The Difficult Job of Making Decisions

3 min read

Multidirectional Sign, reflecting decision making

How many important decisions did you make lately? Difficult, isn’t it? Most of us would likely underestimate this number; It mainly depends on what the term “important” evokes to you. Generally speaking, an important decision lead to a significant change like a change of career, a change of house, a change of lifestyle. Every day is filled with decisions made voluntarily and involuntarily. Even a simple change of direction when driving requires decision-making. As simple as decisions can be, it is a complex process. Several factors such as emotions, past experience, current situation, and visionary ideas enter into consideration.

How to make decisions

First of all, let’s clarify an important point. Qualifying a decision with adjectives like, “good” or “bad”, is subjective. Only the outcome of the decision could tell about its quality. It’s retroactive. Then, you have the historical repertory. Over time, Humanity has built an impressive repertory of decisions. Could it be at the origin of the world when Adam decided to eat the forbidden fruit graciously offered, hopefully, by Eve; Or when Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, Bosnia, in June 1914 and triggered the first world war(WW1); Or when german nazis declared war to the United States of America following the horrific Pearl Harbor bombing in December 1941. Odds are that current decisions have already been made by someone, somewhere, sometime in the past, and consequences have been already observed.

Do we learn from our mistakes?

To avoid repeating the same mistakes over and over again, looking back to what the past has to tell us, seems to be wise. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, our brain doesn’t learn from our mistakes as much as we can hope. Of course, there is a phase of “post-error slowing” that occurs afterward. As you can certainly imagine, during this phase of mistake awareness, your brain is still processing it. So you are not going to repeat this mistake right away but it won’t prevent it to reoccur in the future either. A piece of explanation relies on the fact the brain creates “mistake pathways” to make sure it will happen again.

Repeating the same mistakes. The long road illustration
Repeating the same mistakes. Illustration of the long road.

A self-speaking illustration of this would be when you are searching for a specific word. You have it on the tip of your tong. Your thoughts are wandering through several paths but all lead to wrong words, until, a moment later, you reach the right one. This long and frustrating road is the road your brain is likely to drive on the next time. Instead of getting directly to the correct word, it will undergo the same long trip because your brain will weirdly remember the “mistake pathway” but, of course, not the word you were seeking.

There are many examples of mistakes that most of us keep doing over and over again; the most frequent of them are losing the ability to focus in stressful moments or letting our emotions taking over and even freezing up in situations that require prompt reactions. Notice that all these examples have one element in common – emotions.

Do emotions influence our decisions?

A few years ago, Olga Khazan published an interesting article on the topic. It was in The Atlantic. For her and, indeed, backed by scientific observations, the advice-givers are not usually right when they told you to “follow your guts” to make a decision. Scientists demonstrated that during job interviews, for instance, managers who tried to determine the interviewee’s emotions were more accurate when using a systematic approach – with rational – compared to using an intuitive approach – with emotions [1].

Emotions have an important impact on decision-making. Studies have shown that emotion like anger is not helping to make wise decisions and neither is happiness.

How to make decisions. Emotions influence decision outcomes
How to make decisions. Emotions influence the decision’s outcomes.


Nobody likes to be angry but it is a natural reaction when we lose control of the situation. It becomes upsetting. The reptilian layer of our brain takes over and one should not make a decision at this moment. Evolutionary speaking, anger was a survival reaction. The feeling of anger was triggered when someone tried to steal the meal hardly earned after a long and exhausting hunt. Anger makes you react fast but without thinking. It gives you confidence, too much confidence, which can be explained by the fact angry individuals see the world as less risky. So they are more inclined to undertake risky actions. They also tend to support harsher measures when it comes to sanctions and relies more on stereotypes. Also, people tend to target their anger against individuals and not against ideas or society.

Contrarily to what an excess of confidence looks like, anger is a sign of weakness and vulnerability. It has been well studied and used many times to manipulate people’s minds, especially in the periods of elections. Campain’s speeches are written to trigger anger toward the opponents. This anger motivates electors with the feeling of justice and brings them to make an emotionally motivated decision.


Interestingly, happy people are no better to make decisions. Similarly to angry people, the decision made by individuals feeling happy will usually be based on instinct. Quickly, a trust bond is created. A trust made without many questioning or concrete foundations. Decisions made at this moment will rely on characteristics such as beauty or charism. Another trickery used by marketers to sell their products. People tend to respond positively to the idea of a happy life with physically perfect people. An appealing context that leads to making irrational decisions.

No mood could be the answer

Surprisingly or not, there are some benefits to be in no particular mood when it comes to decision-making. Someone in no mood will take time to question or even overthink aspects of Life. It leads to making decisions with a systematic approach. In such a scenario, mind mapping reveals to be very useful. Try it and let me know it goes!

Julien Dimastromatteo Scientist, entrepreneur, and writer. Former research instructor at the University of Virginia, Julien developed molecular imaging agents in cardiology, pulmonology, and oncology. He also generated monoclonal antibodies as a novel cancer therapy. Julien has a strong background in molecular imaging and drug discovery. He is passionate about science, health, medicine, and technology. You can find more info about Julien on LinkedIn.

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