The (Dys)Functionality of Emotions in Human Decision-Making

emotions and decision making

Emotions and decision making are altogether very complicated. Emotions are both a boon and a bane to human decision-making. Read on to know the role of emotions, goals, and values in decision-making.


Emotions are explicitly tied to desired and feared outcomes, meaning a strong values and goals component.
Goals and values play an important role in decision making and emotions are inextricably linked to those goals and values.
Although some decisions have a clear, correct answer (e.g., a logic problem or crossword puzzle), most of the decisions we make are value-laden.

To date, I’ve written a fair amount about human decision-making on this site. However, one topic is an implicit focus in many of the posts I write. Still, it seldom ever receives explicit attention: the topic of emotion and how it both helps and hinders decision-making. My aim here is to rectify this deficiency.

Emotion often gets short shrift when it comes to decision-making. Most dual-process decision-making perspectives place emotion into the System 1 domain. These perspectives then explicitly position it as inferior to what they claim is more rational decision-making (i.e., System 2). Thus, following the dual-process perspective, we can conclude that emotions harm decision-making and are better put to the side in favor of more rational approaches, especially in high-stakes decisions.

This conclusion, though, isn’t accurate, it ignores the ubiquity of emotion, and it fails to account for the fact that emotions can both help and hinder effective decision making. To understand why it’s important first to define what emotions are.

Related: Ekman’s 6 Basic Emotions and How They Affect Our Behavior

Those Pesky Emotions And Decision Making

We experience emotion due to “a personally significant matter or event” with “the specific…emotion (e.g., fear, shame) [determined] by the specific significance of the event.”1 In other words, emotions result from events; they have a specific focus on a cause. The meaning we attach to that cause often determines the specific emotion we experience and how intensely we experience that emotion.

Now, there’s a lot of depth we could dive into here (as entire books have been written on the topic), but there are four aspects of emotion that are very important to the role they play in decision making:

  • Emotions are explicitly tied to desired and feared outcomes, meaning a strong values and goals component.
  • Emotions can occur both in anticipation of and because of various experiences.
  • Emotions often produce a corresponding action tendency (i.e., motivation).
  • The stronger the emotion, the greater its impact.
8 Basic Emotions And The Purpose Of Each One
The (Dys)Functionality of Emotions in Human Decision-Making

Related: The Effects Of Negative Emotions On Our Health 

Emotions And Goals

Our goals and values play an important role in decision making, which I discussed previously, and our emotions are inextricably linked to those goals and values (Blanchette & Richards, 2012; Carver & Scheier, 2019; Lerner et al., 2015).

As such, any time we’re making decisions in which our goals and values come into play, emotion will play a role in those decisions. Herbert Simon (1983) argued that “to have anything like a complete theory of human rationality, we have to understand what role emotion plays in it,” and Antonio Damasio argued that emotion itself is essential to making decisions. Therefore, the idea that emotions are a bug, rather than a feature, of the decision-making system is erroneous.

Anticipatory Vs. Reactive Emotions

We can experience emotions in anticipation of some event (e.g., fear, excitement) or after some event has transpired (e.g., relief, joy). Anticipatory emotions are based on the uncertainty of the future (Baumgartner et al., 2008).

When the uncertain future is assumed to be positive, like going to sporting events we’re looking forward to attending, we may be excited and enthusiastic about what’s to come. However, when that uncertain future appears to have negative implications for the self, such as having misplaced our car keys, we might experience fear or anxiety about our inability to locate them.

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Matt Grawitch, Ph.D.

Matthew J. Grawitch currently works at the School for Professional Studies, Saint Louis University. He currently oversees strategic research at the school, teaches courses in evidence-based decision making and leadership, and conducts research on various aspects of decision making, the work-life interface, psychologically healthy workplace, and personality.View Author posts

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