Don’t let emotions affect key decisions

Don’t let emotions affect key decisions

Feelings can help you to perform better, but they can also influence you to ignore advice

Francesca Gino

Clearing a path: intense emotions may lead us to make misguided decisions or outright disastrous ones

Clearing a path: intense emotions may lead us to make misguided decisions or outright disastrous ones


Think about a time you were weighing an important decision at work or considering a big expense such as a buying a house, making a hefty financial investment or a starting a new business. Such decisions are inherently complex, and no matter how much experience we have making them, working through the pros and cons of each choice can be overwhelming.

Our emotional reactions to these choices may be useful in directing our attention and energy toward what we feel are the most important aspects of the decision. Yet intense emotions may lead us to make misguided decisions or outright disastrous ones.

Emotions can cloud our judgment and influence our decisions when triggered by the situation at hand. But research shows it is also possible for emotions triggered by one event to spill over and affect another, unrelated situation.

Imagine, for instance, that you hit heavy traffic while driving to work. Later that day, you have an important meeting with a client who is interested in placing an order for the new product that your company is launching. You initiated the product’s development and oversaw its creation. So there’s a lot at stake for you. By the time you reach the office, you are 45 minutes late for work and fuming with anger.

Since your meeting is not for another hour, you should be able to push your anger aside by then, right?

In fact, my research suggests we are often unable to do so. Emotions triggered by an event completely unrelated to a new situation can influence our thinking and decisions in that situation.

In one study, Maurice Schweitzer of the Wharton School and I asked a group of participants to estimate the weight of a person based solely on a picture of that person. Participants were paid for the accuracy of their estimate.

After they provided their estimates, we asked them to watch a short movie clip. Some participants watched a clip from a National Geographic special that portrayed fish at the Great Barrier Reef. Others watched a clip from the movie My Bodyguard that showed a young man being bullied – a clip we had found made people feel angry due to the aggressive and unfair treatment the young man experiences.

All participants were given another participant’s estimate of the weight of the person they had just evaluated and asked whether they wanted to revise their initial estimate.

For the participants who saw the clip from My Bodyguard, the anger they experienced while watching the video clip carried over to this next, unrelated task. It led them to largely distrust and disregard the other person’s estimates and to rely instead on their initial judgments.

In fact, 74 per cent of these participants did not attach any significance to the advice they received.

By contrast, only 32 per cent of participants who watched the neutral National Geographic clip disregarded the advice. Disregarding the advice was costly: listening to it would have led to greater accuracy in their judgment and thus greater pay.

As this research shows, anger triggered by a prior, unrelated experience that, from an objective perspective, should not influence our current judgments or decisions can make us unreceptive to what others have to say.

Our feelings can offer relevant and important feedback about a decision, but irrelevant emotions triggered by a completely unrelated event can take us off track. The next time you drink a bitter cup of coffee or have an argument with a loved one, pause to consider how your emotional reactions could linger as you enter into important task or weigh a complex decision.

– (Copyright Harvard Business Review 2015) Francesca Gino is a professor at Harvard Business School, a faculty affiliate of the Behavioral Insights Group and the author of Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed and How We Can Stick to the Plan


Previously published in The Irish Times.


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