The Mechanisms Behind Emotion

3rd June 2015

There is a well established myth that people who are great at making decisions or making great business deals are those who are non emotional. We pride ourselves at saying “I’m non emotional when I make decisions” for instance. In extreme cultural hyperbole, there have been books published on the corporate prowess of the psychopath due to their ability to feel no emotion. However we now understand that sociopaths and psychopaths do feel emotion including empathy just in a different way.  We all experience emotion and it they vary in intensity from moment to moment. To add further perspective,  apathy for instance is an emotion and so is pain. Therefore the stoic decision maker we admire is also influenced by emotion, the question are; what type of emotions are they exhibiting or engaging with?  How do they manage less effective emotions? How do they use emotions to make decisions?

To understand things further, we first have to start with definitions and heuristics. The truth is that there are still many questions and confusion on the definition of emotion both from the science and business communities. Furthermore, there is a lot more research that needs to be done to understand their full role and function, however, there is already a lot of compelling research that allows us to form a general picture on what an emotion is.

Our definition is that emotion is a gauge that measures our relationship between ourselves and internal or external stimuli. We use this gauge to create heuristics for decision making. For example, lets take the following scenario; you are sitting in a room that is at a comfortable temperature. Then your central nervous system alerts you of a temperature change. You start to feel your skin temperature change, you get goose bumps, you may cough or sneeze, your heart rate changes etc. This physiological change and information needs to have a cognitive interpretation in order for us to start a decision making process and set future heuristics. This process is prompted and influenced by a spectrum of emotions tied to a specific stimuli.

In this example the change in temperature ( the stimuli) can cause you to feel uncomfortable and you decided to put on a jumper. That sense of uncomfortability would have a set of emotions ranging from annoyance, disapproval to perhaps pain.  These emotions would instigate us to make an array of cognitive decisions based on their scale of intensity. This brings us to another property of emotions, they are all different and manifest at different scale for each one of us. Saying things like “I’m feeling emotional” or “Stop being so emotional, be more rational” they are inaccurate phrases. As we are in a constant state of emotion, whether it be happy, sad, angry, apathetic, comfortable, anxious, etc. we are always experiencing emotion, you cannot turn them off.

Going back to the example, if you felt was a small annoyance you might choose to put on a jumper and would continue with  the action at hand. However, if the change in temperature caused joint pain, you might decide to leave, turn on the heat or take medication.

The final aspect of the emotional mechanism is its link to memory which is what links to our cognitive systems. We remember how certain things, actions, events, and people make us feel in order to make future decisions. In other words we link an emotion to a memory creating a set of heuristics for when we face that experience again. Back to our jumper example, next time you went back to that place, you would remember it gets cold at times therefore  you might decide to bring a jumper or you would decide to go somewhere else. Circling back to the boardroom, we use these mechanism to help make all types of decisions. For example, if you feel anxious or uncertain about your service that may steer your decision to charge way below market price for it. On the other hand if you are feeling confident you make decide to charge higher. The emotions engaged in either scenarios will then become memories, which would affect us in the future. The anxiety you felt towards that service may lead you to avoid selling that service in the future or force you to make changes to it.

The point of this article is point out that emotions are part of our cognitive system a mechanism if you like, rather than a concept. A concept that societal vernacular has labelled as a weakness, irrational and useless. If you feel pain then you are emotional it just a matter of scale.

Araceli Camargo // Cognitive Neuroscientist

— Further Reading