Lesson 8: Keeping emotion in check

Although a little bit of stress in our lives is a good thing, too much of it for too long and it starts to damage our health. Stress also has a big impact on our ability to make good decisions under uncertainty.

Stressed people struggle to think about the long term. We tend to place a greater emphasis on quick payoffs, even though longer term thinking is often the better decision.

Your emotion also can result in you missing vital pieces of information. In a famous experiment conducted in the late 1990’s two groups of people — some dressed in white, some in black — are passing basketballs back and forth. The study subjects were asked to count the passes among those dressed in white while ignoring the passes of those in black.

The researchers found that many of those who viewed the video failed to notice when a person in a gorilla suit walked into the game, faced the camera, pounded on its chest and then sauntered out of view. The gorilla was on screen for nearly nine seconds, yet half of those who watched the video didn’t see it.

Emotional intelligence

Avoid making decisions while at emotional extremes. Stress, anger, fear, anxiety, greed and euphoria are all mental states that tend to affect the quality of our decisions.

Emotions are not all bad of article. In fact since many of the decisions we make are about or at least affect other people. Empathy, i.e. understanding the emotion of others is one of the most powerful things you can do to improve your decision making.

Often many of the poor decisions we make result from inappropriate incentives rather than mistakes. While financial incentives are generally easy to spot others such as reputation, fairness, security, etc. are much less easy to spot. And many of these incentives change over time as peoples emotional state switches between extremes.

How keeping check of emotions can enable you to make better decisions

  • Create a check-list: Whenever we are at our most emotional we often overlook important information. Checklists are routinely used by doctors and pilots to make sure that they are following best practice. Unlike these professions which are relatively stable, and where cause and effect is clear many of the decisions we face are far less clear cut. Keep your checklist general, focusing in on the high-level principles.
  • Read more fiction: Literature enables you to find a much more realistic and broader depiction and understanding of human motives. In other words, with literature you are more likely to engage with all the various ways in which humans try to make sense of the world.

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