Emotional decision-making (EDM) has become a pejorative in an era of efficiency and logic; in the quest for optimal, there is little room for something amorphous like “emotion.”
So we ridicule those, including ourselves, who make emotional decisions. As if possessed by a demon, we explain away errors with gosh I’m sorry that I wasn’t thinking – I was just being emotional. We react like these emotions aren’t “me,” and since they aren’t “me,” there is no control. Let’s be clear: this type of thinking and decision-making is worthy of condemnation.
But that’s not actually all EDM is. What’s truly worthy of scorn is sometimes, but not all the time, a component of EDM. It’s first-order consequence decision-making (FOCDM). All decisions have multiple levels of consequences. Take a dieter who decides to eat pizza:
- Time Zero: OMG I feel so good. OMG this tastes so good. OMG I’m so happy in this instant. The cheese. And those mushrooms. Geez, those mushrooms are magical.
- Twenty Minutes Later: Why did I eat that much? What was I thinking?
- Thirty Minutes Later: OMG I feel terrible.
- Two Hours Later: I feel so guilty. I told myself I wasn’t going to eat pizza today and then I did. I’m such a terrible person.
- Three Hours Later: I’m fat. I’m ugly. I have to go the gym.
- Next Morning: I can’t believe I ate pizza yesterday. I still feel bad. Wow. It’s unbelievable that I still feel bad. Today I’m going to be perfect. I promise.
Was this an emotional decision? Sure. The dieter sees the pizza, experiences a visceral response, and capitulates to the craving. Since this response is biological, it’s not going to disappear just because one happens to be on a diet. But it can be observed, controlled, and ultimately ignored by using reason to transcend FOCDM. Merely pausing for a few seconds and predicting the easy-to-predict consequences may be just enough to silence the “emotion.”
Emotions are really powerful at getting us to focus only on the ultra short-term. That’s not always a bad thing – think about the fear response – and it’s also not all that EDM does.
Bending the Arc casts pragmatic logicians as villains. It was heavy-handed and unforgiving, but it effectively made a point: decisions driven by emotion can be much better than those driven by detached intelligence.
So go ahead and start with that emotion. Witness that kid dying because he is poor and doesn’t have access to medicine. Really, truly feel for him. Think about the unfairness of the world and what you can do to balance it out. Just don’t stop there. If you stop there, you’ll probably end up like the pizza indulger fixated on first-order consequences. You’ll find band-aid solutions that make you feel good, that may save some lives, but that don’t actually attack any of the root causes. The lasting wins are in the root causes.
But, and here’s the key point from Bending the Arc, those root causes may be easier to find when driven by emotion-fueled will; the best decisions are not all logic or all emotion, they are a combination of the two.
Because without that “will,” a problem like people dying from a disease is mostly theoretically, a real cost to be sure, but not nearly the cost it is to someone in the trenches. That’s how a bureaucrat can be detached and totally focus on the dollars. This role is necessary, but it’s less likely to solve the biggest of problems – even the most uncreative person becomes infinitely more creative if something he/she truly cares about is on the line. We just have to guard against that creativity sacrificing the future through too much FOCDM.
Though even that notion was challenged by Bending the Arc. It’s true that biggest advances come when we can fundamentally change a system, but that’s such a monumental task it may not yield anything at all. Meanwhile, someone focused simply on saving some lives in this moment, a sort of band-aid solution, is obviously doing good. What are the second-order consequences of this? Who knows. That’s part of the magic. Through very concentrated short-term effort, long-term ideas can surface, ideas that couldn’t have surfaced without first trying to save a single person, today.
Bending the Arc wants us to believe people who can follow their emotions to act in the face of pain are a better bet to change the world than more logic driven peers. After completing this enthralling, inspiring film, it’s tough to disagree.