When’s the last time you made a bad decision? Maybe you bought a fancy kitchen appliance or a piece of exercise equipment that ended up collecting dust? Or perhaps you agreed to do a favor that now seems like a burden? We’ve all been there.
I’ve been traveling more than usual lately, giving talks on my book, Permission to Feel. From red-eye flights to sleepless nights tossing and turning in hotel beds, airport food to quadruple espressos, it’s all left me tired and irritable. When I finally arrive back to the office or home after a trip, I find myself to be more critical than usual—of the idea a colleague shares enthusiastically, or the way the barista makes my cappuccino. “No, I do not want to move forward with that research project.” “No, I do not feel like paying for this ridiculously priced cappuccino.” “I’ll skip my morning workout because I really need rest.” And, then, after a few nights of sleeping in my own bed, and getting back on track with my routines, I approach my colleague about his brilliant idea. I compliment the barista on the beautifully-shaped heart on the cappuccino. And I’m eager to get out of bed and exercise.
Does any of this sound familiar? Though I can’t always leverage its truth in the moment, I often refer to neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio’s quote, “Affect is not just necessary for wisdom; it’s also irrevocably woven into the fabric of every decision.” Emotions are information. In this way, they can guide us to make better-informed decisions. However, emotions also can unconsciously cloud our thinking and our ability to make good choices.
When I train leaders and educators on RULER, I tell them about a study we conducted at our Center that really underscores this point. In this study, we recruited a random sample of teachers and divided them into two groups. We asked one group of teachers to write about a “good” day. We asked the other group to write about a “bad” day. Immediately after writing about their good or bad days, both groups of teachers read and graded the exact same student essay.
What did we find? Teachers who wrote about a “bad” day scored the student’s essay, on average, a whole letter grade lower than teachers who wrote about a “good” day. In other words, when we asked teachers to reflect on times when they felt different ways, they judged the same essay differently and decided it deserved a different grade. Interestingly, when we asked the teachers if they thought how they were feeling affected the grades they assigned, 87% of them said, “no.”
The study suggests two things: (1) that our moods influence our judgements, and (2) that it happens outside of our awareness. Think about it: would teachers intentionally give a lower grade if they knew they would do so when in a bad mood? Who would admit to that kind of bias?
Other researchers have run similar studies, but with one key change: before study participants are asked to make a decision, they reflect on their mood. They are asked, “how are you feeling right now?” In these cases, the effects disappear. Moods no longer affects decisions when people are aware of how they are feeling.
The takeaways here? First, it’s not that our feelings directly bias our judgment; it’s that when we are unaware of our feelings, we’re likely to be biased (positively or negatively) based on how we’re feeling. Second, it’s important to check in with ourselves and be aware of our feelings. When we do that, our feelings are less likely to bias our thinking. We can ask ourselves if we’re making the purchase or assigning the essay an “A” just because we’re in a good mood, or because it’s actually the best course of action.
With this in mind, I challenge you: Over the next week, before you go into important meetings or conversations, before you make any big decisions at work or at home, ask yourself: How am I feeling? And, how might that influence my thinking and my choices?
With the wisdom of emotion,
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