Understand the Hidden Forces that Guide Our Decisions

Stop being ruled by emotional, cognitive and behavioural pitfalls that affect us all
By: 
Laura Rees
Woman manager sitting and thinking in workspace with computer and big panoramic window

One of my first aha moments when I started graduate work was to learn the ever-evolving science behind why emotions are actually not irrational. I had seen in my professional life that they were ever-present, but had often been told—and even trained—to ignore them. I have since also learned how and why many of the behaviours and perceptions that we take for granted are, similarly, not always what they seem.

Yet we live our lives unaware of, and sometimes purposefully ignoring, these hidden forces that may lead us in both right and wrong directions. The important thing is that they influence us, so we should do what we can to understand when, why and how—and leverage this for good.

In the case of emotions, we often simply misinterpret what we see. Consider something as simple as the ubiquitous smile. We think that, because we have so much experience with smiling, we know what it means. But there may be up to 19 different meanings of a smile. It can indicate happiness, but it can also signal embarrassment, anger, shyness, politeness. It can be a sign that I am simply listening to you. 

There are many differences in how we think about emotions and label them. If you emerge from a work meeting saying you feel upset, how is that interpreted by co-workers? Are you disappointed about the new strategic change that was just announced, angry that leaders did not involve more people in that change, or frustrated that your team has to lead the strategy without full buy-in? Same information, multiple interpretations depending on how granularly and carefully you examine the information.

And we can be influenced without even realizing it. Many researchers—and I advocate this position as well—argue that emotions actually precede cognition. Even if you think you are being rational, your emotions may have already come into play without you recognizing their influence. An example of this is a study done in Israel on parole decisions. It found that prisoners were more likely to be granted parole early in the day or after the judges had lunch or other snack break.

Do you know what you’re seeing?

So, my emotions can play tricks on me. But surely I can trust what I cognitively take in? Alas, it’s not so simple. Most of us have heard of heuristics—the mental shortcuts we take when processing information and making decisions. But we also experience inattentional blindness, focusing so intently on one person or event that we filter out things that could be useful or important but that we’re not expecting or paying attention to in the moment.

A stark example is a study that asked radiologists to analyze X-ray scans and to note anything unusual. What the radiologists didn’t know was that the researchers had inserted an image of a gorilla that was 48 times the size of the average nodule. Eighty-three per cent of the radiologists did not see the gorilla even though tracking software showed that most of them had looked at the precise spot on the scan where the gorilla image appeared.

Our judgment can also be affected by how hard we have to work, cognitively, to understand something. Non-native-accented speech, for example, is harder to understand than native-accented speech. Participants in one study were asked to judge trivial statements (such as “Ants don’t sleep”) spoken in different accents. Participants judged these statements as less true when spoken by a non-native than by a native speaker.

Beyond emotions and cognition, our behaviour can be shaped by factors outside our awareness and often outside our direct control. When we’re overly exposed to the echo chamber of Facebook and other social media platforms, our opinions and decisions on a particular issue risk becoming more extreme and hardened than if we were not similarly exposed. Groups making decisions can become polarized, coming to final decisions that are actually more extreme than individual members’ initial thinking before the meeting—and this can have important and wide-ranging implications for organizations and their employees. 

At the same time, we can be lazy about how we explain our own behaviour. We give ourselves the benefit of the doubt, a courtesy we don’t always extend to other people. For example, I can believe that I was promoted as a result of hard work, but my colleague was promoted over me because the competition was rigged. Or, perhaps closer to home: I aggressively weaved through traffic on my commute today because I was late for a meeting, but that other driver who sped down the road near me was just downright reckless.

Even the physical structures around us can be influential. I like to cite the case of residents who were randomly assigned apartments in a graduate student housing complex. A network study of friendship dynamics in this complex found that people tended to be closest friends with the person next door on either side. As you went two doors down, people were half as likely to be friends; no one had close friends more than four doors down . . . with one exception. People tended to be well connected if their apartments were close to the dumpster, where people regularly took out their garbage.

Becoming aware

Do I have you second-guessing everything in your life? Well, don’t despair. You can take more control over these hidden influencers.

In fact, you’re already partway there: The first step is to simply be aware that hidden influencers exist. The more you can observe these dynamics at play in real time, the better able you are to identify patterns and develop skills to mitigate, correct and leverage them for your benefit. The die is not cast, particularly if you adopt a fluid rather than fixed mindset that Carol Dweck has written about so effectively and stay open to learning and improving.

Another way to encourage the better nature of ourselves is to try to truly understand the other person. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with them. But instead of thinking the person is being irrational, assume everyone is rational. Consider what motivations might be driving their seemingly confusing behaviour. 

I came up with a handy diagnostic tool that I refer to as ConFePT. The first step is to identify the “Concept” that influences you in that moment. The concept can be a bias, or an emotional or cognitive blind spot discussed earlier. For my students and in my own life, this is where I highlight drawing on all the rich research out there. What is the scientific theory, idea or construct that can help explain what is happening? It’s OK if you don’t know the terminology or formal name of the idea; the point is to put on your social scientist’s hat and try to identify and label what you see so that you can recognize patterns. 

The “Fe” is for soliciting Feedback, ideally from others, on their perception of events and your reaction to them—good or bad. The final “PT” is a reminder to put in place Practical Tips or processes to help you catch yourself and redirect your response in a productive way if a similar event happens in the future. Some of these tips may be developing checklists or reminders for specific behaviours, or using accountability partners or retrospective assessments to keep you focused on growth and doing better.

We are all creatures of habit and tend to overlearn responses to situations that we commonly face. We also often react automatically when faced with a crisis or threat. That doesn’t mean we can’t use what we know about human emotions, cognitive processing and behaviours to train ourselves to deal with these situations a bit better.


Laura Rees is an assistant professor of organizational behaviour at Smith School of Business.

Smith School of Business

Goodes Hall, Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario
Canada K7L 3N6

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