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Rational Decision Making Study Guide

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Updated on Sep 19, 2011

Lesson Summary

The sign of an intelligent people is their ability to control emotions by the application of reason.

Marya Mannes, American author and critic (1904–1990)

What part do emotions play in the decision-making process? That's what this lesson is all about. You'll discover that if emotional responses are accepted and used properly, they can be a useful element in critical thinking. But if they're used inappropriately, emotions can make things even worse!

Many people believe that objective thinking and decision making involves only the brain. After all, objective means "not influenced by emotions." But can you, and more importantly, should you, completely ignore your feelings when you are making decisions? You may be surprised to learn that the answer is "No!"

Feelings, or emotions, have a place in critical thinking, just as logic does. But decisions should never be made based on feelings alone, and some emotions are best left out of the process. Critical thinkers acknowledge their emotions and understand how they can influence decisions, and then take control of when and where any such emotions should become part of the process.

When Emotions Take Over the Decision-Making Process

Decision-making is a systematic, conscious process that seems to leave no room for feelings. But you can probably think of many decisions you have had to make recently in which you had strong feelings that influenced your outcome. Perhaps you had to decide whether to order dessert when you were out for dinner. You ordered the cheesecake because it is a favorite, ignoring the fact that you were trying to lower your cholesterol level. Or, you left work early because you had tickets to a ball game, even though you had a big project due the next day.

It doesn't matter if you're making a major decision, like whether to buy a car, or a minor one, like whether to have fries with your burger; the decision-making process is similar. In preceding lessons, you examined the steps in the process. Let's review them:

  1. Recognize the problem.
  2. Define the problem.
  3. Focus observation to learn more about the problem.
  4. Brainstorm possible solutions.
  5. Choose a solution(s) and set goals.
  6. Troubleshoot any problems that get in the way of your goal(s).
  7. Try the solution and assess your results.
  8. Use, modify, or reject the solution. Repeat the process if necessary.

You probably noticed there wasn't any step that said, "Determine how you feel about the problem or decision, and let your emotions rule." So what role, if any, do emotions have in the process? The answer is, a balanced role: Emotions shouldn't be ignored, nor should they be used as your sole criteria. When you recognize and define a problem, also recognize and define any feelings you might have. For example, you might think, "This whole situation makes me nervous, and I don't feel like I even want to deal with it!" Or you might think, "I'm excited about this. I want to get going!" Don't act on your feelings, just acknowledge them.

Here's an example of what can happen when someone lets emotions rule. Guy wants to go to college to get a degree in design, but he doesn't want to graduate after four years with a huge debt. His goal is to find a school that offers a great education without charging too much in tuition and other fees. He applies to three schools, and they all accept him. The first has a strong design department, the best reputation of the three, and fees within his budget. The second offers him a scholarship. The third costs more than the first, but his best friend is enrolling there. Logic would conclude that the first two schools offer compelling reasons for attending. The academic strengths and strong reputation of the first are good reasons to choose it, and although the second may be a notch down in quality, it would cost him practically nothing to attend. The third school has only one thing going for it: Guy's friend goes there. Guy picks the third school, a choice of emotion over logic.

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