Are we really in control of our actions?


When making a decision,

we often are told to “think about it first”,

but how often do we hear “let’s feel about it”?

The common assumption that behaviors mostly occur out of logic and reason can leave a vital aspect of decision making unrecognized: The emotional mind. Here at Round Feather, we acknowledge that emotions play an extremely influential role in the ‘why’ behind people’s actions. An event can trigger some kind of emotional response, which in turn influences how someone approaches their next decisions. Understanding the ‘why’ behind these emotional responses can help us to uncover underlying concerns, which determine where behaviors are coming from and how they can evolve over time. These concerns often lay under the level of consciousness and are ingrained in our human nature. So, as Design Researchers, the more we understand the emotional mind, the better we will be able to grasp what people truly want and need.

Jonathan Haidt, a Social Psychologist and professor at NYU, has done some fascinating research that helps researchers appreciate how emotions make people more prone to carry out certain behaviors. He calls them “moral emotions”, and they give an “action tendency” to act a certain way. This study on how each unique emotion commonly correlates with a unique behavior successfully keeps moral judgment at bay in order to see psychological tendencies more directly. By providing a glimpse into another side of the emotional mind, Haidt offers a broader understanding of just how powerful emotions can be, empowering design researchers to better empathize with their participants.


Anger generally involves a motivation to attack, humiliate, or otherwise get back at the person who is perceived as acting unfairly or immorally” (Haidt) . While this may sound destructive (and sometimes is), anger can also be motivational to redress injustices. In the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “I am angry. We should all be angry. Anger has a long history of bringing about positive change. But I am also hopeful, because I believe deeply in the ability of human beings to remake themselves for the better." For example, the anger of losing time during inefficient office meetings may drive an employee to offer reform with a new scheduling system. Though a small act, small victories like this save every time, money, and energy at the end of the day.

On the other side of redressing injustice, there usually stands someone or something being found guilty. Guilt, not to be confused with shame, stems from when a system of relationships, trust, or morals is violated. Feeling guilty can lead someone to be more likely to “help one’s victim­­, or otherwise make up for one’s transgression… guilt motivates people to apologize and to confess, not as a way to debase themselves but as a way to restore or improve their relationships” (Haidt). A man from one of our recent studies comments on how after feeling very guilty for hurting his girlfriend, he “had hoped that we would have been able to communicate and make it back to where we were.” The initial guilt of causing their relationship trouble lead to his desire to mend broken pieces with healthy communication. 

Furthermore, shame can be understood in a few different ways. Eastern tradition involves shame in regard to hierarchical interaction and moral regulation. In the West, shame comes more often from the sense that there is something wrong with the core or true self – a failure to measure up. Accordingly, in the context of Western society, the action tendency from feeling shame would be for people to “reduce their social presence, creating a motivation to hide, withdraw, or disappear.” From one of our research sessions, a woman explains why she was reluctant to tell her closest people of a recent experience where she had to make an ‘impossible decision’ which affected her career and personal life path: 

“I think the shame was holding me back from telling people… I wasn't ready to share. The whole stigma is the reason that it's so hard is because you feel like you're doing a bad thing.”

A certain societal pressure produced a sense of shame that consequently fueled isolation. While shame itself did not make her withdraw, the emotion made it much more likely for her to do so. If she had felt guilty for harming a close relationship, it is more likely that she would have moved toward the person to repair the damage.


Moreover, seeing another’s suffering and feel compelled to help is the essence of compassion. This emotion most often results in one main action (helping someone in pain), therefore it has been recognized as one of the more powerful emotions in the world. For example, non-profit organizations­­ often use images of the groups they provide aid to, in hope to elicit compassion from the viewer, making it more likely for people to inquire on how to contribute to the cause. “Compassion makes people want to help, comfort, or otherwise alleviate the suffering of the other” (Haidt).  

More commonly felt than discussed, elevation inspires people to continue growing into a more virtuous self. Historical and common stories of moral beauty in history and everyday life can “make a person feel warmth and affection towards the person who elicited the emotion … [and] create a more generalized desire to become a better person oneself, and to follow the example of the moral exemplar” (Haidt). For instance, a neighbor recounting their positive experience at the local soup kitchen may be inspired to also give back to the community and increase volunteer involvement. 

How does this contribute to design research?

As we meet with people, try to understand their journeys, and design for long-term happiness, this research can help us to better empathize with our participants. Moral emotions give us a glimpse to another side of the ‘why’ behind people’s decisions — the less ‘logical’ yet equally as influential side. A person’s journey often has two storylines: how they rationalized their decision, and how they were feeling about it at the time. We always listen to both, but if we don’t truly understand how their feelings influenced them (even subconsciously), then we will miss out on key insights. Lastly, after fully grasping these complex journeys, we are equipped to be aware of what emotions we may elicit by the designs we deliver, and how they set the user up for success.

While we wish happiness was simple, the reality is that all emotions we feel work together somehow, complicating our decision making process. So, are we really in control of our actions? Yes, but the more we are aware of the emotional states that may be influencing us, the more informed we will be to act.

Here at Round Feather, we have loved learning more about how to design for happiness with 

Jonathan Haidt’s research