I was recently offered the opportunity to rent a co-worker’s beach house for a year while she was overseas. I had been wanting a beach house for the past few years, but my family’s busy lifestyle didn’t really allow much time to spend at a beach house on a regular basis, so I hadn’t bothered pursuing it. But to have the opportunity to have that lifestyle for a year, with no long-term commitment and what I considered was an apt financial investment, was very exciting! I could already see myself taking morning walks on the beach, swimming with the kids, reading with the sound of the ocean in the background, and barbecuing in the evenings. I could feel the serenity I always felt when at the beach, and envisaged having that over Christmas, summer-time, rainy winter weekends…

My husband of course grilled me on the details. He agreed the location was perfect, the house delightful. ‘How often would we use the house?’, ‘when?’, ‘for how long?’, he asked. Questions I had anticipated and was ready for. In my mind we would use it regularly, every school holidays and at least one weekend (hopefully two) a month. Sleep on it, he suggested.

The next morning, I knew as soon as I woke that I couldn’t take the beach house. Weekend sport was one factor. There was no way I could navigate weekend sport requirements and time at a beach house 2 hours away on a regular (or even an irregular) basis. And then there were weekend activities with friends for my two teenagers. Thirdly, there was no guarantee the teenagers would (happily) agree to travel with us to a beach house on a regular basis. Overall, I couldn’t guarantee that I could provide the owners regular attendance and maintenance to the beach house.

This was a clear case of emotions influencing my decision-making.

Emotions constitute powerful, pervasive, and predictable drivers of decision making. Emotional influences on decision-making fall into 3 broad categories:

1. Current emotions (emotions felt at the time of decision) related to the judgment or choice at hand (integral influences) – for me this was excitement at the prospect of having something I had been desiring;

2. Incidental emotions (for example weather, mood, carryover effects), not related to the choice at hand – these could be positive or negative; and

3. Expected emotions around expected outcomes – as is clear above, this was the biggest driver for me in this case.

This equally applies to the workplace. The research of Jennifer Lerner indicates that emotions influence interpersonal decision-making in two key ways: to help optimally navigate social decision, and influence group processes and perceptions of groups.

There are, however, strategies to manage how your emotions influence your decisions.

1. Time delay. In theory, this is the simplest strategy for minimising the magnitude of emotional influence, by delaying choices or letting time pass before making a decision, to reduce the effect of the immediate emotion – as I did by sleeping on the decision to rent the beach house. However, it’s worth noting that the immediate effects of emotional states can sometimes render us incapable of waiting for a neutral emotional state to return, ie the emotions that arise around the decision may not dissipate.

2. Reappraisal. Reframing the meaning of stimuli that led to an emotional response, known as reappraisal, has consistently emerged as a superior strategy for dissipating the emotional response that can influence decisions. For example, the serenity I feel when I am at the beach, which was a big emotional influence on my desire to rent the beach house, could be reframed to acknowledge that my family don’t feel the same serenity, and the effort of navigating sporting and other weekend commitments would likely reduce the level of serenity I would experience.

3. Setting good defaults. This includes, for example, making complex decisions in the morning, rather than late in the day (to reduce tiredness and impact of other emotions built throughout the day) – this is a default I use in the workplace – and refraining from making decisions on an empty stomach. At home, I always push decisions my teenagers throw at me as soon as I walk in the door, late at night, or when I’m tired or busy, to a later time (when I can focus) or the next day.

What do you notice about the impact of emotions on your own decision-making – in the workplace and your personal life? Where might you benefit from reducing the impact of your emotions when making decisions, and which of the above strategies might be useful?