always has a similar formula, but feels very different depending on the temper of the administrators. We will try to figure out the cabin pairings for one gender, then when emotions are overtaking logic, we switch genders. It takes 2-3 passes to get to a point where everyone is comfortable with the cabins. Sometimes the process can get contentious, and erupt in shouting and crass words. Far more often it is a passionate but reasoned discussion where we try to use our feelings about individuals, their histories and prospects, and the needs of the campers and camp to combine into a logic storm of happy goodness.

This decision is made without a time limit (besides getting tired) and with the promise that we will be unified at the conclusion. So while the stakes are high and potentially the success of the whole summer program lies in the decision, we can take our time, think things through, and rely on our cumulative wisdom to find a good solution. In this way, we can let emotions temper our decisions.

In an emergency, two things you don’t have are time and the ability to come to consensus. You need a plan and a straightforward set of directions so that you can produce the most reliably good result that helps the most people and hurts the fewest. To prevent rash decisions you should bottle up your emotions during a crisis. Despite this, emotions have an important role to play in emergencies.

In general emotions are more useful in situations where there are multiple possible correct decisions, each with marginal benefits. We use a system of values to guide us in how to apply our emotion. If we feel strongly about something it may mean a particular solution’s marginal benefits should be chosen or discarded.

For 10 months spanning 2009 and 2010 a friend and I prepared for a 5-week trip to the Alaskan Bush. We weighed gear, compared caloric contents of various substances, and read volumes on wilderness survival and Alaska. We also created an emergency plan. We listed as many potential emergencies as we could, and then, from the calm of our own computers thousands of miles apart, debated and doctrinized our responses. This method allowed us the chance to inject emotion and values into our emergency responses without accessing that emotion during the emergency. We had already agreed what we do if one of our backpacks gets washed downstream, or if some of our food spoiled. This meant that as frustration or anger or hunger clouded our vision on the trip, we would still have the tempered response available.


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