This is the third in a series of posts about the psychology of making good decisions in the contexts of life in our twenties and thirties. In the first post we talked about the good and bad things of having much more freedom after college. In the second post we talked about the cost associated with an abundance of opportunities. In the third post we discussed how with every opportunity there is a cost and the more choices we explore, the worse we can feel about our decisions. In this post we will talk about how you can begin using emotional intelligence to make better decisions.
During my first week in college, I met Steve. He was valedictorian of his high school and a math wiz who was just a few points shy of getting a perfect SAT score. Steve was one of the most intelligent people I had ever met and yet, at the end of the first semester, he was on probation for nearly flunking two of his classes.
The reason Steve had done so poorly in school was because he had spent most of his semester hanging out with friends, drinking, getting high, and sleeping until one or two in the afternoon. At the end of the year, he had to leave our school for a year and take classes at a community college before coming back. I still don’t know if he ever graduated.
Whenever I thought about Steve, I always used to ask myself how someone with such a high IQ could act so dumb. Why did he have so much trouble making good decisions? I soon found the answer in Daniel Goleman’s groundbreaking book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.
What Goleman has found during his years of intelligence research is that things like IQ, the ability to get a high SAT score, or good grades are not always the best ways to predict who will succeed in life. This is not to say that there isn’t a relationship between IQ, SATs, grades, and future success. There certainly can be. However, more and more research continues to show that they aren’t the only factors involved, says Karen Arnold, professor of education at Boston University who tracks valedictorians. “To know that a person is a valedictorian is to only know that he or she is exceedingly good at achievement as measured by grades. It tells you nothing about how they react to the vicissitudes of life.”
As Arnold and many other psychologists have known for quite some time now, being smart by traditional academic standards does not always mean that a person will make good decisions. As Goleman explains:
"Academic intelligence offers virtually no preparation for the turmoil—or opportunity—life’s vicissitudes bring. Yet, even though a high IQ is no guarantee of prosperity, prestige, or happiness in life, our schools and our culture fixate on academic abilities, ignoring emotional intelligence, a set of traits— some might call it character—that also matters immensely to our personal destiny.
"Emotional life is a domain that, as surely as math or reading, can be handled with greater and lesser skills, and requires its unique set of competencies. And how adept a person is at those is crucial to understanding why one person thrives in life while another of equal intellect, dead ends."
The Importance of Emotional Awareness
What if I told you that you cannot make a rational decision without using your emotions? This seems like an illogical statement because people typically think of emotions interfering with our ability to make good, rational decisions. However, research by Dr. Antonio Damasio, a neurologist at the University of Iowa College of Medicine, has shown that it is virtually impossible to make a good decision if you do not have adequate awareness of your emotions.
The evidence for this comes from Damasio’s research on patients with damage to the prefrontal-amygdala-circuit, the emotional part of our brain that stores the likes and dislikes you acquire over the course of your life. Damasio has found that people with damage to this area of the brain have seriously flawed decision-making capabilities. But what is extremely interesting about this is that these same patients show no deterioration in their IQ or cognitive ability.
Even though their intellectual faculties are intact, these individuals continue to make terrible choices in their personal and professional lives. This has led Damasio to suggest that the reason these people make such disastrous decisions is because they have lost the ability to learn emotionally as well as gain access to old emotional memories.
When access is cut off to the amygdala, things that normally trigger an emotional reaction don’t because there is no longer any access to the “warehouse” that holds all the emotional memories associated with similar events in the past. As a result, patients with damage to this area have forgotten all the emotional lessons they have learned during their lifetime.
So when they are presented with something that normally elicits an emotional reaction, such as a favorite TV show or a person that they strongly dislike, it no longer triggers excitement or aversion—it is simply neutral.
The Importance of Knowing Your Values
The powerful role that emotions play in making rational decisions has also been demonstrated in Damasio’s study of Elliot, a patient who had a tumor removed from behind his forehead. Although his surgery was seen as a success, it caused a drastic change in Elliot’s personality. Intellectually, he was as bright as ever, but he was unable to use his time efficiently, would get lost in minor details, and seemed to have lost all sense of priority. As a result, he could no longer hold a job, his wife left him, and he squandered his savings.
Elliot went through extensive intellectual testing and Damasio found nothing wrong with his mental faculties. His logic, memory, attention, and all other cognitive abilities were completely intact. But Damasio noticed that Elliot was virtually oblivious to his feelings about what had happened to him.
If you asked Elliot about his surgery and the difficult events that happened to him afterwards, he would discuss them without emotion. There was no sign of regret, sadness, frustration, or anger in his tone. This was because the surgery had severed the connection between the amygdala and its related circuits—that is, the emotional brain from the intellectual, thinking part of the brain.
While Elliot was still able to think about every step in a decision, he was unable to actually make a decision because he couldn’t assign valueto the different possibilities. To him, every option was neutral. Because of this lack of awareness about his own feelings, Elliot’s reasoning and decision-making abilities suffered.
This could be seen in even the simplest of decisions, such as choosing a time and date for an appointment. Elliot could find rational arguments for and against every date and time, but he was unable to choose one simply because he lacked any sense of how he felt about any of them. What Elliot’s experience demonstrates is that decisions cannot be made simply through rational analysis. They require an awareness of your feelings and your ability to use that knowledge to make intelligent choices.
Using Your Gut
Emotions are what usually point you in the right direction, and by listening to your gut you can use this information to begin thinking long-term about a decision and eventually use logic to ensure that the path you finally take is correct. This is especially relevant today, as we confront a world of virtually unlimited choice after graduation.
Deciding on things like where to live, what kind of job you want, what career to pursue, or who to date or marry are all decisions you must confront during your twenties, and it is the emotional learning that life has given you (such as a bad job experience or a painful breakup) that can streamline the decision-making process by eliminating some options and highlighting others.
Developing your emotional awareness is extremely important to the decisions you make during your twenties because you use it to navigate through the array of options in today’s overabundance of choice. Although you might usually think of strong feelings as wreaking havoc on your ability to reason, your inability to be aware of what you feel can be just as disastrous.
By using your inner signals to help you pare down the numerous choices you have throughout your twenties and thirties, you can add emotional intelligence to your IQ and reasoning abilities to help you make better decisions about where you want to go as a young professional.
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