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There’s science behind emotion

by Jesse Bussard

The use of science over emotion has been the hot topic in agvocacy discussions of late. In my Feedstuffs column for May I take a closer look at the integral part emotion plays in both science and decision-making and examine the role they play in how we communicate with each other and consumers. 

American writer Dale Carnegie once said, “When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic but with creatures of emotion.”

Carnegie was right. Humans, by nature, are emotional beings. We can’t deny that fact.

Because of this reality, it is nonsensical to suggest that we in agriculture should rely solely on science and not emotion when making decisions or communicating with consumers. Recently, there has been a lot of debate over this very issue, and I feel it’s imperative that we dig into the science behind decision-making to understand how important emotion really is to this process.

You may find it odd to hear someone talk about the “science of emotion,” but surprisingly, this is the subject of cutting-edge neuroscience research.

Harvard Kennedy School in Cambridge, Mass., even has a research group in the Harvard Decision Science Laboratory specifically dedicated to studying the role of emotional and social factors that influence judgment and decision-making. This group draws primarily on psychology and economics to examine the behavioral, cognitive and biological systems involved in the decision-making process.

Decision-making is a purely cognitive process by which an individual is required to make a choice. When making a decision, we can approach things in a logical or emotional manner.

When we use logic, we seek to exclude emotions, thus rationalizing our decision. With emotion, however, a whole range of decision-making processes can occur that are mainly dependent on the degree of logic used in the process.

Decisions based totally on emotion occur quickly. More commonly, decisions may use logic but ultimately are driven by emotion, which acts as an override switch to logic. Some individuals may start with logic but, in the end, use emotion to make their final decision.

Antonio Damasio, a researcher in neurology and neuroscience at the University of Southern California, examined the connection between emotion and decision-making.

Using patients who had sustained brain injuries that damaged the part of their brains where emotions are generated, he tested their decision-making ability.

Damasio found that the patients’ ability to make decisions was severely impaired. While they were able to logically describe what they thought they should do, they could not make simple decisions such as where to live or what to eat. When asked a simple question — e.g., “Should I have fish or beef?” — they were unable to decide without any rationale to back up their decisions.

Benedetto De Martino of University College London used brain imaging scans to attempt to determine how decision-making affects the brain.

Study subjects underwent 17-minute brain scans while being asked to gamble or not to gamble. The brain images revealed that the amygdala (a neural region that processes strong negative emotions such as fear) fired up vigorously during each two-second gambling decision.

When people resisted the gambling decision, a region of the brain connected to positive emotions and another that activates when people face choices lit up as well, seeming to duke it out with the decision.

Overall, the researchers found that all study participants showed emotional biases, more or less; no one was free from them. This study, along with Damasio’s prior work, showed strong evidence that the brain’s wiring emphatically relies on emotion over intellect in decision-making.

Without emotion, the ability to make decisions would be seriously compromised. Our brains store emotional memories of past decisions, and these drive our choices in life. What makes humans rational beings is our ability to not suppress our emotions but temper them in a positive way.

As Carnegie’s quotation pointed out and the research shows, we are innately emotional. It is important for those of us in agriculture to remember this when we are communicating with others, whether they be other farmers or consumers.

Everyone has their own specific behavior and communication styles. Some are talkers who are easy to approach; others are doers who need proof and the bottom line. Still others are controllers, ruled by logic, and some are supporters who avoid risk and seek security.

The bottom line here is that no matter a person’s behavior or communication style, emotion plays a very important role.

If those of us in agriculture truly want to do a better job of communicating and being transparent with consumers, we must understand this fact. Only through listening and understanding our own human nature first will we be able to bridge the agricultural divide that exists today.

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