Snap Decision? Use Feelings, Not Reason

“Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

We are faced with a countless number of choices each day.  We are often unaware that we are in fact making choices when we get into the habit of going through our regular daily routines. The truth is that each day presents you with a plethora of opportunities to do things in the same way that you’re used to doing them, or to doing things differently.  Even inaction is a choice.  When you decide not to do something or to avoid something you dislike, this is also a choice.  No one is “forcing” you to do any of these things.

Even those things which you feel like you “have to do” are still choices.  You choose to get out of bed, get dressed, and go to work because you want the reward of monetary compensation or success.  You choose to be kind to your spouse and children because you want a harmonious and healthy relationship and family life.  You choose to get your work done in a timely fashion perhaps because you enjoy the work for its own sake or because you are avoiding being reprimanded for not doing it.  No matter what the case is, you are the actor making the decisions in the play of life.

We often have to make snap decisions due to time constraints or a sense of urgency.  When we find ourselves in the position of needing to make a choice more hurriedly than might be preferred, it is often difficult to use one’s powers of rational thought and reason.  It takes time to weigh the pros and cons of a decision, and when time is “of the essence” the choice to use reason to make decisions may be a luxury.  At these times, you may be hoping that your gut instinct or deeper intuition will guide you correctly.

A recent study by Mikels and colleagues (2011) supports the ability of gut instincts in making quick decisions. They presented participants with a series of complex decisions that involved choosing between cars, physicians, apartments, treatments, and vacations. They found that compared with trying to work out the details, using emotions led to much better outcomes. In fact, the number of participants getting the correct answer was only 26% in the detail-focused condition versus 68% in the feeling-focused condition.

However, if you do have the luxury of taking some time to involve yourself in the decision-making process (i.e., more time than it takes to simply “understand” the problem), then a detail-oriented problem-solving approach is probably better.  In another of Mikels studies, participants were given extra time to think through the decision-making process.  In this condition, a focus on feelings was detrimental to the decision quality.  If you have the time to work through the decision, thinking trumps feeling.

What is your personal decision-making style?  Do you tend to rely on your powers of rational thought or emotional wisdom more readily?  There is no “right” way to be. It is important to understand your tendencies and recognize that depending upon the context, it may be in your best interest to use either thinking or feeling to solve the problem at hand.

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Feelings beat thoughts for fast complex decisions [Web log message]. (2011, September 15). Retrieved from

Featured image: Fun on the Furniture by Emery_Way / CC BY 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.


  1. James on October 3, 2011 at 9:32 am

    I tend to try to think through things quite thoroughly when making a decision, especially an “important” decision. However, I’m quite comfortable with going with my “gut” or feelings when a quick decision is needed and I have often felt as though “over-thinking” at a time like this is detrimental to the decision making process. So, it’s interesting for me to hear about the conclusions of the Mikels study.

    In fact, my own experience is that, even when making a well thought out decision, what I am truly doing in thinking it out, is assembling a set of feelings catalyzed by the thinking process, and coming away from this process with an overall feeling which is the basis on which my final decision is made. Thus, I would submit to Mikels as fodder for further study, the possibility that even a “well thought out” decision ultimately turns on the resulting “gut feeling.”

    • Laura on October 5, 2011 at 8:45 am

      It sounds like your own decision-making process naturally incorporates a balance of rational thought with deeper intuition. It seems so important to be able to effectively integrate “heart” and “mind” in this way. This way of using one’s deeper intuition when making decisions reminds me of Dialectical Behavior Therapy’s (DBT) focus on operating from a place of “wise mind.” I agree with you that it seems as if those well thought out or rational decisions may be ultimately based on a gut feeling.

      When I read about this study, my sense was that operating solely from a place of feeling or solely from a place of reason is inherently unbalanced. When one has the luxury of time to make a well thought out decision, it seems important to integrate one’s emotions or deeper intuition into the process, as opposed to being overly rational and detached from emotion. Thank you for your comment!

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