Our Brains are Wired for Emotional Bias in Decision Making

Written by:

DecisionDo you think you make business decisions based on logic? If you’re like most people, you make decisions based on emotion and then find the facts to substantiate them. Even if you use the most sophisticated data analytics, your bias influences the hypotheses you pursue, the alternatives you consider, and the decisions you make.

A study by Antoine Bechara, Hannah Damasio, and Antonio Damasio shows that we all make decisions based primarily on the emotion we associate with the various alternatives.  There’s a part of our brain, the ventro medial sector, that holds the linkage between scenarios we’ve experienced in the past and the emotion we felt as a result of them. When we consider a particular alternative during decision making, our brain finds similar scenarios we’ve experienced and reactivates the emotion we felt. Let’s say you’re considering hiring a brilliant employee, but last time you did that he ended up taking your job. As a result, you’ll feel negative about hiring him, even though you may not be consciously aware of why. Your logical mind will then find “rational” reasons not to hire him.

This reminds me of a guy, Paul, who was responsible for strategic planning in a company for which I worked. Paul enjoyed feeling like a radical change agent, and was too young to have experienced the negative emotion that accompanies a substantial failure. Time after time he would come up with an outrageous idea, such as totally revamping the way our industry priced services or related to customers. He would then use data analytics to prove it was a good idea, but he would pursue only the analysis that showed he was right, ignoring the paths that could have shown he was wrong. Unfortunately he did grave damage to the company before being fired.

Paul is a radical example, but we all have emotional biases in decision making. They can be helpful by reinforcing decision processes that worked out well and helping us learn from prior mistakes. But biases can also be detrimental, making us impulsively jump into a bad decision or hastily reject an option that has great potential. The key is to become conscious of our emotional biases by exploring the emotions that arise during decision making. If you’ve been burned by hiring brilliant employees in the past, be aware of this bias and consider it when making hiring decisions.

One reason that “two heads are better than one” when making decisions is that diversity helps us avoid emotional bias. Everyone has different emotional biases, so team-mates can challenge each other and provide balance during decision making.

As we learn more from neuroscience about the incredible power of emotions in teams, we see reasons to adopt techniques beyond the ordinary. For more on shaping team emotions to increase creativity and performance, get notified of the upcoming book Primal Teams: Harnessing the Incredible Power of Group Energy or sign up for a monthly summary of articles.


About the Author:

Jackie Barretta is a thought leader sharing ideas on how to create a more just and peaceful world. She is also a CIO, and in this role she has led large organizations with hundreds of employees through challenging times and major transformations.
  Related Articles


  1. Rochele HC Hirsch  May 20, 2013

    Emotion is ALWAYS tied with thoughts … thoughts about “how life is” for me. A person’s instinctive reactions … whether they appear “emotional” or they appear “logical” .,.. are there to support the person’s sense of “how life is” within a particular context. Examples of “hard unloving beliefs” about “how life is” include: I am dismissed; I am insignificant; I am alone; I am the only one responsible; I am the burden; I am nothing to them, etc. The physical instinctive behavior, whether is seems to be emotional or logical, is usually a hardwired reaction to AVOID feeling the Emotional Solder.

    The key to more holistic thinking (and what has been mislabeled as “emotional intelligence”) is to interrupt the instinctive reaction (whether it is emotional, logical, or whatever) … seek more understanding of the situation .. and then proceed with better informed decisions.
    Daniel Kahneman argues for using this “Systems 2 Thinking” in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” — demonstrating that the instinctive reactions more often produce poor decisions.

    My new book, Relationship Chemistry: Understanding the Unspoken, also speaks to this issue of instinctive reactions. http://www.relationshipchemistry.com

  2. Gord Sherwood  May 20, 2013


    How many times have you seen a viable strategy quickly rejected with the only argument being, “we tried that before…it didn’t work”.

  3. Harish Shah  May 20, 2013

    This absolutely on the mark. We are inherently, subjective thinkers, and in business, that is a very risky, dangerous-to-profit thing there is. And it is in us, it is in our minds.

    This is precisely the reason, that before we talk about the strategy and execution, before we make protocols or decide on decision making processes, we need to talk about managing the mind first.

    Our emotions and thoughts are intertvined functions of the mind. If you manage the mind, you manage the thoughts, and therefore the emotions attached to them, hence preventing them from impacting upon other or subsequent thoughts as impediments or barriers to objectivity, and therefore, objective decisions.

    Lets face it, when we make decisions based on emotion rather than objective thought process or contemplation, the facts we then try to find to substantiate or justify those decisions, are more likely made up, then found, or even if those supposed facts are found, they are used with a self-satisfying angle or purpose. This means, we do not effectively, in the subjective process, fairly consider all factors, holistically, to make the best possible decision.

  4. James Wiedeman  May 20, 2013

    Definitely logic first! As professionals, shouldn’t we discipline ourselves to “put it on paper” and then use a form of decision tree analysis to arrive at the best decision?

  5. Renee Houston  May 20, 2013

    Lots of trigger points for different people. I love how practical this is.


Add a Comment