Why it’s time for business leaders to start paying more attention to emotions.

We live in a society that celebrates cool and rational deliberation. Emotions are predominantly viewed as unwanted animal vestiges that need to be suppressed so they won’t get in the way of proper civilized behavior and good decision making. This view is part of a long standing tradition that dates all the way back to ancient Greece, but still remains a dominant factor in our educational systems and cultural memes. We see this in almost every story where heroes are almost always portrayed as being composed, rational and in control of their emotions. (The absolute poster-boy for cool rationality has to be Mr. Spock from 70’s TV show Star Track)

The problem with this tradition is not that it bears little resemblance to reality, but that is has a disproportionate effect on fields that profoundly impact our lives. Like for instance; business and economics.

The clean mathematical models that are generally used to make economics look like a ‘real’ science (also known as Physics envy), leave very little room for something as messy and subjective as emotions. And with the exception of the ‘softer’ disciplines like for instance; marketing and communication, there has been surprisingly little attention for the social sciences in business teachings, or -practice.

Emotions as drivers
However important rationality and reason are – and no one will argue with that -, they are evolutionarily ‘designed’ for a specific purpose. Rationality is a great way to help us obtain goals in the face of obstacles, but is rarely the driver behind those goals. Simply put; rationality does not require fulfilment like an emotion does. Our emotional systems are the most potent drivers behind our behaviour and we primarily make our decisions emotionally and then justify them with logic. In his book The Righteous mind, Jonathan Haidt puts it this way; “the rational mind thinks it’s the Oval Office, when actually it’s the press office”.

This makes most arguments for rational decision making normative at best; they tell us how we should behave under constraints of scarce resources and endless possibilities. But when it comes to the most important questions in business (how do I get and/or keep my customers) it’s much more important to know how people actually do make decisions under these constraints. Although some say that the end of rational economics in its purest form has already been ushered in with the emergence of Behavioural Economics, the norm for decision making is still the comparative rational model. Any deviations from this norm (in the form of biases, heuristics, intuitions etc.) are still primarily seen as cognitive mistakes.

Emotions as decision aids
What is less known about emotions is that – contrary to popular believe – they actually help us make good decisions, albeit in a much more subtle and intuitive way than the full blown emotional experiences that make us run from predators and after potential mating partners.

Why? Because; on any given day we are bombarded with an estimated 34 gigabytes of information (about 3.300.000 bits per second), while according to Psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis we can only consciously* process about 60 bits per second on average. This means that we quite literally lack the processing power to rationally navigate our complex and abundant world.

Research conducted by Neurobiologist Antonio Damasio also shows that rationality alone just doesn’t cut it; patients that have lost the ability to feel emotions literally get stuck dealing with all sorts of trivia**. We simply need our emotional systems to assign meaning to things, so that we can quickly valuate and categorize them. Without this it would become almost impossible to prioritize opportunities (or threats) and organise our goals, let alone make intelligent decisions.

Why Spock couldn’t be captain
We are all under constant evolutionary pressure to transfer decisions to our most efficient mental systems whenever possible. This way we can reserve our scarce cognitive abilities for the most important matters. This is the very reason why Spock could never be captain in real life; he would fail miserably as a decision maker. (The same reason why the Vulcans species would never have evolved in the 1st place***)

I am the first to admit that Emotions are extremely difficult to quantify measure or manage. But can we really afford ignore them just because they are incompatible with economic theory, or don’t fit our spread sheets? No. Human emotion not only drives stakeholder behaviour, but ultimately makes all of our lives worth living. The way I see it there is really no escape from these principles, especially not in business.

I say; let’s all become Emoconomists……

* According to Dijksterhuis we can subconsciously process about 11.200.000 bits per second.
** Some of Damasio’s patients got stuck at performing the simplest of tasks like; choosing where to park their car, or what colour pen to use.
*** Spock belongs to a humanoid species (Vulcans) that has evolved beyond the carnal reminisces we would call emotions. I’m afraid natural selection would probably not have favored them, because genes that are not predisposed for ‘mental fluency’ would have quickly been selected against. What has however occurred to some people is that ever since his first appearance in 1966, Mr. Spock’s inability to feel emotions has ‘evolved’ into being good at controlling them.