Emotional Intelligence: How Self-Awareness Impacts Decision-Making

Several years ago, I was lucky enough to experience a significant investment loss. I say lucky because the resulting teeth gnashing inspired a quest to understand the mistakes so that I could avoid similarly disastrous future decisions.

My research led me to believe I had found my answer in the disciplines of decision science, cognitive biases and mental models.

I thought that if I could understand and counteract the many cognitive biases that lead to irrational decisions, then I could use decision science and mental models to become a rational, optimal decision-making superstar.


For example, the confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms our pre-existing beliefs. The confirmation bias causes us to ignore or discount evidence that disconfirms our beliefs.

The confirmation bias can be pernicious because falling victim to it can appear very rational. Decision researcher Dan Lovallo said “Confirmation bias is probably the single biggest problem in business, because even the most sophisticated people get it wrong. People go out and they’re collecting the data, and they don’t realize they’re cooking the books.”

Charles Darwin was famous for methodically searching for evidence to disconfirm his hypotheses as an antidote to the confirmation bias.

Enthralled with this powerful tool, I too began seeking disconfirming evidence when analyzing professional and personal decisions alike. I proudly applied my newfound tools in every situation I could.

Playing in the Treetops

Little did I know that I was naively playing in the treetops of decision making, enjoying the sweeping vistas and sweet fruits, unaware that I was ignoring the vast and critical root structure below.

What I was so happily ignoring turns out to be the most important factor in making good decisions – more important than all other factors combined. The root and foundation of good decision making is emotional intelligence.

We can apply the tools of decision science all we want, but if we are not at least somewhat competent in the realm of emotional intelligence, all that effort will be for naught.

Elephants and Riders

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt analogizes our emotional and rational brain systems to an elephant with a human rider perched atop it.

The rider represents the rational system that plans and solves problems. The rider may analyze a situation and decide to move in a certain direction, but it is our emotional brain, our elephant, that provides the power for the journey. The rider can try to lead or drag the elephant, but if the elephant disagrees with the rider, the elephant’s strength will take the rider wherever the elephant wants to go.

Remember the last time you overate, or skipped a workout, or had more to drink than you had planned? That was your elephant taking you for a ride.

What can we do about our elephants leading us astray? Emotional Intelligence provides the tools and skills we need to manage this powerful part of our brain that drives our behavior and our thinking whether we are conscious of it or not.

Emotional Intelligence

According to Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, Why It Can Matter More than IQ, emotional intelligence is often described as having four main components:

1. Self-awareness

2. Self-management

3. Social awareness

4. Relationship management

Self-awareness is your ability to perceive your own emotions in the moment and understand your tendencies across situations. Self-management is your ability to use your awareness of your emotions to stay flexible and direct your behavior positively.

Social awareness is your ability to accurately pick up on emotions in other people and understand what is really going on with them. Relationship management requires competence in the previous three as it is the ability to use your awareness of your own emotions and those of others to manage interactions successfully.


How do we develop these skills? The first step is emotional literacy.

Only last year, I was unable to name 90 percent of my emotions as I was experiencing them. In fact, only 36 percent of people tested can accurately identify and name their emotions as they occur.

The problem is not an inadequate vocabulary. Most people have simply never been mindfully aware of their emotional states. Think about it this way: we have all driven somewhere and upon arriving, could not remember how we got there.

During such a trip, our brain processed the roadway and traffic conditions on a primitive level but missed so much of reality that we were liable to drive past our destination and make other mistakes. We were literally on autopilot.

Who’s Driving?

Most of us live our lives on emotional autopilot, processing the conditions on a primitive level, but never bringing our full awareness to the emotional roadway and traffic conditions. When we are not absolutely, clearly aware of our emotions, we remain susceptible to their undue influence.

When we are absolutely, clearly aware of our emotions in real time, we can begin to develop the skill of observing them as passing phenomena, and then making decisions or acting after they subside and by analyzing them as information to be considered in the decision process.

The Wisdom of Emotions

We can never be the absolutely rational Mr. Spock who can ignore emotions while calculating the optimal decision. Emotions are required for humans to make decisions.

A curious thing occurs when the emotional centers of the human brain are destroyed by injury or disease – we are unable to make decisions at all.

Researchers asked such patients to make decisions like: “what time do you want to have coffee tomorrow?” The patients were unable to decide. They could only recite their schedule for that day.

The goal is not to eliminate emotions or ignore them, but to integrate them skillfully and not allow them to become the primary driver of behavior. There is a wisdom of emotions that we must consider. For example, anger is a boundary emotion. It signals that something is not of service, and you need to be able to say stop. Another example is that fear can exist when something is not being paid enough attention to. It can be a warning sign to take a second look.

When we recognize our emotions and can listen to what they are telling us, while at the same time preventing them from becoming the primary driver of emotions, only then can we begin to utilize the tools of decision science and mental models to make our best decisions.

Becoming Self-Aware

What exactly is an emotion? The first step to becoming self-aware is to recognize that emotions are physical sensations in and on the body. By paying attention, we can locate different emotions and identify their associated sensations, including pressure, tingling, heat, etc. Anger can sometimes come on like a white-hot flash, whereas sadness may be felt as a weight in the chest.

Becoming self-aware requires us to pay mindful attention to these physical sensations. Noticing these aspects of our emotions requires recruitment of our prefrontal cortex, thereby increasing the role of our rational brain in the moment and decreasing the influence of our emotional brain.


“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” – Unknown

Self-management requires us to first recognize that we have a choice to react to or to respond to a stimulus. To react is to allow our emotions to drive our behavior. To respond is to use our awareness of our emotions to stay flexible and consciously and thoughtfully direct our behavior.

For example, public speaking can create a paralyzing fear in some people that clouds thinking and induces forgetfulness. Self-management in this scenario is revealed by the ability to tolerate uncertainty and unpleasant physical sensations so that the rational brain can regain primacy.

Self-management is more complex than counting to ten. When we fail to think rationally about our emotions, including how they are influencing us in the moment, our emotional brain controls us whether we are aware of it or not. That is the path of reactivity, where we have little choice in what we say and do, not response-ability, where we proactively select strategies.

Self-management allows us to recognize that a space exists at all between stimulus and response, and then, with practice, widen that space to allow for a more skillful approach to decision making.