Feel First, Think Later. Understanding How Emotions Guide Our Actions

The human brain is a magnificent thing. While it’s not the largest in size when compared to other animals (sorry, you and I are both animals and not the partying type), it is by far the most advanced.

It’s especially fascinating when you think about the immense mental capacity we have, for what makes up a small percentage of our total body composition.

To put it in perspective, many small animals such as birds have brains that make up about 8% of their total body weight.

Emotions guide our actions

For a human, it’s only about 3%.

Side note – next time someone calls you a “bird brain” you have every reason to get upset.

It allows us to do things other species aren’t capable of doing.

Things like reasoning, speech, language, consciousness, thinking on our toes, self-awareness, problem solving and many others.

But with all of the evolutionary advantages we’ve been fortunate enough to develop over the last couple hundred thousand years (give or take a year or two), there’s one thing we have that can really make our lives difficult.

It’s our emotions.

When we’re aware of our emotions and use that awareness to channel them in the right direction, our emotions are great.

When we’re not aware of our emotions and we inadvertently allow them to direct our actions, they can be our worst enemy.

Here’s the main problem we have as humans.

We’re hard wired to feel first, and think later.

Without even being aware of it, we are automatically allowing our brains to rely on how we feel when making many of our decisions. Only after the emotion based decision is made we attempt to support it with logic.

Sometimes that’s great.

Take love for instance.

We let our emotions guide us when falling in love

You should absolutely rely on feelings when you meet someone you think you want to be with.

Other times, relying on our emotions for decision making can be bad.

How about when you need to fire an employee for lack of performance? Or when buying a new car? Or a new house?

Did you ever wonder why car dealerships always want you to sit in the car and take a test drive?

It’s not because they want you to look at the steering wheel.

It’s because they want you to experience the FEELING of sitting in the vehicle.

Did you ever wonder why real estate agents have chocolate chip cookies in the oven during an open house?

It’s not because they want you to eat the cookies.

It’s because they want you to experience the FEELING of walking in the front door of your new home and smelling food in the oven.

Relying solely on these types of “feelings” without offsetting it with “logic” would most likely lead to bad decisions.

Emotion and logic are inversely related

There’s an old saying you’ve probably heard – “people will forget the things you say, they’ll forget the things you do, but they’ll never forget the way you made them feel.”

Here’s the issue – emotion and logic are inversely related. As one goes up, the other goes down.

Most often, we’re not even aware of which one is controlling our thoughts.

A lot of our decision making relies on hardwired processes within our brain that automatically do things for us.

While it can sometimes provide a benefit, by having instantaneous reactions to events happening around us, it can also cause us to make bad decisions when not properly understood.

Two such “innately hardwired” evolutionary advantages are what psychologists refer to as Pattern Recognition and Emotional Tagging.

We rely on our brains to detect patterns we’ve already experienced in the past (pattern recognition), and then automatically “tag” an emotion to it (emotional tagging).

Have you ever heard a song on the radio that you haven’t heard in years and within seconds it takes you back 20 or 30 years?

Remembering how we felt from happy times

You can remember where you were, who you were with, what you were doing, what the weather was like, and most importantly HOW YOU FELT.

This is pattern recognition and emotional tagging.  

It’s great to rely on these processes to recreate a feeling from the past that makes us happy.

But it can also be extremely detrimental to our emotional well-being if we allow it to give us false indicators for patterns that are incorrectly labeled.

With all of this in mind, I want to leave you with a couple of questions to consider:

How often do you make decisions based on nothing more than a FEELING?

How many beliefs do you currently have that are tied to nothing more than a strong FEELING? Zero facts, just strong feelings?

While it might not be a lot of fun to ask yourself these things, it’s critically important to acknowledge the fact your FEELING based beliefs might be holding you back from true happiness.

4 thoughts on “Feel First, Think Later. Understanding How Emotions Guide Our Actions”

  1. Another great blog Eric! Everyone can relate to that “old song” usually with wonderful memories and feelings. In comparison, and what I told my daughters growing up, on one shoulder is the Angel, the other shoulder the Devil. Think first Before acting on a feeling. Who are you going to listen to? The Angel or Devil? If we stop first before reacting, then usually you listen to the Angel!

  2. It’s good to mentally count to ten, when strong feelings overwhelm you to react instantly. That 10 seconds of disengaging a verbal reaction can save you from having to take back what you said.

    1. Good call Ed! It also gives you some time to formulate an appropriate reply, as opposed to a knee jerk reaction. Thanks for the comment!!

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