Emotions Affect Our Decision Making

Essentially, an emotion is a feeling such as happiness, love, fear, anger, or hatred, which can be caused by the situation that you are in or the people you are with. More particularly, emotions are biological states associated with the nervous system brought on by neurophysiological[1] changes variously associated with thoughts, feelings, behavioural responses.

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It is widely accepted that ’emotion’ is the part of a person’s individualistic character that consists of their feelings, as opposed to their thoughts; and that moreover, individual decisions are best understood as the interactions between reason and emotion, to which emotion comes first, and is universal. What kind of feeling(s) manifest varies enormously from person to person and from situation to situation because feelings are shaped by individual temperament and experience. For example, two people can feel the same emotion but label (internalise) it under different names. Generally though, when we are calm, slow rational thinking guides our decisions. However, strong emotions can place a constraint on clear thinking.

Researchers have found that incidental emotions pervasively carry over from one situation to the next, affecting decisions that should, from a normative perspective, be unrelated to that emotion, a process called the carryover of incidental emotion.[2] For example, incidental anger triggered in one situation automatically elicits a motive to blame individuals in other situations even though the targets of such anger have nothing to do with the source of the anger.[3] Carryover of incidental emotions typically occurs without awareness.

Emotions can effect not just the nature of decisions we make, but the speed at which we make them. For example, anger can lead to impatience and rash decision-making. If you’re excited, you might make quick decisions without considering the implications as you surf the wave of confidence, and optimism about the future. While, if you feel afraid, your decisions may be clouded by uncertainty, and caution, and it might take you longer to choose a course – such uncertainty could even be debilitative. (see ‘Debilitative Emotions and Emotional Expression’ below)

Here are some ways your emotions can influence your judgments.

A narrow mindset. Strong feelings (e.g., anger, fear, or craving) create a kind of “tunnel vision.” For instance, anger narrows attention such that current feelings, thoughts, impulses would be given extra weight, whereas future goals, ambitions, or plans seem less consequential.

Jumping to conclusions. A worried person is motivated to reduce uncertainty and eliminate the discomfort. The decision is guided by a selective information search, limited consideration of alternatives, and rapid evaluation of data (e.g., the case of conspiracy theory).

Attention bias. As William James observed, “what holds attention determines action.” Individuals tend to process information in a manner that is consistent with their views of the world and themselves. For example, a person with low self-esteem is highly sensitive to being ignored by other people, and they constantly monitor for signs that people might not like them.

Mood-congruent memory. Our current emotional state helps recall of experiences that had a similar emotional tone. When we are in a happy mood, we tend to recall pleasant events and vice versa. This is because moods bring different associations to mind. For ample, sad music is a powerful trigger for nostalgic memories of foregone times.

Emotional contagion. We tend to “catch” the emotions (sad or happy) of others when perceiving their emotional expressions. And this process assists us in understanding the feelings of others. For example, when you have a casual conversation with someone anxious, you tend to walk away from the encounter feeling somewhat anxious yourself.

Background moods. Emotions triggered by an event completely unrelated to a new situation can influence our thinking and decisions. For example, on sunnier days, we tend to tip more at restaurants and express higher levels of overall happiness.

An urge to blame. When we are hurt and angry, we want someone to be blamed (or held responsible) for our pain. We feel superior by blaming others. It pleases our ego to believe that any bad event is someone’s fault.

Time perception. Time estimates can be distorted by our emotions. When we anxiously waiting for something to happen, we experience a slower passage of time. Time flies when you are having fun.

Projection bias. Typical emotions are essentially transient. What comes up often comes down. However, people tend to mispredict the short duration of emotional response. For example, heartbroken people are unable to anticipate the decay of their emotions. One of the reasons for adolescents’ high risk for suicide is because when they feel pain, they lack the life experience to know it is temporary.

Debilitative Emotions and Emotional Expression

Throughout the years there has been a big debate about the true meaning of emotions and how they can be understood. However, emotions can be defined as the state of psychological arousal, by which feelings arise spontaneously and without any conscious attempt. This state includes thoughts, physiological changes, and actions and/or reactive behaviours. Moreover, there are approximately 200 common human emotions (expressed in individual words of the English language) such as shy, sorry, mad, frustrated, happy, humiliated, annoyed, peaceful, bored and many others.[4]

Debilitative -v- Facilitative Emotions

One main difference between facilitative emotion and debilitative emotion is intensity. Facilitative emotions contribute to effective functioning, while debilitative emotions hinder or prevent effective performance. For instance, irritation or slight anger can decrease the performance of a person. However, if this emotion intensifies, it could turn into rage, which is often destructive.

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The difference between these two emotions is the degree to which they occur, not the quality of the emotion. The same holds for fear. Job interview jitters for example may improve performance, but extreme nervousness may lead to errors. Couples who are suspicious of each other may become more effective communicators. One study revealed that couples who were suspicious of each other were better at sensing dishonesty than couples who were trusting.

Debilitative emotions arise from accepting a number of irrational thoughts that are called fallacies. These fallacies lead to illogical and false conclusions that turn to be debilitative emotions. we usually, are not aware of these thoughts, which makes them very powerful. Here are some fallacies that lead to the arousal of debilitative emotions.

Debilitative emotions are harmful and difficult emotions which detract from effective functioning. The level, or intensity, of the emotion we’re feeling, determines our response to the emotion. There is a difference between “a little upset” and “irate”. Indeed, debilitative emotions can affect our ability to interpret emotions and can lead to unnecessary or unwarranted conflict. Of course some intensity in emotion can be constructive, but too much intensity can make a situation worse. The other part to debilitative emotions is their duration. Again, there is a difference between “momentarily” feeling a certain way and “forever” feeling a certain way. When something bad happens, sometimes you feel like your whole life has crashed down on you and that there’s no way to pick up the pieces. But it’s still important to recognise your feelings, as well as understand them, instead of completely brushing them off or absorbing them into your long-term psych and personality. Some debilitative emotions can take a long time to recover from, but in the ordinary course of life one is best served by trying to let go of grudges so that they don’t permeate your future communication traits and interpersonal relationships.

Fallacy of Perfection

The fallacy of perfection is when one does not confess his/her mistake or say “I don’t know”, instead he/she thinks that they are perfect. It’s like tempting to try to appear perfect, but the costs of such deception are very high. If others ever find you out, they’ll see you as a phony. Moreover, this illusion will lower your self-confidence and hinders others form liking you. Like everyone else, one can make mistakes from time to time, and there is no reason to hide this.

Fallacy of Helplessness

The fallacy of helplessness is when people are convinced that powers beyond their control can determine their satisfaction or happiness. For example, when people say “I don’t know how” or “I can’t do anything about it”. It’s similar to being helpless or undesirable to change. The many ‘cant’s’ are really rationalisations to justify not wanting to change. For instance, lonely people tend to attribute their poor interpersonal relationships to uncontrollable causes. This irrational thinking increases debilitative emotions and enables them to live-out their fallacy.

Fallacy of Catastrophic Expectations

The fallacy of catastrophic expectations is when people work on the assumption that if something bad can possibly happen, it will; by which they imagine the worst possible catastrophic consequences. For example, “If I speak regarding this issue, they will laugh at me”. This in turn can create harmful debilitative emotions and a self-fulfilling prophecy will begin to build. For instance, a study revealed that people who believed that their romantic partners would not change for the better were likely to behave in ways that contributed to the breakup of the relationship.

Fallacy of Overgeneralisation

The fallacy of overgeneralisation comprises two types. The first occurs when we base a belief on a limited amount of evidence. For instance, when we say: “I’m so stupid, I can’t even figure out how to download music on my iPod.” The second type takes place when we exaggerate shortcomings. For example, when we say: “you never listen to me or you are always late.” These statements are mostly always false and they lead to nothing other than anger and debilitative emotions.

Factors Affecting Emotional Expression

There are various factors that influence the expression of feelings, whether positively or negatively. Here are some factors.


The personality is a main factor that affects how emotions are experienced and communicated. For instance, people that are known as extroverted and people who enjoy communication and social contact experience more positive emotions than introverted people, and they can express those emotions more easily.

Moreover, at the most physiological level, people who know how to express their emotions are healthier than those who don’t. And it has been proven by studies that inexpressive people are more likely to get a host of ailments, such as heart diseases, asthma, and cancer.


Culture plays a central role in emotional expression. This is due to the fact that people all over the world have much the same emotions; however, different cultures generate different feelings from the same events. We do hear about stereotypes that are placed on the emotional expressions of the different nationalities. For instance, Americans are known to be overenthusiastic while English people are known as being reserved, and Australians are known to be laid back.

There has been a number of scientific attempts in order to understand the effect of culture on emotions. It has been proven that the most important division between cultures is individualism vs collectivism and is therefore relevant to any investigation of differences between cultures in emotional expressions. For example, Japanese report much more socially engaged emotions (being friendly) than socially disengaged emotions (anger) while for Americans and Australians, the difference is of less importance because of a more expressed individualism and less regimented sense of collectivism.


According to research, gender is the best way to recognise emotions and interpret them. A recent study (Harvard) examined the effects of gender on the emotional responses of ‘European Americans’ and ‘non-European Americans’ while they relived past emotional events. Women were more emotionally reactive than men: They demonstrated greater changes in electrodermal reactivity overall, they reported experiencing more intense emotion while reliving anger and love, and smiled more while reliving happiness and love. The pattern and magnitude of these differences were similar in both groups, suggesting that to some degree, the effects of gender on emotional response may hold across ethnic groups. Furthermore, it has been proven that men are 10% to 15% less precise in recalling emotional thoughts or images.

Note: This higher ’emotional response’ in women may have been in-part contributed to by hormonal changes as a result of birth-control pills or otherwise naturally occurring in the stages of a menstrual cycle and/or menopause. The body’s levels of estrogen and progestins fluctuate on their own, usually over the course of your menstrual cycle, but when one starts using birth control, the higher levels of these hormones in the body can make it easier to become more intensely emotionally responsive to things. This is because hormones like estrogen have a real, noticeable effect on your mood. In a 2012 study, scientists found that women given high doses of estrogen were more likely to experience fear and anxiety than their peers. To learn more about how Hormones and Chemicals are linked with our Emotions please click here >>

Medications of all types can affect Emotions

Many medications, whether prescribed by a doctor or obtainable over-the-counter without a prescription, can cause changes in your mood. They may improve your mood but equally, they may also make you feel sad, despairing or depressed. Even just the fact that you are taking medication can impact your emotions; this is borne of out clinical trials where participants are given placebos yet nevertheless have reported changes in the emotions – good and bad.

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Of course, some medications are designed alter your moods and emotions – antidepressants and antipsychotics for example; however, as it turns out even ordinary medications can be somewhat mind-alteringly potent. Some will make you feel more awake, alert and energetic. Others will give you a calm, relaxed feeling. Even paracetamol (known as acetaminophen in the US) to antihistamines, statins, asthma medications, can change impact your emotional responses; there is emerging evidence that they can make us impulsive, angry, or restless, diminish our empathy for strangers, and even manipulate fundamental aspects of our personalities, such as how neurotic we are. In most people, these changes are extremely subtle. But in some they can also be dramatic.

Note: Many people abuse Xanax for medicinal and/or recreational purposes. Xanax can be dangerous if abused under any circumstances. A common appeal of Xanax is its ability to produce a high in larger doses. This can create feelings of relaxation, pleasure, and lower a person’s inhibition. The effects of Xanax on the brain can also make a person want to take more of the drug. This can increase the chance of falling into a pattern of regular Xanax abuse, which is a common precursor for dependence.

Xanax activates a brain chemical known as gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)[5] which slows brain activity and other functions throughout the body. This can produce several physical and mental effects, such as lessened anxiety, drowsiness, and slower reflexes. As a short-acting benzodiazepine, Xanax moves through a person’s system fairly quickly. The effects most often kick in between 15 and 60 minutes, and can last between three and four hours. Although it can be effective for short-term therapeutic use, abusing Xanax can make changes in the brain that make it harder to stop taking it. This can lead to a psychological dependence on drug, causing a person to crave Xanax and feel agitated between doses.

Long-term use of Xanax can have lasting effects in the brain due to its interaction with GABA and a gradual build-up of the drug in the body. This can lead to drug tolerance and dependence, which can grow more severe with time. In addition to this, Xanax abuse can also have long-term detrimental effects on one’s moods, emotions, behaviour, and cognitive functions like memory.

If you are on some form of medication and worried about changes in your mood, discuss this with your doctor or pharmacist immediately.

Illicit Drugs & Alcohol can Affect Emotions

Illicit drugs and alcohol are known as mood-altering substances because they change your emotional state. You have no real control over this change, and it’s not always a positive one. The consequences of using substances vary depending on the type of drug, but they can include the following conditions:

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  • depression (alcohol is a depressant);
  • anxiety;
  • paranoia;
  • disinhibition.

Drugs which are psychoactive, such as cannabis, ecstasy, heroin -and even alcohol- have the ability to affect your mood. They can arouse certain emotions or dampen down others. More often than not, the ingestion of drugs and/or alcohol induce ‘disinhibition’ which can lead to impulsive behaviours, such as sexual promiscuity, overexpression of emotions which could result in aggression, dangerous driving or other risky actions. Using such substances can also impact your mood over a longer term. Having a hangover or ‘crashing’ from a high usually leaves people feeling irritable, tired, and physically unwell. Some people notice that their mood is affected for days after drinking or using drugs. In some cases your brain functions could become permanently impaired. (per the tragic case of Amy Whitehouse)

Ice – is a strong stimulant, a highly purified form of methamphetamine that can be and usually is smoked. Ice is one of the most destructive drugs on the illicit market, in its physical effects, mental effects and behavioural effects. It causes a person to be energetic, artificially confident and euphoric. The ice user will normally stay up for days if the supply of ice holds out, eating little or no food. The high from ice can last a short time like a half an hour or as long as a full day. In most cases, the high from ice methamphetamine lasts much longer than the high from cocaine.

Ecstasy – is an amphetamine that causes hallucinations. It works by making serotonin more available and gives you a sense of euphoria when you take it. Serotonin is a chemical naturally found in your brain which regulates your mood. It is sometimes called the ‘happy hormone’. Ecstasy causes your brain to release a much higher amount of serotonin than usual. Over time your natural stores of serotonin may drop so much that you may never have the same levels as you had before you started using drugs. If lots of serotonin means euphoria than lack of serotonin means depression. You may experience short-term depression in the days after you use ecstasy but we need more research about the long term effects.

Cannabis – Research shows a link between cannabis and people with schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is a severe mental illness which may cause you to hear voices in your head and believe that other people are trying to control or harm you. It is possible that if you have a pre-existing risk which you may not be aware of, there is a higher chance that using cannabis will trigger an episode of schizophrenia. These risks are also greater in younger people who use cannabis and those that smoke it more regularly.

Using cannabis as a teenager may be a risk to many aspects of your mental health. One of the compounds in cannabis – THC (tetrahydrocannabinoid) – gets you ‘high’. THC is very similar to endocannabinoids which are naturally found in your brain. These regulate other chemicals that control many aspects of your brain function and behaviour. Because THC is so similar, it can mimic the effects of these natural compounds and take over these aspects of your brain function. The long-term effects of using cannabis in your teens may be caused by the influence of THC on your brain’s chemical systems at a time when your brain is still developing.

Heavy alcohol use – directly affects brain function and alters various brain chemical (i.e., neurotransmitter) and hormonal systems known to be involved in the development of many common mental disorders (e.g., mood and anxiety disorders).[6] Thus, it is not surprising that alcoholism can manifest itself in a broad range of psychiatric symptoms and signs. (The term “symptoms” refers to the subjective complaints a patient describes, such as sadness or difficulty concentrating, whereas the term “signs” refers to objective phenomena the clinician directly observes, such as fidgeting or crying.) In fact, such psychiatric complaints often are the first problems for which an alcoholic patient seeks help.[7]

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[1]  A branch of neurophysiology describes the function of the major system components of the nervous system of the human body at the system level. The overall nervous system of the body consists of the central nervous system (CNS), and the peripheral nervous system (PNS). The neurophysiology of the CNS studies the function of the brain and spinal cord while that of the PNS studies the function of all the nerves that connect the CNS with organs, muscles, blood vessels and glands. The neurophysiology of the PNS further subdivides into the somatic nervous system (SNS) and the autonomic nervous system (ANS), with the ANS being further divided by function into the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems.

[2]  (Bodenhausen 1993, Loewenstein & Lerner 2003) – https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/jenniferlerner/files/annual_review_manuscript_june_16_final.final_.pdf

[3]  Ibid. (Quigley & Tedeschi 1996)

[4] i.e.: abandoned – acceptance – adoration – affection – aggravated – agitated – aggressive – alert – amazed – ambitious – amused – anger – animosity – annoyed – anticipation – anxiousness – appreciative – apprehensive – ardent – aroused – ashamed – astonished – attraction – (sexual) – attraction (intellectual) – attraction (spiritual) – awed – betrayed – bewildered – bitter – bliss – blue – boastful – bored – breathless – bubbly – calamitous – calm – camaraderie – cautious – cheerful – cocky – cold – collected – comfortable – compassionate – concerned – confident – confused – contempt – content – courageous – cowardly – crafty – cranky – crazy – cruelty – crummy – crushed – curious – cynic – dark – dejected – delighted – delirious – denial – depression – desire poem – despair – determined – devastated – disappointed – discouraged – disgust – disheartened – dismal – dispirited – distracted – distressed – dopey – down – dreadful – dreary – eager – ecstatic – embarrassed – empathic – emptiness – enchanted – enigmatic – enlightened – enraged – enthralled – enthusiastic – envy – euphoric – excited – exhausted – expectation – exuberance – fascinated – fear – flabbergasted – fight-or-flight – foolish – frazzled – frustrated – fulfillment – furious – gay – giddy – gleeful – gloomy – goofy – grateful – gratified – greedy – Gray (because a broken heart) – grief – grouchy – grudging – guilty – happy – hate – heartbroken – homesick – hopeful – hopeless – horrified – hostile – humiliated – humoured – hurt – hyper – hysterical – indignation – infatuation – infuriated – inner-peace – innocent – insanity – insecure – insecure – inspired – interest(ed) – intimidated – invidious – irate – irritability – irritated – jaded – jealousy – joy – jubilant – kind – lazy – left out – liberated – lively – loathsome – lonely – longing – love – lovesick – loyal – lust – mad – mean – melancholic – mellow – mercy – merry – mildness – miserable – morbid – mourning – needed – needy – nervous – obscene – obsessed – offended – optimistic – outraged – overwhelmed – pacified – pain – panic – paranoia – passion – pathetic – peaceful – perturbation – pessimistic – petrified – pity – playful – pleased – pleasure – possessive – pride – provoked – proud – puzzled – rage – regretful – relief – remorse – resentment – resignation – resolved – sadness – satisfied – scared – schadenfreude – scorn – selfish – sensual – sensitive – sexy – shame – sheepish – shocked – shy – sincerity – solemn – sombre – sorrow – sorry – spirited – stressed – strong – submissive – superior – surprised – sweet – sympathetic – temperamental – tense – terrified – threatened – thrilled – tired – tranquil – troubled – trust – tormented – uncertainty – uneasiness – unhappy – upset – vengeful – vicious – warm – weary – worn-out – worried – worthless – wrathful – yearning – zesty.

[5] Gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a naturally occurring amino acid that works as a neurotransmitter in your brain. Neurotransmitters function as chemical messengers. GABA is considered an inhibitory neurotransmitter because it blocks, or inhibits, certain brain signals and decreases activity in your nervous system. When GABA attaches to a protein in your brain known as a GABA receptor, it produces a calming effect. This can help with feelings of anxiety, stress, and fear. It may also help to prevent seizures. As a result of these properties, GABA has also become a popular supplement in recent years. This is partly because it isn’t available from many food sources. The only foods that contain GABA are fermented ones, such as kimchi, miso, and tempeh.

[6] (Koob 2000)

[7] (Anthenelli and Schuckit 1993; Helzer and Przybeck 1988)

Author: Charles Pratten

Principal CBT Counselling & Psychotherapy

Title: Emotions Affect Our Decision Making

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