Motivation and emotion in decision-making

In everyday thinking about human behavior, we often treat reason and emotion as polar opposites, the expression of our emotions preventing our behavior from being rational (perhaps even from being boundedly rational), and our rationality preventing us from expressing our genuine emotions. To find the measure of truth that resides in this popular view, we must examine the function of emotions and the role they play in behavior.

Human beings, like most other complex organisms, can only deal consciously with one or a very few things at a time. Of course, we breathe, our hearts beat, our food digests while we are doing other things, but actions requiring thought have to be done more or less one at a time. When traffic is light, we can time-share our mind between driving and a not-too-serious conversation. But when the traffic gets heavier, we had better focus attention on the road. The bottleneck of attention means that we operate largely in serial fashion: the more demanding the task, the more we are single-minded.

However, over the course of a day, and especially over longer intervals of time, we must address many needs, and seek to attain many goals. We must share our time among these many agenda items, some requiring prompt attention, some allowing more flexibility; and we must therefore have mechanisms that allow us to allocate attention to particular tasks and to shift attention rapidly when a task presents itself with real-time urgency (a flying brick heading in our direction). Motivation and emotion are the mechanisms responsible for this allocation of attention.

A rapidly moving object, even in the periphery of vision, and a loud noise are familiar interruptive stimuli. By interrupting attention they allow it to be refocused on an urgent, real-time need. At the same time that they interrupt us, they arouse emotions that prepare us to attack or flee. The arousal is accomplished by the internal or autonomic nervous system, which, among other things, may stimulate a greatly increased flow of adrenaline. Hunger and thirst, and many other emotions, are more gradual in their onset, but have ultimately the same attentioninterrupting effect.

Oversimplifying vastly, we may say that emotions are associated either directly with external stimuli, or with particular contents of our memory stored there by past experiences. When these stimuli appear, or these memories are evoked by events or thoughts, we feel the associated fear, or anger, or love, or happiness, or sadness, or hunger, or sexual urge, and these emotions tend to interrupt what we have previously been attending to and to bind our attention to the situation or thoughts that evoked them.

There is no intrinsic opposition between emotion and reason: emotion is a principal source of motivation, focusing us toward particular goals; and it can direct great powers of thought on the goals it evokes. We sometimes think of emotion as inimical to thought (and thought as inimical to emotion) when an emotion is aroused in us that interferes with the task we have been engaged in—when it turns our rationality to other goals. But to think hard about a subject, in particular to be able to resist interruption of our thought, requires our attention to be fixed by powerful motivational forces.

However, when emotion is strong, the focus of attention may be nar- rowed to a very specific, and perhaps transient, goal, and we may ignore important matters that we would otherwise take into account before acting. (Hence the advice to “count to ten.”) In producing this narrowness of focus, emotion does sometimes stand in opposition to reason. But we must be very careful in our evaluations, for it is this same intensity of thought that, under other circumstances, allows us to concentrate on solving highly complex problems and dealing with extremely difficult situations.

Perhaps the most useful way to think about emotion in relation to administration and to decision-making in organizations is to think of it as a force that helps direct actions toward particular goals by holding attention on them and the means of their realization. Emotion works with reason when it attaches to broad and permanent goals, assuring that action will not be narrowly conceived; it works against reason when it hastens decision unduly and narrows too far the range of possibilities and consequences that receive consideration in the decision process.

Source: Simon Herbert A. (1997), Administrative Behavior, Free Press; Subsequent edition.

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