We are driven by our Emotions

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Whether we like it or not, most our decisions and behavior are driven mostly by emotions and very little by logic. Let us examine the brain infrastructure to understand how emotions override rational thinking.

Whenever we have been flooded with anger or anxiety, overwhelmed by sadness, or torn by hurt, that emotion leaves an imprint in the Amygdala, the emotional part of our brain. Along with each emotional imprint, Amygdala dutifully stores whatever reaction we learned at those moments, whether it was freezing in fear, lashing out in rage or tuning out and going numb. In short, the Amygdala acts as a schema warehouse, the repository for our repertoire of negative emotional habits.

Amygdala is strategically positioned to intercept sensory information streaming in from our eyes, ears, and noses. If that information contains a potential threat, then Amygdala immediately fires off volleys of impulses that can change our behavior even before the signals have been fully processed and interpreted by our neocortex, the thinking part of the brain. That is the reason why your heart starts pounding immediately after noticing the vague shape of two men approaching you on a dark sidewalk. The men may or may not be a threat to you at all, but your Amygdala does not care and is preparing you for the worst.

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That’s where the problem begins. The Amygdala bases its reactions on a fuzzier picture much before the thinking brain gets the more complete input, and it also acts with lightning speed. This must have worked wonderfully well during most of evolution, when there were so many real, physical threats which demanded lightning responses. But in modern life we still respond to symbolic threats with the same intensity and speed as though they were actual physical dangers.

Brain studies show that a highly activated Amygdala, unfortunately, impairs our ability to turn off our negative thoughts and emotions. So, if we have already been upset by something, and then a bit later another emotional trigger gets launched, we find it even more difficult to control Amygdala from going out of control.

Tellingly, a hot Amygdala floods the body with high levels of cortisol, the hormone released by the brain to marshal the body’s emergency responses. Cortisol again makes the whole situation worse. The Orbital Medial Prefrontal Cortex (OMPFC), the thinking part of the brain, becomes inhibited thus making it difficult to be rational, logical and in control of our thoughts.

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When Amygdala gets triggered, it floods the body with the stress hormones that prepare it for emergency. These hormones are of two kinds: one variety provides the body with a quick, intense shot of energy – enough, say, for one vigorous round of fighting or running, the ancient survival responses that, in evolution, paid off. Another kind is secreted more gradually into the body, heightening its overall sensitivity to events, making us hyper alert to any coming danger.

Understanding this emotion-triggering process can help you adopt some damage control initiatives. The moment you realize that you are angry or upset, try to calm down and try to avoid confrontations of any type. Remember that your thinking part of the brain is inhibited. Similarly, when you realize that the other person with whom you are having an argument is emotionally upset, try to avoid any contentious issues. It does not make sense to bring some logical reasoning into the discussions as the other person’s thinking part of the brain is not in control. The best approach is to postpone further interactions till tempers cool down.

This is important, as not following this approach can escalate the bad situation into a worse situation which can damage relationships. This is simply because the anger keeps building up and up as you or the other person thinks more and more about the upsetting cause. What may start as a small emotive issue can build up to an explosive situation where potentially damaging statements may be made.


Feelings like happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, and disgust don’t just help us survive in the world, they also help us thrive, providing key information that motivates us to take important actions and decisions, and to connect with other people.

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Let me illustrate with some examples how emotional attachments make you highly biased and compels you to override other rational arguments.

You are driving on a mountain road and some of your family members are in different car. Suddenly you witness an accident involving the car carrying your family members and a large bus. You quickly realize that while the occupants of the car are your close family members the occupants of the bus are people whom you may have never met. A quick assessment of the situation shows that both the car and the bus are precariously hanging on the edge of the mountain. You have time to save only one of the vehicles by quickly pulling it with the crane of your car. Which one would you save?

According to traditional economics thinking, you should maximize the utility of your actions, so you should save as many people as possible. Your rational choice should thus be to save the large bus. However, according to the behavioral research, your decision will be biased by emotions and you will certainly save the member of your family. It would appear very natural for most if not all of us to try our best to save someone we love and the psychological consequences of not doing so would be devastating for us. Thus emotions play an essential role in our decision making. However, according to the common interpretation of rational thinking and decision making, your decision has been biased.

Let’s look at a less tragic example. Imagine that tomorrow is your wife’s birthday. You are aware that things have not been working well lately. Long hours of working by both of you has not helped and you have had a couple of arguments. You know that she would love to have this ring you saw together a month ago in a jewelry shop and you decide to buy the ring. However, when you arrive at the jewelry shop you realize that the price tag is more than you expected and you had already planned for a couple of items of expenditure. In addition, you are told by the sale person that the item will be sold at 50 % discount next week. Would you buy the ring today or wait until next week?

Once again, according to traditional economics you should maximize your utility and wait until next week. But taking into consideration the general situation and according to behavioral research predictions, you will probably buy the item today and surprise your wife. After all, making the people you love happy and get on well with them is more satisfying than saving some money. We face once again the same questions: has your decision been emotionally biased and are you acting irrationally?


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