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Ruled by emotion

One of those well known phrases men say is that they are so logical, while women have no logic at all and are ruled by emotion. Now, without challenging the logic of that statement or arousing an emotional tempest around it, today I would like to ask the question in a more scientific and basic manner:

So, what makes us decide what to do? Is it logic or emotion?

A good question, and some of you may be surprised by the answer.

But wait, perhaps some of you are surprised already: why do we care, actually? What makes this our business to know? After all, we are not neuro-scientists, we are Quality Assurance specialists. What we care about is…

Yes, precisely.

Illustration: emotion

The quality of decisions

I have always maintained that at least half of Quality Assurance is psychology, and the rest fits into what is left. Therefore, let’s tie this piece of psychology and neuroscience to Quality Assurance in a way which would allow us to understand the direct benefits to us, specialists in Quality Assurance.

Have you ever laid out in front of the Management a plan of action which is necessary, truly vital, only to receive a negative answer? Something like: “we do not see the need to carry this out at the moment”, “the budget does not allow it”, “there are more urgent things the plant needs right now” etc.?

Have you ever explained to the operators the reasons to do this or that, made sure they understood you well, and then discovered they were doing the exact opposite?

Illustration: breaking an agreement

Have you ever spoken with a customer, explained in detail the reasons for your actions, which they understood and agreed with, only to complain later to your superiors about these exact actions?

And lastly, and perhaps I should have began with this one: have you ever thought and considered some action, weighed all the “for” and “against”, understood exactly what you needed to do… and acted in the opposite way? If you are unsure about this one, here are a few suggestions to help you answer:

  • We all know how much junk, processed and nutritionally void food damages our health. And yet we see McDonalds, Burger King, KFC, pizzerias, pastry and coffee shops peppering every shopping center all over the world, and doing booming business. Why is that?
  • We all know how important it is to take up physical activity of some sort. And yet, we come up with endless reasons why we simply cannot engage in it today. Why is that?
  • We all know that sitting for long hours in front of a computer harms our health and creates back pain. And yet we continue to spend hours on end sitting in front of our computers without taking a break. Why is that?
  • We all know that our monthly budget is limited, and yet we buy “on credit” like there is no tomorrow and live in debt like this is the norm. Why is that?
  • One can go on indefinitely, but you get the idea…

People (and yes, you and I are belong to this group) make decisions all the time, and it is important to know and understand what drives this process. Knowing it will allow us to understand why the management has decided as they did, though they should have, must have decided differently. Or why the operators decided as they did, despite your detailed repeated explanations. What made the customer or the supplier make decisions, out of sync with the situation and the necessity? All these decisions which can drive us nuts. And naturally, first and foremost, how to change our own decisions and actions.

In addition, we may learn to influence future decisions.

So, what are decisions based on?

The surprising answer is: emotions.

Many of you are now voicing your rising ire to say: my decisions are based on reason, not emotions. If this is what you think – I invite you to read again the above list of suggestions. See anything familiar at all? Can you add something of your actions which I did not include?

Well, for the sake of this discussion, let us empty our glass, put aside all that we held true on this subject, and consider the possibility that it is in fact emotion that rules us.

And then, let us look at some research and evidence, so that the statement at the beginning of this article may be justified: “I would like to ask the question in a more scientific and basic manner”.

How do we know it is emotion that makes decisions?

For a long time now the evidence has been piling up to support this theory, but lately neuroscience has come forth to prove its correctness in a rather indisputable way, for a change.

A scientist by the name of Benedetto De Martino of University College, London, has conducted a most interesting experiment, published in the journal “Science” in 2006, emphasizing the importance of how a question is posed on the decision-making process. Brain scans were conducted all through that process.

Well, we know that from experience, do we not? For instance, when the question of referendum comes up, or some statistical review, everyone always says it has no meaning, because the questions can be worded so as manipulate the expected results. This experiment, though, goes much further.

Illustration: gambling

De Martino has taken a group of 20 men and women and asked them to gamble or not gamble with money he gave them, while their brain was being scanned.

  • The first time they were told they may retain 40% of the money, if they chose to not gamble, and only 43% has chosen to gamble.
  • The second time they were told they would lose 60% of the money if they chose to gamble, and this time 62% chose to gamble.
  • Everyone knew the rules and were well aware of their chances in both cases, however the wording of the incentive has influenced their decision dramatically.
  • In all the cases the brain scans have shown clear emotional activity.
  • After the experiment the subjects have said: “I knew, I understood, I just couldn’t help myself”.

The decisions were based on emotion and immediacy.

This study teaches two surprising things: first – not only is the decision based on emotion and not reason, but it comes in spite of reason, which predated the decision!

And second and most important insight: the difference between the two versions is in color, that is positive or negative. Think about it: what is the difference between “if you do not gamble you keep 40% of the money” and “if you do not gamble you lose 60% of the money”? Upon first glance, it appears the same. Upon first glance, and upon reason. Logically, consciously thinking – there is no difference. Then why is there such a vast difference in decisions?

Because of the coloring. The coloring invokes the emotion. Positive or negative is what drives the subconscious, which is making the decision for us, emotionally. The stronger emotional reaction, which helped the people to refrain from gambling was to the positive message: “keep 40%”. The positive message translated into a stronger motive, driving them to action. On the other hand, the negative message “lose 60%” was not incentive enough, and caused a change of over 50% in the results!

And if this doesn’t convince you, here is another study in neuroscience, even more surprising.

Illustration: positive and negative
Illustration: inability to decide

No decisions without emotion

The study was made by a neuro-scientist Antonio R.Damasio and published in his book Descartes’ Error from 1994. He has studied people with brain damage in the emotional area. He has found them to be perfectly “normal”, except in one aspect: they had no emotions.

And then he made a strange discovery: they were incapable of making decisions. They could describe in detail, reasonably and logically, what they should do, but had the most profound difficulty in making even the simplest decisions, like what to have for lunch: chicken or turkey?

So what have we learned from all these?

Our decisions are based on emotions. Whether we like it or not, whether we believe it is so or not, we had better start changing our thinking, stop clinging to what we have previously thought we knew about ourselves.

But how shall we use this newfound knowledge and understanding?

This is the interesting part.

We must think before we act, on what we really aim to achieve in making this or that proposition to its relevant public. And then to consider what are the emotional triggers which will make them choose to do what we know is necessary and right, and look for ways to activate them. That is – prepare beforehand, do our homework.

Any group of people and any subject have emotional motivators to drive them. And we know what they are, because we know these people and their goals. Tie the results of what you propose to their emotional motivators – and you will get what you aim for. And the true beauty of it: the people will choose the desired action themselves, with no manipulation on your part.

Our objective is, therefore, to know the people and discover what motivates them, so we may show them how what we propose brings about the benefits they wish to achieve themselves.

Thus said the Sages.
Quotes by people worth heeding:

Life is not accumulation, it is about contribution.

— Stephen Covey

So what will motivate you to study the subject?

Imagine: every plan you propose to the management is budgeted and activated; every suggestion to the operators enthusiastically embraced; every conversation with the customer – increasing his satisfaction with you.

What emotion does this picture evoke in you? Is it enough to decide to study and implement?

Top picture: Figure 15 from Charles Darwin ‘s The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals . Caption reads “FIG. 15. Cat terrified at a dog, from life, by Mr. Wood.” Image from Wikipedia.

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