Do you think with your gut or do you use your head? Are you a snap decision maker or do you prefer to go through the columns of spreadsheet, carefully examining the pros and cons of every option available to you before you make a decision? The real answer to both these questions is that in both distinct cases we are using what’s inside our head. And what lies inside our head is not easily examined, particularly during the crucial moments when we do make a decision.
Yet, in the 21st century, what we need most is a better understanding of how we operate. The hope is that the knowledge we gather will give us an edge by allowing us to avoid the type of knee-jerk, unforced errors we are prone to making when we let our emotions uncritically control us.
It is true that every decision we make is emotional. But it is also equally true that we want to be better. If we can understand how emotion affects our choices we can then learn to make decisions from the choices presented to us by circumstances.
Most animals on this planet don’t have to struggle like this. Wired to seek food, shelter and a mate their struggle is to make sure all this is available to them. Their behavior is mostly the result of the challenges presented by the availability of food, shelter and potential mates. When a threat is perceived their behavior, depending on circumstances, is to run or stand and fight.
At the core of our being we are also wired in a similar way. Our survival however, unlike most animals’ requires us to create complex bonds with those around us and cooperate. The bonds we are forced to create exert their own dynamic. We need, for example, our colleagues at work in order for the company we work for to succeed and for us to continue to have a job. At the same time we compete with them for the limited resource of attention from those above us and the few promotion places that are available to us.
In a black & white, Machiavellian world we’d lie and cajole to get the help and cooperation we need and we’d then kill all our adversaries ensuring that when it comes to promotion we are the only available choice. Well, we don’t really operate like this because our identity and our own sense of wellbeing are tied to the quality of the connections we form with those around us. We want to succeed and be admired but at the same time we want to belong and to be liked.
The ambiguity of our behavior creates a nuanced complexity that is, in turn, reflected in the societal constructs we witness around us. Inevitably, the complexity accumulates. It is this accumulation that overwhelms us. We then find ourselves in a situation where the landscape around us is so fluid as to make every decision we take fraught with ambiguities.
The external world is largely beyond our control. This we understand. We also understand that our reaction to the triggers it provides can determine the outcomes we achieve. The struggle then (and it is a struggle) is to better control our emotional response so we can manage better the inner resources we have to work with. Our inner resources are what allows us to direct our attention, allocate mental bandwidth and be precise, methodical and analytical in our decision making.