Calm, Cool, Collected or Crazy: the science of rational decision-making

Close your eyes for a moment and imagine your world where all the people involved (including yourself) make decisions in a rational, non-emotional manner. . . if only that were reality. In today’s high-stressed environments, the reality is quite different. Everyone is jockeying for position and power. Everyone is an expert. Listening is a lost art. Few can spell compromise, much less practice it. It’s enough to drive a person crazy or, at least, make a normally calm person irritated and snappy. What can you do to let cooler heads prevail? It’s science to the rescue. For the first time, there’s science behind what drives rational decision-making and research that explains how you can improve your decision-making skills. Here are a few tips:

Create a Process

While processes themselves don’t guarantee better decisions, research has shown that processes make better decision-making more likely to occur. Add structure or decision trees to repetitive decisions, then communicate the process to your team. These processes increase the odds of a stronger, more rational decision.


Pull yourself out of the situation and view it like an outsider. Make up a name and persona for this third-person perspective and assume the personality when emotions start to rise.

Say "Ohmmmm."

Meditation isn’t just an overall stress reliever; it’s a proven way to reduce “sunk cost bias.” The amount of time, energy and effort a person has already contributed results in “sunk cost.” Meditation helps you let go and see the reality.

Dim the Lights

We can see more detail in bright lights, but bright lights also add fuel to the fire. According to research, bright lights intensify your initial emotional reaction. So, when you feel things getting steamed, lower the lights.


It’s not necessary to count to 10. How about just 50 to 100 milliseconds? That’s right, hesitating for even a fraction of a second is enough time for the brain to refocus on relevant information versus the distractions created by emotions.

Set the Ground Rules

If there’s more than one person involved in the decision, set the ground rules up front. Be crystal clear as to how the decision will be made including the criteria, people involved, and what happens in case of a tie.

Ask the Right Question

Decision-making often gets emotional because we simply aren’t asking the right question. Practice rephrasing the issue in at least 3 different ways. Just the practice of rephrasing will take emotion out of the equation.


Explore alternative solutions and perspectives. Once you generate the alternatives, then explore the risks, consequences, and feasibility.

Be Creative

Bring creative thinking techniques into the process. Creative thinking helps produce new, unique solutions to your situation. Want a reminder about techniques to use? Revisit our webinar on creative thinking techniques.


Audit the great and not so great decisions. Why did certain decisions fail or derail? What differed from the solid decisions? This isn’t about pointing fingers, but evaluating where you let emotions lead the way.

Decision-making is a skill and like any other skill, it can be improved and refined with practice. Don’t expect perfection at the onset, especially if you tend to be an emotionally-driven person. Pick one tip and practice that one until it becomes a habit. Then, add another suggestion. Don’t worry if you regress, we are human, after all.