Hot Blood, Cold Blood

by Krishna on January 6, 2011

How do you go about making good decisions? Well, a lot of business books and writers think that if you follow their “tried-and-tested” methods for decision-making, you will be very successful. They also think that you live in a perfect world where those methods can be used for every possible problem. A world where people are impartial and unemotional. Where there is time and opportunity to evaluate every aspect of a decision.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in such antiseptic workplaces. In the real world, all kind of unwanted emotions such as anger, fear, fatigue, and jealousy are dominant in our decision making and override logical and analytical reasons. “Hot blood” (emotional decision-making) is the rule rather than the exception.

Unfortunately, the term “emotional” implies “hysterical” even though the opposite “non-emotional” means what we want to say. Similarly, “Sober”, “clear-headed”, “logical”, etc. all give us the right meaning. But we don’t seem to have a good word for the opposite of “non-emotional” because it could imply so many things.

For example, consider all the different ways people could make a bad decision in a business environment. Someone could be fearful of a change, only thinking of how it could go wrong instead of also looking at what could go right. Or they could be stubborn and not even willing to consider an opposing point of view. One person doesn’t like another and they don’t want them to get credit, so they shoot their idea down. Or, somebody is an introvert and speaks softly, so nobody takes them seriously.

Take any decision you have made in the last few weeks. Were they really decisions based on hard facts? How many were affected by your emotions at that time? How many decisions were delayed because of your emotions? How many suggestions did you give because you simply felt a certain way instead of knowing all the facts? Were you angry or tired when you decided to act?

None of this is necessarily bad. It is just human. The problem happens when we don’t recognize how we make decisions. If we labor under the delusion that we usually operate logically, we surrender the power to revisit our decisions and correct them when they are wrong.

Most of our reasons for decisions are actually ex post facto justifications. Want proof? Watch any argument about politics, religion or even food. Everyone seems to have a perfect counter-argument for every negative fact against their choice or decision. When was the last time you got someone to change their fundamental views or you changed yours during a discussion. Rarely happens, not least because most of us only have debates to justify that what we believe in is true.

There is also a misconception that hasty decisions are emotion-driven while slow decisions are well thought out. It is more likely to be so, but it is not necessarily always the case. Haste increases the emotion factor, but even very deliberate decisions may owe much to deep-seated beliefs. For example, an advocate of statism or libertarianism may decide on an approach to solving a problem after much thinking, but their solution will be based on their political philosophy.

So part of making good decisions is to recognize what emotions and biases are in play. When decisions are made by a group, better decisions would be made when people can reveal their real thoughts. For example, saying something like, “I am afraid of advocating a big change, because two years ago, I did so and it failed in a big way. I don’t want to be responsible for something like that again.” If that sounds like group therapy, maybe it is. But it is more honest and lets people express frank opinions.

The second part of it is that when looking at past decisions, we should acknowledge they may have been made for reasons other than the “official” ones. For example, many popular political decisions against any particular group (such as immigrants or bankers) come from fear or loathing during uncertain times. Once tempers cool down, it is wise (if politically difficult) to look at those decisions and see how they need to be revised.

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