s259 How the autopilot largely guides us safely through life

The emotive decision is the most common, at over 90% of decisions, but usually receives little attention in the discussion about decision-making

The decision by the emotion system without conscious involvement is the most common human form of decision. Those who object, saying that this is not a decision, that our autopilot only controls our behavior, are quite correct. Nevertheless, all behavior is preceded by a decision, whether it is consciously or unconsciously induced.

Decision bevor behavior
Figure01: Every behavior is preceded by a decision

Who or what makes us avoid obstacles when we walk through the pedestrian zone with a smart phone and do our jobs?  Which intelligence makes this decision in a flash and lets us climb stairs and drive a car without having to think about it and make conscious decisions? According to which logic does the autopilot decide that cognition will be activated and consciously puts it in the driver’s seat?

Two control systems
Figure02: Both decision systems can control our behavior

Human behavior can be executed by the emotion system, the autopilot, but also consciously by the cognitive system. The cognition system is always activated when the emotion system cannot handle the situation. This process is usually accompanied by an unpleasant feeling; as a consequence, the cognitive system is perceived as exhausting and the emotion system is referred to as effortless because we do not notice it.

This particular characteristic of the decision-making systems is one of the reasons why the different forms of decision making are so difficult to recognize and understand as well as why the discussion about them is often so polarizing. One of the most frequent questions: head or gut? arises from this dynamic, which can be easily explained by the inseparability of the decision-making systems.

Who is driving the car?

The Swiss psychiatrist Luc Ciompi has been referring to the working principles in the emotion system as ‘affect logic’ since 1982. Emotions serve life and move people through life, in that a given and individually developed emotional logic reacts flexibly to given situations. This is the task that emotions manage and for which evolution has shaped them. Emotions have acquired their negative reputation on the one hand because the feeling of emotions is usually very unpleasant.

On the other hand, emotions are classified as negative because they dominate long-term planning and social evaluation in emotive-cognitive cycles during higher emotional arousal and deactivate them during extreme arousal. In 1998, Joseph Ledoux called the path via the emotion system the “low road” and accordingly, the path via the cognitive system the “high road”.

Critics might object that the emotion system may be able to master simple life situations, but not complex ones. Even driving a car is a complex process. Have you ever driven a car in your mind and “suddenly” found yourself at home without knowing exactly which way you were driving or without remembering certain routes? The impression imparted of something that was inaccessible and effortless to the conscious mind, such as the carefree drive, is an indication of the emotion system.

The much-cited autopilot is your emotion system, which Daniel Kahneman called System 1 in 1997. The missing conscious memory, therefore, indicates merely that the emotion system has acted alone. The ‘lost’ memory is not a magical inexplicable instance. Your emotion system and the neuronal emotional programs (neP=emotions) processed by this system are quite capable of handling complex situations. You might say: no, I remember. Both this memory and this statement are, of course, true because there have always been situations in which the cognition system has been activated. Nevertheless, you will sometimes find yourself standing at your front door with no memory of the past minutes.

emotion system in a car
Figure03: Usually the emotion system drives the car

The experienced knowledge acquired through repeated experience in traffic situations is represented in the emotion system as a neuronal structure (neS=brain areas that execute emotive cycles). With these “learned” or conditioned neuronal emotional programs, the emotion system can act autonomously. As a newcomer to road traffic, in contrast, the nePs have not yet been as well developed, and the processes must still be consciously executed by means of the cognitive system. The characteristics of the cognitive system can be clearly experienced in this learning phase: exhaustingly, slowly, consciously and requiring effort. As a beginner, one has to consciously activate the cognitive system in order to initiate processes such as steering, shifting gears, braking, accelerating, observing traffic.

For the beginner, the cognitive system does the driving while as experienced drivers we have an emotion system that is able to drive autonomously.

To answer the introductory question: Who is driving the car? – We must conclude that the emotion system usually drives but sometimes the cognition system does the driving. As is so often the case, we are dealing with the situation in which not only one but sometimes both scenarios may apply.

The emotive decision

The term ‘autopilot’ describes the character of the emotive decision very well because after the decision has been made, the system goes straight into action. But the word also indicates that the actions quality depends largely on the decision. In contrast to the logic of affects, the emotions work in the background by means of the autopilot. The emotional arousal is so low (1 to 3 on the KiE scale) that the effect of the emotions is not accompanied by feelings and we therefore do not consciously perceive the emotions.

emotional decision
Figure 04: The emotional decision with low emotional arousal – the autopilot

The emotive decision is the most common at over 90% of decisions, but usually receives little attention in the debate on the topic. The quality of the emotive decision depends primarily on the experienced knowledge represented in the emotion system. Again, there are one functional (appropriate) and two dysfunctional areas (too little – too much).

Functional and dysfunctional areas
Figure 05: Functional and dysfunctional areas of empirical knowledge

Since we have no awareness of the autopilot and it can lead either to amateurish decisions due to inexperience or to prejudice as a result of excessive expertise, we should replace it with the intuitive decision or the KiE decision strategy.

emotional arousal KiE
Figure 06: Influence of emotional arousal

More about the series of articles on human decision making

Further articles about the different human decision forms can be found after the source below under tags “Article series human decision forms”.

More about the series Artificial Intelligence

More articles about artificial intelligence and how it can be extended with KiE can be found after the sources below at tag “Artificial Intelligence“.


April 2020 – Richard Graf, Elsa Graf

„The emotive decision is the most common, at over 90% of decisions, but usually receives little attention in the discussion about decision-making.“ Richard Graf


GRAF, Richard. Die neue Entscheidungskultur: Mit gemeinsam getragenen Entscheidungen zum Erfolg. Carl Hanser Verlag München, 2018

CIOMPI, Luc. Affektlogik. Über die Struktur der Psyche und ihre Entwicklung. Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart, 1982

CIOMPI, Luc. Die emotionalen Grundlagen des Denkens. Entwurf einer fraktalen Affektlogik. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1997

KAHNEMAN, Daniel. Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan, 2011

LEDOUX, Joseph. Das Netz der Gefühle. Wie Emotionen entstehen. München: Hanser, 1998