Effective Decision Making Using the Emotion Imbued Choice Model

Decision-Making: Definition


Decision making can be defined as (ref):


the ability to choose between competing courses of action based on the relative subjective value of their probabilistic consequences


Learning: Definition


The capacity… to acquire or develop new, memories, knowledge or skills based on experience


Today’s Mindware: Emotion Imbued Choice (EIC) Model

The tutorial for this session builds on the rational choice decision-making model that we looked at in Decision-Making 1. Jen Lerner’s  Emotion Imbued Choice (EIC) model (ref) is supported by the 30 years of research. It factors in the critical role of emotion in our decision-making process. 

This is a very powerful, useful model if you take the time to work with it for a bit. That’s the first decision you need to make: Do I set aside time to work with this and give it a spin? (!)

Emotion-Imbued Choice Model

Using this model, you start with different options to decide between.

Solid lines A, B and C.  You first have to assess the expected utilities of the different models (using expected utility theory discussed in Decision-Making 1). At this point you also need to factor in your own personality (e.g. risk aversiveness). From this you get an overall evaluation of each option and the best option is chosen (line D).

The EIC model adds emotions to this process in two ways:

  1. Expected emotions (line A). The ‘utility’ for each decision outcome is judged by predicting one’s emotional response to that outcome.  These expected emotional responses act as inputs to the decision process.
  2. Current emotions (green dotted lines). The second kind of emotion in the EIC model consists of emotions that are felt at the time of decision-making.  There are different sources for current emotions:
    1. Characteristics of the decision maker, such as chronic anxiety, depression or optimism (line B’)
    2. Characteristics of options such as uncertainty in probability leading to anxiety, or time delays leading to anger/frustration or losing interest (line C’).
    3. Anticipated emotions (expected utilities) can influence current emotions – e.g. anticipating a painful injury may result in feeling fear now (line F). And it can work both ways – current emotions from all influences can impact the expected emotions/utilities of outcomes – e.g. anger could reduce the anticipated pain of an injury (line I).
    4. Thinking about the decision can directly cause frustration or other emotions – e.g. if the options are nearly equivalent or involve difficult  trade-offs (line G’).
    5. Emotions arising from an unrelated event, the weather, or mood—can also carry over (line H).

And all these current emotions can directly influence how different options are evaluated in the decision process (line G) by:

  • Affecting which dimensions of the decision we focus on. For example fear could lead to a tendency to perceive negative events as unpredictable and out of our control while anger leads to seeing negative events as predictable and something we have the power to overcome. Here are some known relationships from the research:

  • Whether we use shallow ‘heuristic’ (quick rule-of-thumb and stereotypic) processing, or deep analytic processing with more focus on the content. For instance positive moods or emotions related to feelings of certainty (including anger) can lead to being influenced more by short-cut cues and stereotypes in forming judgements (such as simple headlines, attractiveness or expertise of source, etc), while negative moods or emotions associated with uncertainty can lead to more processing effort, less influence of stereotypes and more focus on the quality of the content of the message.
  • Which motivational goals are guiding us – i.e. specific emotions trigger implicit goals, that signal what we take to be an adaptive response to a situation/problem. Anger, for instance,  goes with a desire to change the situation and move against another person or obstacle by fighting or crushing it. Sadness increases preference for high-risk, high-reward options, while anxiety increases preference for low-risk, low-reward options.



Mindware Strategies

Sometimes emotions aid decision-making. But sometimes they have unwanted effects that bias our decision-making. Here are some evidence-based strategies that can be used to reduce the unwanted effects of emotions on our decision-making.


1. Strategies that Dampen Unhelpful Emotion


Time Delay. Full-blown emotions are short-lived, physiological responses quickly fade. The trouble with this is that emotional states motivate immediate responses to adaptive concerns – so it is difficult to let them pass before arriving at a more considered judgement or decision!  So self-discipline and will-power is often needed to be successful with this strategy.

Suppression. Research indicates this is a bad strategy, leading to a number of cognitive costs that are not helpful in decision-making such as impairing memory of details of what triggered the emotion.

Reappraisal. Reframing the meaning of a situation leading to the strong emotion – for instance, reminding yourself that “it’s just a test” after receiving a poor grade, adopting the mindset of a ‘first aider’ to minimize the emotional impact of viewing someone’s injury, or viewing a job layoff as an opportunity to pursue long-forgotten dreams.

Triggering Counteracting Emotions. For instance, sadness can make us focus on short-term gains at the expense of bigger long-term gains. But gratitude has the opposite effect. So by evoking gratitude when in a situation that you feel down about, you could offset the short-term (often high risk) bias that goes with the blues. Alternatively, you may be able to substitute anger for fear, offsetting the effects on your decisions of feeling out of control and risk-averse. This could be helpful in any potentially threatening situation.


2. Strategies that ‘Bracket Out’ the Unhelpful Emotion


Mindfulness/meta-awareness.  Much of the negative impact of our emotions happens automatically, without awareness. Becoming more cognitively aware of their decision-making processes, helping us attribute emotions to their correct sources, can help reduce the impact of biasing emotions on judgements and decisions (e.g. noting the weather reduces its impact on judgements of well-being). Also, forcing oneself to be more ‘accountable’ (e.g. having the expectation that one will have to justify one’s decisions to an audience of experts) can also lessen the impact of biasing emotions (even though they may still be intensely felt).

Restructuring the choice ‘defaults’  This approach is more consistently effective because it is less effortful! For instance, if cafeterias are organized so that the first foods you walk past are healthier options, the ‘instant consumption’ food choices you make triggered by hunger do not derail your health goals. For another example,  many US states require a waiting period before individuals can buy guns, thereby reducing any immediate influences of temporary anger. and require couples to wait from 1 to 6 days to get married after receiving a marriage license.


Embedded Mindware: Apps

Rational choice thinking (Solid lines A and C in the EIC model) can be helped by apps such as FYI Decision. This helps you (a) identify and weight different criteria relevant to your decision, (b) identify different options you have, (6) evaluate each option in terms of the weighted criteria to come up with an overall ‘best option’. (The app does not however factor in probabilities of different outcomes, which you will also need to consider.)


EIC Model Walk-Through

Let’s work through an example. 

Emotion-Imbued Choice Model


We’ve got to make a decision about what project to commit to over the next month and we have two options: Project X and Project Y. We can’t do both! We’ve just completed a project and feel pride in what we’ve done with that. and want to carry the momentum forward.

First we identify we weigh up each option rationally in terms of benefits and costs. Benefits can come from the interest in the project itself (how motivating it is) or a sense of quick progress, as well as whatever results from completing each project. Costs can come from e.g. effort or stress involved, being late with or failure to complete the project.  On the EIC model it’s important to imagine the anticipated/predicted emotional impact of the benefits and costs of each option (line A). We also need to judge the odds of succeeding in what we set out to do – how likely are we to complete Project A as intended or Project B as intended? Have we factored in all the uncertainties.

From all this information, we should be able to estimate  ‘expected utilities’ for our two options – Project A or Project B. That’s the starting point to making a good decision. We could just choose based on this process – but the EIC model helps us go deeper and come up with an even better quality decision.

We need to reflect on our current emotions and how they may be impacting our judgements and the decision-process. For instance:

  1. Your personality- e.g. over-optimistic and confident- which may lead to you recklessly over-estimating the chances of success (line B’). Knowing yourself is important here.
  2. Characteristics of options that have an immediate emotional impact on you: for instance, the time delay of an option may lead to feelings of frustration that have a negative impact on your decision, particularly if your motivations are directed to instant gratification at the moment  (line C’).
  3. We may overfocus on the expected emotions when we imagine e.g. failing in a project – which could overwhelm our decision-making process with a sense of ‘fear of failure’; or on the flip side, the pleasure of imagined success may bias a well-rounded judgement towards snap decisions (line F).
  4. The emotion of pride that is still lingering from the previous project carries over and gives us a more biased sense of our own capabilities and ability to be in control of the next project (line H).

Having considered all this, you may judge that you need to give yourself a bit of time to let your current feeling of pride or current positivity wane into a bit more neutrality to give you more objectivity about the uncertainties involved. You may also try reframing fear of failure in a different way: ‘If it failed it would be a valuable learning experience’. This may help one of the options become more attractive in a way that was more rational. You could also imagine having to justify your decision to someone, to give you more useful detachment from unwanted emotional levers.

After all this, you should be good to go!


IQ Mindware Core Architecture Walk-Through

Here is the EIC model in place in our core architecture.

  • Expanding your cognitive capacity through gated n-back training will help you understand and apply the rules and strategies of the EIC model.
  • Mindfulness / meta-awareness will help you reflect on your own decision-making process, and identify emotions that may be influencing your decision.
  • In the intelligent thinking process: possibilities is needed for imagining different outcomes and emotional responses; logic/reasoning is needed for calculating expected utilities based on summing over weighted costs and benefits; evidence is useful as you gather information that might be relevant to making the decision – including ‘reality checks’ such as asking others how realistic your options may be; and values is needed in your judgements of the subjective value of different outcomes – the ‘utilities’ in consideration which will include emotional responses.
  • After working with the EIC model for a while, your decision may also benefit from incubation – through either meditation, day-dreaming, distraction, or sleep, enabling you to settle on the right decision when you are alert and focused on the topic again.


IQ Mindware Exercise

Try to work through the Emotion Imbued Choice (EIC) model in an important decision you need to make, considering the probabilities of different outcomes and their anticipated costs and benefits (utilities and associated emotions). But also picking out all the possible emotional influences on your decision. Also consider how you might improve your decision-making using some of the mindware strategies outlined above. Keep the IQ Mindware core architecture above as a more overarching framework for your work here.


I am a cognitive scientist with a joint Ph.D in cognitive psychology and neuroscience from the Center of the Neural Basis of Cognition (Carnegie Mellon/Pittsburgh). At IQ Mindware we develop brain training interventions to increase IQ, critical thinking, decision making, creativity and executive functioning.