Doing what 'feels right' can be risky

Your emotions could lead you to the wrong decision

When it comes to decision-making, emotions stand in the way of systematic, careful thinking. What feels right is not necessarily right at all, Olga Khazan reports in The Atlantic. 

Khazan highlights the ways that anger, happiness, and sadness affect your decisions.


Decisions made while angry fail to take into account potential risks. "Angry people rely more on stereotypes and are more eager to act," says Khazan. "Anger instills confidence."

In a 2003 study published by Jennifer Lerner, a professor of public policy and management at Harvard University, anger influenced a group of people to support harsh measures against suspected terrorists. After reading a news story about some people in the Middle Eastern nations celebrating the 9/11 attacks, the angry group supported harsher retaliation than did a group that had read a different article.

Khazan says widespread anger in the current presidential election cycle is detrimental to decision making. Americans are angry, but "when it comes to actually electing someone, anger confuses more than it helps."


On the opposite end of the spectrum, Khazan cites several studies that show people in positive moods rendering more stereotypic judgements. In the studies, individuals induced to feel happy put more faith in the length of a message and the attractiveness of its source rather than in the message's actual quality. It is for this reason that job interviewers in happy moods tend to select the tallest or most attractive person for a job, rather than the candidate who is most qualified.


Sadness tends to set off rumination and might make you more impatient. In a 2013 study, people who were sad accepted up to 34% less money to get paid immediately, rather than three months later. Another study shows that sadness causes more generosity toward others—not a bad result, of course, but still not a systematically chosen one. In the study, sad people opted to allocate more to welfare recipients than did angry people.

Khazan recognizes that these effects leave no room for a "right" emotion or mood in which to make decisions. This is why "the best bet might be to accept that you're going to have emotions, but to try to keep them from influencing your thought process."

Her suggestions for negating the effect of emotions on your decisions include:

  • Waiting to react;
  • Viewing the situation differently (like turning a layoff into a chance to pursue a different goal); and
  • Laying out all of the elements of a decision in the form of a rubric.

(Khazan, The Atlantic, 9/19).

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