Our minds have built-in tools that we use intuitively to evaluate decisions as we go about our day-to-day lives. Sometimes, making a decision can feel particularly challenging on an emotional level. This can lead to procrastination in making the decision or just going with the default option.

When the part of the brain that generates emotional responses is damaged, a person can struggle with basic decisions like what to have for lunch or which shirt to wear. This illustrates how our feelings about our options play a significant role in our decision-making process.

Our emotions towards decisions can be broadly classified into different emotional types, which can help explain why a particular decision may be difficult, and give hints as to how to resolve that difficulty. If you can think of an emotional type that I haven't covered, please feel free to suggest it in the comments.

Emotional Types

  • Risky Option decision: The least favored and most favored outcomes are associated with the same option, meaning that a single option could yield either a very good or very bad outcome.
  • Least-bad choice decision: The favorable outcomes are all low-likelihood and/or the unfavorable outcomes are all high-likelihood, so you are in the emotional position of choosing the "least bad" option. Either choice has a low EV.
  • Uncertain decision: All of your probability estimates fall in the ~35%-65% range. You have a hard time choosing because you just don't feel strongly one way or the other about the likelihoods involved.
  • High-stakes decision: The decision is unusually consequential.

The following examples are drawn from the Station Seven setting that I use for exercises in Guild of the Rose workshops.


  • On your break from repolarizing the tachyon coils, you want to grab a quick bite to eat. You really don't want to be late getting back to your work station, so it's important that you're able to eat and be back within half an hour. There are two eateries you enjoy, Garg's Noodles and GleekBurger. Garg's Noodles is your favorite, but it's further away, all the way on the other side of the disk. GleekBurger is alright, and closer.
  • This is a "least-bad" type decision because the EV of either option is low. Whether you choose GleekBurger or Garg's Noodles, you're most likely going to be either late or dissatisfied with your meal. This sort of decision can feel unpleasant and "ughy" because you are unenthusiastic about both of your options. You unhappily choose GleekBurger, accepting a certainty of unexciting food in exchange for a lower likelihood of tardiness.

Risky Option

  • You need to take your uniforms to the cleaners. There are two competing garment cleaning operations on the station. SpiffyClean almost always does an okay job, returning your uniforms clean, if not very well pressed. Even when they mess up, the result is acceptable. Admiralty Cleaning claims to hold themselves to a higher standard, and when they return your uniforms, they are perfectly starched. However, a shocking fraction of the time they lose one or more articles of clothing.
  • Admiralty Cleaning provides both the best and worst possible outcomes. This makes the option feel risky; you are reaching into a box which contains either a prize or a hot coal. The underlying mathematical feature of risky-feeling options is large swings in EV between best and worst outcome for a given option. In some circumstances, both options may feel risky in this way. Decisions involving risky options can be emotionally unpleasant, because you could make the "right" decision and very likely still end up regretting it. In this example, you will end up going with SpiffyClean regardless, since having imperfectly pressed but clean uniforms isn't so bad in your opinion.


  • After dropping off your dry cleaning, you head home, but realize that your apartment unit is almost exactly on the other side of the toroid, and thus you're not sure which way to turn to take the shortest trip home. Your gut tells you that the trip would be slightly shorter if you went right, but you're unsure enough that you hesitate to commit.

  • Despite the decision not mattering very much at all, making a difference of a few minutes one way or the other, your lack of certainty about the probabilities involved is paralyzing. Even very inconsequential decisions can be held up by ~50-50 certainties. You end up choosing to go right, though the thought that you might have made the wrong choice nags at you all the way home.

High Stakes

  • When you arrive home, you check your mail and see that you've just been offered a promotion. Your rank will increase, and along with it, your pay. This is amazing news! But you have a sinking feeling as you realize the promotion will require you to move out of Maintenance, a career path that you love, and into Navigation. You are severely conflicted, as you can see both paths leading to positive outcomes. There's a small chance that you would bitterly regret not taking the promotion, but there's also a small chance that you would loathe working in Navigation.
  • The characteristics of a difficult high-stakes decision often include high utility variance between the assessed outcomes. This particular example is a very consequential decision with no "middle ground" outcome, meaning that in addition to being high stakes it also presents two risky options. You feel paralysis because the outcomes will either be fantastic or terrible, and additional difficulty because the two options will dramatically reshape your future in ways that the decision of where to eat lunch did not. It may be rational to take more time on a decision such as this one, where the expected value of either option is very similar, and gathering more information (even if that is information about your own emotions) might change the calculation.

Assessing the emotional type of a decision may not immediately resolve the emotional turmoil surrounding a decision, but it can help you recognize why you are experiencing that turmoil, allowing you to make your choice and move on with your life. Often, we make poor choices out of an emotional unwillingness to grapple with decisions that feel bad for one or more of the previously described reasons. However, in each of the above examples, there was a "correct" choice, in the sense of one option having a higher expected value. Although it may not have felt good emotionally, you did steer your future higher in your preference ordering by choosing the higher-EV option each time. Over the long term, even if you never feel good about it, you are much better off repeatedly choosing the least-bad option than you would be in refusing to choose, or in choosing the default!

Are there any other characteristic emotional types of decisions that you feel I left out?

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