Rational versus Emotional Decision Making

February 2, 2010
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Human brain researchers have determined that the more that is on one’s mind, then the more likely one will make an emotional decision rather than a rational one. Could this provide an explanation why so many decisions by managers and employees continue to seem irrational?

As background, the brain researchers conducted an experiment asking people to memorize a series of numbers in sequence ranging from two to seven numbers. After given their numbers all the individuals had to do was walk down the hall to a room and write the numbers down. But there was a catch. As the subjects walked down the hall another researcher interrupted them and offered a gift for participating of either a piece of chocolate cake or an attractive bowl of fruit. The results were surprising (and very statistically significant). Those with the least numbers to memorize chose the fruit whereas those with more numbers chose the cake. Why is this?


 

Human brain researchers have determined that the more that is on one’s mind, then the more likely one will make an emotional decision rather than a rational one. Could this provide an explanation why so many decisions by managers and employees continue to seem irrational?

As background, the brain researchers conducted an experiment asking people to memorize a series of numbers in sequence ranging from two to seven numbers. After given their numbers all the individuals had to do was walk down the hall to a room and write the numbers down. But there was a catch. As the subjects walked down the hall another researcher interrupted them and offered a gift for participating of either a piece of chocolate cake or an attractive bowl of fruit. The results were surprising (and very statistically significant). Those with the least numbers to memorize chose the fruit whereas those with more numbers chose the cake. Why is this?

The brain researchers have observed that the human brain has two parts: a rational deliberate section and an emotional one. The competition between the two is fierce. When the mind load is light, as with those people tasked to memorize only two numbers, their judicious mind ruled the healthy fruit was more appropriate than the high calorie cake. In contrast, when the brain is more filled with items, emotion wins over reason.

Let’s put this finding into the context of today’s work world. How many managers are constantly juggling many priorities? All of them. You are too. For example, should I first reply to that e-mail, edit and finalize that paper due, phone that colleague, read that blog or twitter, or analyze that report?

When one has these types of “to-do” items, as a decision is thrust upon them, it is not surprising the choice is an emotional one? As examples, our largest customer just requested a special service. Should we charge them for it? Our most unreliable supplier just missed another due date. Should we replace them with another supplier?

You could debate each of those decisions either way. But if your mind is distracted with a dozen other priorities and no time to debate, it is conceivable the emotional brain section might overrule the rational one. Decisions deserve analysis. The margin for error is thinner these days, and what we deal with daily is more complex than a decade ago. The tools for business analytics have now become available for even the casual user. Read my article Why Will Business Analytics Be the Next Competitive Edge? If organizations delay becoming a culture for analytics and metrics then the quality of their decisions will jeopardized