Head vs. Heart: Which Drives Your Decisions?

Last Updated Apr 22, 2009 11:15 AM EDT

Despite what we may choose to tell ourselves, many of our major decisions are emotional, not rational. They play to our ego and sense of self worth, or are driven by a desire to follow others.

For example, I bought a new HD TV last week. It was only when I set it up that I realised I had no access to high-definition TV services. Apparently I'm not alone. According to Sky estimates, approximately 80 per cent of those with a high-definition TV have no access to HD programmes.

Why do we do this? Why do we acquire things we have no real need for? I also own a car that will lead to an immediate and lengthy driving ban should I ever put my foot to the floor, and I once had an 18-month contract for a Blackberry smartphone without ever switching on its email capabilities.

The answer is that my heart was driving the decision, not my head. What's more, once the emotional commitment is in place it is very difficult to dislodge - and this process is as strong in business decisions as it is in personal ones.

When I was leading the strategy team at Boots the Chemists, for instance, the company spent millions on dentistry, spa treatments and other 'wellbeing' services, totally against the results of our research and early trials.

The investments were made because of the emotional commitment of the company's leaders, particularly the CEO Steve Russell.

In a recent posting on Sterling Performance, Jo Whitehead quotes Russell: "I had been formulating this [wellbeing] ambition for Boots since I was merchandising director. So, when I became CEO, I was determined to make it happen."

Similarly, the global banking crisis appears to have been driven, in large part, by bankers' emotional desire not to miss out on a good thing, rather than as a result of a detailed understanding of the intrinsic risks and rewards of sub-prime assets.

There is perhaps little we can do to eradicate these deep-seated emotional and psychological forces.

Our best hope is to practice asking ourselves what emotional factors may be driving our choices and to be open to the answers we hear.

As for my new TV, I have already told myself that the improvement in picture and sound quality is such that it was a good buy even without HD programmes.

I suppose that our ability to post-rationalise bad decisions is just as limiting as our ability to make bad decisions in the first place.

(Image: Mike Licht, NotionsCapital, CC.20)

  • Stuart Cross

    Stuart Cross is a founder of Morgan Cross Consulting, which helps companies find new ways to drive substantial, profitable growth. His clients include Alliance Boots, Avon and PricewaterhouseCoopers.