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How Emotions Influence Our Decisions

One of the key thoughts of my book Storify, is that we need to address not just the intellectual brain in our messages to teens, but the emotional brain as well. That’s because we make decisions not just with our minds, but with our hearts.

I came across this fascinating article in the Harvard Business review, which illustrates just how much our emotions cloud us. Here’s the gist of it: research suggests that putting users in an emotionally positive mindset improves their accuracy in interpreting data visualizations. 

Now, data visualizations may be a bit abstract to you, but think of graphics, pie charts, or infographics. You’d think that these were just facts, represented in a visual way, and that you brain has one way or processing them.


Turns out, your brain is better and more accurate at reading these and interpreting them when you’re in a positive mood. And this is not an anomaly. Other research supports that your brain learns better and more effectively if you are happy. It’s already broadly accepted that emotions can influence cognitive processes like attention, memory, creativity, and problem solving.

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What does this mean for youth ministry or for how we craft our messages? One application may be that negative emotions are not conductive for learning. If you needed another reason why fear-mongering sermons don’t work, well, here you go.

But look at it from a broader perspective as well. Often, we trigger certain emotions in our talks, especially when we share stories to find common ground. This shows us we need to be aware that triggering negative emotions, especially strong negative emotions, may not be the best strategy. It also shows that guiding those emotions (and the underlying problems) into a positive resolution can create the right conditions for a learning experiment.

I’m not advocating a happy-clappy youth ministry where we focus on the positive only—on the contrary. I’ve always been a fierce proponent of ‘keeping it real’ and share life and the Gospel in a realistic context. But it is interesting to see just how much our emotions affect our intellectual processes. That means that in those moments where we really want teens to learn and to make sound decisions based on the right facts, a positive approach may work best.

What are your thoughts after reading this? Any suggestions for what this could mean for youth ministry?

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