Deciding on Emotion

You can’t survive without emotion

A common theme in our world is to “ignore your emotions”, especially when it comes to making decisions. I’ve heard it constantly in business, games, and life. They say that emotions cloud your judgment and are “irrational”. There’s truth to that. We all have a memory where we made an important decision while we were high on emotion. It most likely didn’t end well. It’s no question that acting fully on them can be dangerous, but fully ignoring emotions can be equally harmful.

When you break them down to their foundation, emotions are necessary for survival. Our ancestors learned to avoid things that kill us through generations of learned behaviors and trial and error. The consequences of actions that threaten our survival have become attached to certain emotions. 

Many of us are taught to ignore this dimension of our humanity and replace it with rationality. We have to come to grips that we cannot ignore emotion. It’s part of our biology. Instead, we have to learn to understand and use them for their benefits.

Too much information

We live in a world of information abundance. We can get information about anything at any time. We also get it forced upon us. The news and social media provide us with endless information for us to process. Although most information is irrelevant and not useful, we absorb and react to it. So for most information, it’s best to ignore. It takes a well-trained eye to filter through the garbage.

Emotions are also information – vulnerable to misuse and misinterpretation. The information is mostly noise that seduces and distracts. We need a good filter to separate what’s useful and what’s not. 

The simple versus the complex

Think of something you do extremely well – your expertise. You know what levers to pull to get a desired result. You have a mastery of the first order effects and an understanding of the second order effects.

First order effects are simple. You flip a light switch and the light comes on. It’s direct cause and effect. Threats are obvious and easy to avoid.

As you go from first to second order effects, uncertainty increases in a non-linear way. Second order effects are opaque to an untrained eye. The picture is blurry and cloudy – it’s complex. Each of those second order effects, positive and negative, have their own uncertainty. These positive and negative effects have the potential to spread into other dimensions, creating unexpected results.

Experience is the best teacher

It’s only when we have been tinkering and failing through trial and error that we truly learn the ins and outs of a craft. This is how you became an expert – by DOING.

Experience teaches us how to survive. We learn what to avoid so we can succeed. This is how we learn second order effects – through constantly breaking things, failing, and making errors. In doing so, we condition ourselves to avoid paths to failure.

You cannot learn this in the class room. We only learn this by interacting with our environment. 

Nuance and emotions

As we develop experience through constant failure, we begin to understand nuance. We discover the tiny interactions that have huge impacts. This conditions us to feel emotions that guide successful decision-making in a complex world. We associate emotions with known paths to failure. We may not even fully understand the situation, but we have a feeling of what to avoid.

We navigate life with vast amounts of information in the form of emotion. Confidence, procrastination, fear, anger, and desire help us prioritize and choose direction. They are compete for our attention for a reason. They tell us what to avoid and what to chase. 

In domains where we have a little understanding, these feelings can be distracting, paralyzing, or even dangerous. However, in what we know well, we depend on these emotions. We are able to filter signals from noise by understanding our emotions.

The fear of being wrong

I’ve noticed that the pain of being wrong is much more intense than the satisfaction of being right. The gains that I made in the stock market felt great. However, an equal loss did not feel equally worse, but felt much worse. There is an asymmetry in emotional outcomes in being wrong.

For our ancestors, death by a lion was the consequence of being wrong. I suspect that we’ve evolved to avoid wrong decisions and so have a strong emotional aversion to it. Being wrong hurts.

A common hurdle to overcome is when our desired method doesn’t capture the intended outcome. The process that we’ve learned and grown comfortable with no longer produces results or isn’t effective in the current context. This desire creates a situation where we refuse to change our method because of emotional ties. Our ego prevents us from changing. The fear of being wrong supersedes our rational decision-making.

Recognizing this fear as a signal and acting on it releases us from this trap. We use this information as a signal to change our behavior.

Learning emotions for the emotionally-challenged (Action Steps)

We need to learn and understand our emotions to become more effective decision-makers. Most people have been ignoring their emotions for so long, they have an extremely narrow vocabulary to describe their feelings.

What are you feeling right now?

If you’re anything I was, you have the emotional vocabulary the length of a teaspoon. I didn’t have many words to describe how I felt.

A simple exercise to improve your emotional awareness and vocabulary:

  1. Set an alarm 3 times daily as your cue
  2. Write down what you are doing, a word to describe how you feel, and the intensity of that feeling (1-10)
  3. Repeat daily for at least 4 weeks, continue/reduce as needed

Two rules:

  1. You cannot use the same word twice in a day
  2. You must write it down (you don’t have to review it)

Simply taking the 30 seconds to pause, assess, and write down your feelings will build emotional awareness, giving you a new tool to use when you see fit.

Decision-making and your emotions

Again, emotions are information – colorful data that makes life worth living. They tell us if we’re safe or are in danger. They give us inexplicable euphoria and overwhelming pain. They can be false signals or can make be difference between ruin and survival. When we are certain, we are confident. In times of uncertainty, fear gives us caution. The dangers we avoid in our cautious behavior allows us to succeed and thrive.

We already naturally use emotions in our decision-making. But after learning how to accurately identify them, they can be used as an edge that most others ignore.

Like many other tools, it takes practice. Again, trial and error.

I’ll leave you with this heuristic:

If you have experience, trust your gut


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