Say what you will about George W. Bush’s style, but you can’t fault him for having an overly brain-based conception of how to make decisions. As Stephen Colbert famously said, our 43rd president thought straight from the gut. What’s weird is that more and more research shows that gut-thinking is a good idea.
Antonio Damasio is a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California and head of the Brain and Creativity Institute. His research concerns how rationality, emotion, and our physical bodies are all intertwined in the way we make decisions.
Rather than being opposed, emotion and reason are deeply interrelated: if you’re going to make sound and rational decisions, he contends, you need to have first done prior accurate emotional processing. If you have done such processing, then your emotions accelerate your decision-making–in the form of intuitions, hunches, and gut feelings.
A hunch is a somatic marker: a physiological clue of what to do next. When you’re anxious, you might feel tense in your back, when you’re content, your shoulders and your hips might relax accordingly. So when you’re making a call about a future decision, these physical sensations guide (or bias) you toward or away from certain actions.
In a review of Damasio’s The Feeling of What Happens, British psychologist Bruce Charlton gives us a visceral example:
Imagine that you’re walking alone down a street one night when you see somebody that looks like they might mug you. When you spot them, your brain quickly makes predictions using perceptual information from the outside world (the identity of the scary dude) and internal emotional information (the fear you feel in response). That combination of information then gets served up to your in a physical sensation: that feeling in your gut that you need to get the hell outta there.
By attending to these feelings we get quicker with our decisions.
Damasio says it’s our gut feelings–that rapid-fire conjuring of future emotional states–that help us tip our decision-making in one direction or other.
“You don’t just remember facts, whether the outcome was good or bad, but you remember whether what we felt was good or bad,” he says. “That tandem of fact and associated emotion is critical: what we construct as wisdom over time is actually the result of cultivating that knowledge of how our emotions behaved and what we learn from them.”
Hat tip: Harvard Business Review