The Head and the Heart: What’s Your Decision-Making Mode?

Each day, we have to make decisions small and large. When you think about your way of handling situations, you may notice that while some people can easily understand your process, others have quite a different way of going about their decisions. The authors of the Myers-Briggs (MBTI), a personality inventory, explain that we have preferences in how we make decisions. We are either Thinkers or Feelers.

On a recent trip, my husband was recalling an experience he had while living abroad. He told his friend Michael that his roommate at the time was so poor, he lived solely off of canned pickled vegetables and as a result, their dorm room smelled of nothing other than pickles.

Michael’s wife, Tracy, then joined the conversation. Michael began retelling her what she missed. Before he ever had a chance to get to the end, Tracy expressed deep concern for the roommate, exclaiming that he surely should have gotten some assistance as a poor immigrant student. Her husband, Michael, exasperatingly stated, “that’s not the point of the story!”

This exchange exemplifies a clear distinction between Thinkers and Feelers. Can you guess whom is who?

How can you know what your preferred decision-making mode is? After all, don’t we all use both our heads and our hearts to make choices? Is one better than the other? Does our way of gathering information affect our decision-making? What does research show is the most effective way to make decisions?

To answer these questions, let’s start with a definition of Thinking and Feeling, according to the Myers-Briggs. We’ll then look at each mode more in depth, align each decision-making mode with information-gathering modes, and explore suggestions of how to maximize effectiveness.



Thinkers make decisions based on logic and objective reasoning. They analyze their options by looking for cause-and-effect scenarios. They believe that to be fair, everyone should be held to the same standard. Justice is the primary value they hold. It is no surprise, then, that Thinkers make excellent lawyers.

How can you know whether you or someone you work with is a Thinker? If you are more interested in persuading others than in being persuaded, you are a Thinker. And if your manager is a Thinker, she will expect everyone on the team to be competent and will look for ways to scrutinize mistakes as a platform for learning. She will be less likely to provide adequate praise for your work or make you feel appreciated in your role.

Being a Thinker is useful when you want to be efficient, when you don’t want stories to sway you away from your values. It allows you to stick to your beliefs or arguments.


Feelers are more subjective. They tune in to other people and use their heart to make decisions, not based on a one-size fits all model, but on a case-by-case basis. They understand that for every rule there is an exception and let compassion lead the way. Relationships to others is the value that drives their decision-making. You can find many Feelers in the helping field in careers such as doctors, nurses, and psychologists.

If your manager is a Feeler, he might be more forgiving about you making an honest mistake, especially if you can provide an explanation of how it came to pass. Generally speaking, Feelers take into consideration how their actions impact others. According to the field of Emotional Intelligence, this consideration is a sign of Social Competence, which is comprised of Social Awareness (being aware of others or having empathy) and Relationship Management. The latter is what allows you to build a strong working relationship as you pull together awareness of both your emotions and those of others. However, Feelers who become overly-emotional might have a hard time managing their feelings, which is a sign of poor Personal Competence. That’s when their emotions take over and all rationality goes out the window.

Feelers focus on cooperation with others and less on efficiency, competence, or competition. They are more idealistic than goal-oriented because in their view of the world, when everyone is happy, the work gets done more quickly. One Feeler put it like this: "It seems that I just can't seem to push myself to win in competitions, because I feel that others should have a chance. But, then other people ask me why I am not trying hard. They just do not seem to understand that this is who I am.”

Decision-Making & Burnout

Anna-Maria Garden did some research on personality and burnout and found that, ironically, when Feelers are burned out, they become less caring about others and when Thinkers are burned out, they become more focused on people and less about facts and figures. In essence, the two types may operate in reverse under stress.

When experiencing stress, both Thinkers and Feelers are susceptible to engaging in catastrophic thinking, that is - expecting the worst case scenario. Both can also become demanding of others. And while they overlap in some stress-related symptoms, there are also distinctions between these types.

When Thinkers have to deal with other people’s needs, they become stressed out. This is because they tend to let logic override their feelings. And it can push others away. Imagine you manage a team of several people. One of your employees asks for an extension on a project given a personal circumstance that has caused him to get behind schedule. If you’re a Thinker, you would be more likely to deny that request on the basis that if you gave him an extension, you would have to give one to everyone on the team. So to be fair, you hold this coworker to the previously stated standard.

Thinkers, when stressed, have a greater need for control and precision as they zero in on results. This makes them seem aggressive to others. Ironically, Thinkers can simultaneously become highly critical of and disappointed in the people around them, while becoming hypersensitive themselves. So while they may achieve results when they can be solely self-reliant, they will approach burnout when they don’t have control over every aspect of a project and are likely to push people away as a result of their interpersonal interactions.

Feelers, on the other hand, set unrealistic expectations under pressure. It is no wonder they become pessimistic about results. During times of stress they are less likely to take risks. Instead, they become distracted, impulsive, and unreliable. They may be setting themselves up for failure, which will only exacerbates their stress levels and lead them closer to burnout.

To a Thinker, Feelers might seem fickle and easily manipulated. There could be truth in this, especially if the Feeler doesn’t have good boundaries. It is one thing to take other people into consideration, but another thing to allow a complete blurring of the lines. When people lack boundaries and are overly concerned about what others feel, they focus on meeting other people’s needs and neglect their own. This is surely the opposite of being effective and if you’re taking on other people’s responsibilities as your own, it is also less efficient.

What happens when Feelers have to focus on analysis or facts without taking into account other people’s feelings? They become stressed out. In fact, because they are more emotion-focused, they tend to experience more stress than Thinkers. Their saving grace, though, is that they use a wide variety of coping strategies to manage their stress.

Decision-Making & Information-Gathering

We’ve established that people have a preferred way of making decisions, but does the way we gather information have any bearing on our decision-making? What can we learn by examining these two distinct preferences together?

According to the MBTI, there are two main ways of gathering information. The first is through the five senses, and is thus named Sensing. The second is through intuition, and is named as such.

When we consider both how we take in information and how we make decisions, we uncover our learning style. According to researchers Harvey Silver and J. Robert Hanson, there are 4 styles of learning. By examining our personality preferences of gathering information and making decisions, we can set ourselves up for optimal learning conditions and ensure that our career choices reflect our values and preferences.

Silver-Hanson Learning Styles

Sensing-Thinking: Mastery Style. These are action-oriented individuals who are excited by logical and practical matters. They tend to get results because they are organized, precise, efficient, and because they are highly competitive. They also thrive on challenging work and lose interest when tasks become boring. They include contractors, tool makers, and mechanics.

Sensing-Feeling: Interpersonal Style. These individuals are interested in building relationships with others and focusing on problems related to people. They see their job as one that supports or persuades. They prefer to learn with others. Examples include counselors, salespeople, and trainers.

Intuitive-Thinking: Understanding Style. Individuals with this style of learning have strong planning abilities. They are focused on how to efficiently achieve results. They want to walk the walk, not talk the talk. They can come into an organization, critique the way it is being run, and construct a plan for improvement. They learn best through posing questions, testing, and looking for evidence. Examples include professional athletes, sport analysts, and physical educators.

Intuitive-Feeling: Self-Expressive Style. People with the Self-Expressive Style of learning value aesthetics and focus on creating forms of expression. They are more interested in implied images, dreams, and values and tap into their feelings when creating an idea or product. Examples include actors, dancers, and mimes.

Research shows that when our learning environments take into consideration our learning styles, our achievement significantly increases. But what if the way we make decisions is not effective? What can research share with us about how to manage our preferred style to ensure effectiveness?

Effective Decision-Making

As you may have noticed, being overly rational or emotional can have its drawbacks. While we may be drawn in one direction over another, we need to find a way to be effective while still taking into consideration our modus operandi.

Psychologist Marsha Linehan devised a middle ground for just this purpose. She found that some people were too rigid in their Reasonable Mind. They tended to focus so much on facts and logic that they sometimes missed an opportunity to tune into their humanity. They can therefore appear “cold” to others and this can cost them their relationships.

On the flip side, Dr. Linehan saw that those who were too caught up in their Emotional Mind were unable to think logically about problems, to effectively negotiate, or to manage their feelings appropriately. They can seem too “hot” to others.

Notice that being too extreme in either direction is not effective. While being very rational might help you be efficient, if it costs you relationships, it may not make you effective long-term. And when we are overly emotional, we may not be able to contain ourselves enough to be efficient or effective. Individuals on either extreme may end up feeling misunderstood and unappreciated by others and find themselves isolating as a result, all conditions that can lead to burnout.

According to Linehan’s model, when you intersect your Reasonable Mind with your Emotional Mind, you come to a more sensible way of seeing the world and as a result, you can maximize effectiveness. She calls this your Wise Mind (see illustration below).

Have you ever made a decision that you knew was the right thing to do? If so, you may have noticed that you experienced no anxiety about that decision. It came from a centered place that circumvented any self-doubt you may otherwise feel when making decisions. This is what it is like to tap into your Wise Mind.

The way to bring yourself closer to center when it comes to making decisions is through mindfulness. We are less effective when we are reactive. We know this from the world of Emotional Intelligence. As such, we need to be more in tune with ourselves. To do that, we need to increase awareness of how we feel, what we think, and consider our actions before acting out.

While the subject of how to increase mindfulness is beyond the scope of this article, consider this: Mindfulness can be developed with practice. Some people meditate and train their minds to let go of thoughts and worries and stay tuned in to their body and breath. From this place, if you have to make a decision, you can simply ask yourself the question for which you seek an answer and notice what arises.


Our decision-making preference is designed, in part, by our values. While Thinkers value justice, efficiency, and competition, Feelers value relationships and cooperation. When either type is forced into a situation that goes against their values, they experience stress. Over time, this can lead to burnout and as a result, we can see a reversal in which Feelers care less and Thinkers care more about the people around them.

So how can we ensure we optimize our environments to maximize effectiveness? First, we can take into consideration our preferences for both gathering information and decision-making to find our most fitting learning style. Second, we can practice mindfulness to operate from a centered place rather than letting too much logic or too much emotion lead us in the wrong direction.

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