Decoding the Power of Emotions on Decisions

By Somali K Chakrabarti

Emotions exert an alluring power over us!

More often than not, our emotions drive our thoughts and behavior, and come into play when we make decisions. While most of us love to believe that we work on reason and deliberation, the truth is that our behavior is highly influenced by sentiments, intuitions and emotions.

A person who is inspired or motivated by a purpose can do things beyond the ordinary. On the other hand, a person who finds himself in a hopeless situation, may dive into the depths of despair.

Recognizing the power of emotions is of paramount importance for perceiving the implications of emotions on your behavior and for developing the ability to make Emotionally Intelligent decisions.

‘When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures of emotion.’ – Dale Carnegie

Power of Emotions
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Though, by and large, it is considered that people weigh the costs and benefits of different actions to arrive at rational and economic decisions, but practically you would see that rational or economic reasons do not always form the basis of decisions that people make.

In history, we find instances of leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, who gave up material comforts to seek greater understanding and justification of life. Leo Tolstoy became disenchanted with his aristocratic upbringing and the materialism of the European Bourgeoisie and developed sympathy with peasants, the poor, and downtrodden from society.

Quite the opposite, when people are driven by intense negative emotions, they tend to engage in behavior that is starkly different from their normal or rational behavior and make decisions without taking into due consideration the long term consequences.

Though the emotions are transient, but the behavior under influence of these emotions may have long lasting and important consequences both for individuals and society. While the effect of positive emotions is subtle and complex, the effect of negative emotions is strong, harsh and often explosive.

As such, it makes sense to understand how negative emotions impact behavior and decision making.

Intense Negative Emotions may drive people to behave in ways detrimental to their self interest.


In grip of road rage, a person may assault a driver, fully knowing that it may not be in his best interest to do so. Often people, who would at other times behave normally, behave violently or unexpectedly when seized by jealousy or rage.

Angry negotiators, at times, become so obsessed with causing pain or embarrassment to the other side, that they become indifferent to the long term consequences of doing so. When people feel they are being treated unfairly, or have a pre-existing anger towards people they are negotiating with, it causes them to act contrary to their own economic interests.

Such negative emotions and basic behavioral instincts can at times can even override cognitive deliberations and have an enormous impact on our behavior.

Visceral factors that include negative emotions (anger, fear, greed etc), drive states (hunger, thirst, lust) and feeling states (pain, embarrassment) motivate people to engage in specific behaviors. People perceive activities which mitigate the visceral factors as rewarding. For example Hunger increases ones preference for food, causing food to taste better when a person is hungry. Where visceral factors go unsatisfied, people increasingly feel worse, as the intensity of visceral factors increases. When these factors are intense, they seize command over behavior, causing a person to go out of control and make decisions that deviate largely from rational decisions.

As visceral factors intensify they can produce a split between what one feels compelled to do and what one feels is best to do (by weighing the expected outcome of the actions)


People often tend to underestimate the impact of instincts and emotions on their own behavior.


Research indicates that people somehow tend to underplay the influence of these visceral factors on their own behavior, while exaggerating the importance of higher level cognitive processes and also fail to anticipate how their behavior would change under the influence of emotions.

People, when they are NOT in a heightened state of emotion (i.e. they are in the cold state) find it difficult to anticipate how their behavior would change in the heightened state (hot state).  Just like it is difficult for a person who is not hungry to imagine how much he would eat if he is hungry or for a person to imagine how he would react if seized by jealousy.

Similarly when people are in the heightened state of emotion, have difficulty in imagining themselves in the cold state and thus tend to miscalculate the speed with which such a state would dissipate.

This hot- cold empathy gap results in mis-judgment people make about their own behavior in a particular (heightened) state of emotion, while being in a different (cold) state of emotion.


Emotions are as much a part of people’s behavior as their intellect and thoughts.

 ‘If I look at the masses I will never act. If I look at the individual I will.’ ~ Mother Teresa

Understanding the power of emotions is essential for developing insights to deal with different situations. Studies have shown that people, under the influence of emotions, tend to behave in a particular way without any apparent reasons and the implications exceed beyond individuals to business and society. For instance studies show that

  • During tragedy a single specific victim inspires action, whereas general information about masses does not. It is merely statistics. That is why story of an individual undergoing an ordeal moves us more than reading news about victims in a tragedy
  • Certain products are designed to elicit emotions such as fascination, pride or joy,and  thus influence usage behavior. Further, the lack of functional or cognitive input can lead to increased enjoyment while consuming the product.


  • People tend to perceive immediate emotions as more intense than previous emotions. The perception of risk is higher when an event is salient in memory.

Being aware of different emotions and their power over you helps you to recognize the emotions that do not produce the best results for you. It will help you to develop mental strength and manage your response to stressful situations better.

Balancing emotions with intellect leads to better decisions. By observing yourself and others without judgment or expectations, you can make emotionally intelligent decisions. You can reason yourself out of anger; or pull yourself out of a painful situation.

Looking at past events as learning experiences and by recognizing the emotions that made you react in a particular way, you can make the best of life, whatever be your situation.


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References :

Loewenstein, G. (2000). Emotions in Economic Theory and Economic Behavior. The American Economic Review, 90(2), 426-432.

25 Positive Emotions in Human- Product Interactions., International Journal of Design, Vol6, No2 (2012).

11 thoughts on “Decoding the Power of Emotions on Decisions

  1. Wow- what a well researched post!
    I especially liked the point about individual vs masses. Statistics truly does not move us, since its so impersonal.

    On other hand, herd mentality also is an interesting phenomenon. People act with a herd, the way they wouldn’t act alone. That’s what drives riots. May people feel safety in numbers, maybe they think guilt gets divided. Plus, its much difficult to pinpoint a crime to an individual when destruction is done by a mob.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks. You have raised this excellent point about herd mentality. It reflects in people’s purchase behavior, stock markets, viral sharing, riots or even when a group of friends go to a picnic. Extending the same logic of herd mentality, if a small amount of dishonesty by individuals is deemed as acceptable in a society, it becomes a norm and corruption spreads. Thanks for bringing up this point.

      Liked by 1 person

            1. Probably because such habits instantly feed to some of our basic instincts (greed, anger, lust etc) while the good habits produce a nice but milder effect over a longer period. The activities that produce a higher (though short term) impact appeal to us instinctively unless we are conditioned to think and reason out things.


  2. The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. Emotions sometimes are even more troublesome than ideas. Emotions have led people to do all sorts of things they later regret.

    So, balancing emotions with intellect leads to better decisions — very rightly said.

    It’s a very good & well researched post.

    Liked by 1 person

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