How emotions impact decision making

This is a guest post by David Hoffeld, author of the forthcoming book The Science of Selling.

We are living in the golden age of neuroscience. Today, because of some astounding scientific breakthroughs, we know more about how our brains function than ever before in human history. One fascinating finding from this research is how emotions impact the decision-making process.

How emotions impact decision making

A slew of research studies have shown that the emotions a person is experiencing at a given time, known as the emotional state, heavily impacts how the brain perceives a choice. For instance, when people experience positive emotions they perceive the world in a more optimistic way. Whereas, when they are in a bad mood (negative emotional state) they perceive everything they encounter in a more cynical manner, which makes it difficult for their brains to think creatively and make decisions. Behavioral scientist Alice Isen likens the sway emotions have to wearing rose-colored glasses. She explains that one’s emotional state makes everything look, well… rosy.

Yet, to fully grasp the clout that emotional states have I’ll need to share a brief excerpt from my upcoming book The Science of Selling that describes a place where they should have no impact: judicial rulings.

Three behavioral scientists published research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that arrived at the conclusion that judges “can be swayed by extraneous variables that should have no bearing on legal decisions.” The scientists found that when judges were in a positive emotional state, they granted parole 65 percent of the time. Nothing too surprising here, but what happens when the judges were in a negative emotional state, when they were tired, hungry, or just ready to go home at the end of a long day? In those instances, the probability of the judges granting parole was nearly zero. That’s right, the emotional state did not merely effect how the judges ruled, it practically determined it! Well-known social psychologist David Myers summarized the power emotional states have on decision making when he acknowledged, “Our moods infuse our judgments. We are not cool computing machines; we are emotional creatures.”

So if emotional states affect decisions, what can you do when others are stuck in a negative emotional state? Perhaps the most important discovery about emotional states is they can be shifted. If someone is experiencing negative emotions, you can help free them from the grip of these emotions, which will improve their outlook and increase the likelihood that they’ll respond positively to your request. Here are two strategies that will help you do this.

Strategy #1: Ask For Opinions. Would asking someone for their opinion improve their emotional state and make it more likely that they would say “yes” to a request? Though most of us would balk at the idea that we could be so easily won over, that is exactly what an intriguing research study conducted at Harvard University found. The researchers, who utilized functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), identified that when participants responded to questions that asked for their opinions, neural activity in the areas of the brain associated with reward and pleasure increased. These good feelings caused a change in the brain that naturally enhanced the participant’s emotional state.

So, before you present a choice, ask questions that allow others to think through and disclose their opinions on the ideas that the choice is based on. This will help them experience positive emotions and also prepare their brains to make the decision.

Strategy #2: Discuss Topics Rich With Positive Emotions. Discussing topics that others link with positive emotions will naturally cause them to begin experiencing those emotions. For instance, if you want to ask a friend for a favor, but you find that he is stuck in a bad mood, you could ask him about his most recent vacation, a topic bursting with positive emotions. Talking about his vacation will improve his emotional state and make it more likely that he will be open to your request.

By recognizing the sway of emotions and addressing them before you present a choice, you will prepare others to make good choices and also increase the likelihood that they will choose in your favor.

Comment below: What strategies have you used to help others out of a negative emotional state?


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3 thoughts on “How emotions impact decision making

  1. David – looking forward to reading the book next week. Good luck.

    Fine tuning point #1 – you can do even better when you ask for advice rather than opinions. Especially if you are considering longer term trusted relationships.

    • Hi John,

      Thanks for your kind words about the book and your insight. I agree that asking for advice can help foster trust and can be useful in certain selling contexts. However, when it comes to improving one’s emotional state (the point of the article) and helping the brain make the strategic commitments that the sales is built on, there is quite a bit of research shows that asking people for their opinions is a better option than asking for advice. In fact, there is also many studies that have proven that asking opinion questions that guide people in thinking through the value proposition that a commitment is based on also enhances the perception of trust. There are a variety of reasons why this is the case, many of them are covered in my book.

      Thanks for the engaging conversation.

      All the best,
      David Hoffeld

  2. My husband and I moved from IL to OR for his new job, but mostly because I was mad and hurt by our married kids and their total lack of respect for us, that I just wanted to leave and never see them again, and make them see how much they need us. Well, it’s been 3 years now and I can’t be more sorry that we moved away because we are now unable to fix what was wrong and make it right (face to face)… not to mention missing out on seeing our grandchildren grow up. I feel so regretful, sad and remorseful… if we had only prayed earnestly, given it to God and waited on Him to intercede on our behalf, we wouldn’t be suffering so.

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