Do Our Emotions Make Our Decisions?

Standing over the brownie pan in the kitchen a debate rages within, “I shouldn’t have another brownie.” “Perhaps if I just took a little sliver that would be enough.” “Now it is uneven. I’ll just eat the one piece and leave it alone.” At the end of an evening half, if not all, of the brownies are gone: eaten one small sliver at a time. We knew that we shouldn’t have done it. That it was not a healthy choice. And yet, we did it.

I have mentioned before that there are no unmotivated actions. Even crying, self-destructive, and blind-rage are motivated actions. They may be unproductive, and inappropriate, actions—but even a re-action is just an action that has been practiced to be a habit set like a trap ready to be sprung. The actions, words, and expressions are not beyond our control due to the “nature of our being.”emotionaldecision3

So what was the motivation in eating a tray of brownies when we know we shouldn’t? We can logically look at this scenario and acknowledge that we KNEW that it was an unhealthy and poor choice. So why is it that we did it? Why are all the brownies gone, and we look guilty at ourselves in the mirror with chocolate blackening our teeth?


One reason is that we are deluded to think that we are logical and rational creatures. We are certainly smart individuals and can think logically, but when it comes to making our choices, we make our decisions emotionally. The new car when it isn’t absolutely needed, the splurge vacation, the extra slice of pizza: these are all emotional decisions.

Emotions are psycho-biological conditions that occur in response to external and internal stimuli. When we say the phrase, “he acted out in anger,” what we really mean is that he was angry and that influenced his choices. Even when we believe we are calm and dispassionate, we are always experiencing some level of emotions.

Dr. Antonio Damasio has done research on clients who have had the areas of the brain that regulate emotion removed (organically). When those individuals are presented with choices they are often unable to make any choice at al: Especially, when the margins of difference between them are indeterminate. For example, some clients were given meal choices where both were meals that the individual believed to be equally good the individuals were unable to choose a meal. It is the emotions that give preferences and allow for making a choice of direction.


In Buddhism, the individual is broken down into five aggregates. These divisions are not physical as they are a process. Individuals have contact with the world, they process the experience, they give value to it, they make a conclusions to justify the valuation, and they make it part of their understanding. This 2,600 year old theory of understanding is almost exactly in line with current neurological understanding of psychology.

Our brains take in the experiences of the senses (this includes the thoughts that arise and we experience in our imaginations). We filter these experiences with previous experiences, our memories ability to identify what is happening, a positive or negative evaluation of that experience, our expectations of that experience, and our present engagement with that experience. What we get as a result is external stimuli that every individual could experience but filtered so that the final experience and perceptions result in a very unique understanding of a potentially shared experience.

These emotional-biased filters create biases and affect our decision making (LeDoux 1993). We can have “mood congruence recall affects” where clients remember experiences from the past when certain emotions or senses are activated (Myer et al, 1990). We also make judgments consistent with our states of mind from previous experiences. Studies have shown that fear-based experiences lead to decisions that favor short-term benefits over long-term benefits (Gray, 1999) because people are working in a striving mode to survive.


The purpose of therapy is not to attempt and find the “truth” between shared experiences, but to understand how our processes and emotions come to the realities that we live within and develop ourselves to a place where we can navigate and thrive in a world with other people and ourselves in a way that brings less stress and more well-being in our decisions and actions.

So the individual (possibly with the assistance of a counselor) can alter his filters and adjusts his biases so that he can be open to new choice opportunities in any situation. These new filters create new contexts and allow for the mind and body to access different memories and give different attention to the cognitive (mindful and unaware) decision making processes (Damasio, 1994)

This is done by either developing more awareness of the outputs of our thinking from a just “knowing” stated to an engaged “mindful awareness” state; OR by adjusting or creating new filters to change how we process information. The change from knowing to aware requires processes that create insight and is more psychodynamic in nature. Making adjustments to our filtering perceptions is done through a more cognitive-behavioral process.


The more our motivated processing moves into a mindful awareness, clients are able to create more purposeful decisions reducing automatic filtered biased-based thinking. Biases in these cases are just code for processes that have become seemingly autonomic and without thought, when in fact, they are just reinforce routines that were created mindfully at one time and just allowed to run without review or adjustment: As these filtered biases are looked at and adjusted (or removed) clients can become more capable to actively manage their affective experiences.


Most therapeutic interventions work in a linear process where the client would have an intake, create a psycho-social profile, discuss their issues, develop some strategies for change in therapy and perhaps have homework outside of therapy; then return for progress and adjustments while moving towards greater senses of wellness and ability. In some models, the patient does all the work (e.g. self-help books), the counselor is a facilitator or an interpreter; but in Buddhist therapy the counselor is a empathic collaborator of ideas.

In pastoral counseling, the pastor is someone who creates space for the client to express themselves. A spiritual counselor offers conversations that allow the client to see another point of view from an already agreed on philosophy of the client. The client is under no pressure to make changes although he is encouraged to do so. Whether the spiritual counselor is Buddhist, Christian or Muslim; their role is actively passive and always compassionate and empathetic.

In this context a counselor who is working with Buddhist Therapy should always embody this same approach, with the goals of a more clinical license counselor as their own inner guide. That is to say, there should always be a mindful recording and progress on clinical goals even if the dialogue during a session seems more passive and supportive rather than goal directed.





The first step in the start of any session is to build a therapeutic relationship. That may mean having a dialogue that gives the therapist necessary psycho-social-spiritual information. More importantly, it should give some information to allow the counselor to understand the “why now” of counseling. Understanding that all actions are motivated, there is a catalyst that caused the client to arrive.

If the client is working on issues on their own—they should be looking at their own reasons for wanting to see help or solve their problems now. “Why now?” Why not yesterday? Why not last year? Why not next year? Something has happened to motivate change.

Whether working individually or with a counselor—start writing down events that have happened recently that perhaps started the thinking and motivation process to seek change. Create the greater story of how the client’s world got to this point. Keep in mind that this is a person-in-environment and that while the client may be centered on being “I” focused, that they are part of a larger set of systems: family, friends, church, clubs, schools, work, etc. All of these systems influence the perceptions and filters that the client deals with.


Within these systems look for the homeostasis mechanisms. What does the client do to maintain functioning their lives? What are their coping mechanisms when their environment is decided to be dysfunctional? What are coping mechanisms that work in one of the client’s environments that do not work in others? What are the fixtures in the client’s life that are “sine qua non” (a symptom) to the client’s current world view?

As a counselor and client, attempt to develop a sharp eye for those issues and ideas that the client avoids and clings to. Rigidity of thought is often a marker for areas where the client may find stress and struggles. “Clinging” to assumptions, people, things, and habits/routines is normally a coping mechanism to establish safety and reduce fear/anxiety. “Avoiding” behaviors are coping mechanisms that work to reduce fear/anxiety by either denying or sidestepping potential perceived dangers and stresses. In either situation, fear-based decision making results in ineffective and dysfunctional coping strategies that hinder thriving and wellness behavior.


As a self-treating client or a client working with a counselor—create contracts. Contracts not only clarify understanding, but they also create social promises that are easier to keep than just a passing idea in the head.

The first contract should always be the boundaries of the relationship: If you are working with a counselor that may be mutually agreed on language or meeting times. When you are working with yourself, create agreements with yourself about what self-language is acceptable and commitments to achieving goals that are reasonable. Contracts can change and should be reviewed regularly for renewal and adjustment.

Second contract is a precept contract: A statement of belief or affirmation that the client holds to be true and aspires to live up to. This contract should be reviewed and repeated daily. It sounds silly but what we say, we think, what we think we believe, what we believe we become.

Third contract is honest assessments. What are your strengths and weaknesses? How strongly do you believe those skills to be? If you were to put them on a scale of 1-10, where would you rank them? What skills do you believe need to improve? An honest assessment contract should be reviewed periodically to see and acknowledge change.



Finally, we get into the work of change. Look at each one an experiment.

Thomas Edison did not invent the light bulb. Many people before him knew how a light bulb should work. What Edison did was to experiment with element after element until he found the right combination to make the light bulb work. Success is often a process of trial and error. And we must be willing to explore and experiment with what works and what works best.

Experimentation of the body, mind, spirit and community plays with all the tumblers in our attempts to unlock confident and fearless living. Even when we do not become entirely free from fears and who we were, we can develop the confident skills to be open to new and more productive possibilities.

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Categories: Buddhism, Divorce, Ethics, faith, mental health, Psychology, Relationships, Therapy


Joshua Hudson is a license clinical social worker with post graduate certificates in mental health. A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, he has worked as an healthcare advocate for the Department of Veteran Affairs, Director of Psychological Health for the Air Force, in-patient counselor for inpatient adolescents, child and family therapist; and currently is a Prevention Interventionist for the Air Force creating programs to reduce interpersonal and self-directed violence (e.g. Sexual assault, suicide, alcohol abuse, domestic violence, etc.) in the military


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3 Comments on “Do Our Emotions Make Our Decisions?”

  1. June 17, 2014 at 8:52 pm #

    Great post! As someone who lives with symptoms of bipolar disorder (which often means disproportionate emotional reactions or emotions that don’t clearly correspond with external situations) I have often contemplated the act of decision-making and how I could potentially do so without having to rely on the unreliable emotional states I experience. Thanks for sharing this!

  2. June 18, 2014 at 3:47 am #

    I say never make a permanent decision with a temporary emotion


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