Give me the "real reason": Emotion as the reason behind Lebron’s Decision

Aaron Reid
Ph.D. Chief Behavioral Scientist, Sentient Decision Science

I’ve been waiting a while to write this post. Not about Lebron per se, but about this phrase “the real reason” used in describing the motivation behind a decision. It just so happens that Lebron’s “Decision” serves as a perfect illustration of an important human truth of decision-making: the real “reason” behind any preference based decision is not in fact reason-based at all, the real reason is emotion. This is as true for Lebron’s Decision as it is for the decisions you and I make everyday. Let me explain…

We are constantly in pursuit of the reasons behind behavior – our own, our friends, our co-workers, our spouses, our potential customers, and yes, apparently our Sports Superstars too – at our core we want to know why people do what they do. Thus, the first question posed to Lebron by Jim Gray after he announced he was headed to South Beach was simple: “Why?”

The “reason” Lebron gave was that he thought he could win multiple championships down there. Now surely this must have factored into his decision-making, but it doesn’t take a decision scientist to figure out that there was a lot more going on in that decision than simply the opportunity to win multiple championships. And so, since the announcement, reporters, bloggers and fans alike have been searching, writing and speculating on what the “real reason” might be. And there has been no shortage of vituperative opinion (particularly from those who have felt slighted).

One of my favorites came from Harvey Araton at the New York Times called Miami in Pinstripes – the New Evil Empire. Araton argues that perhaps the “real reason” behind Lebron’s decision is that joining Wade and Bosh in Miami will take the pressure off Lebron’s shoulders.

…Joyce was right about one thing: all would have been forgiven had he just told his interviewer, Jim Gray, he was staying in Cleveland, basking in his own stardust.

Maybe that was the main selling point in Miami. When the playoff dust finally settles, it won’t all come down on him.

This is favorite of mine, not because I think it is accurate, but because it so clearly illustrates this human search for the one answer, the “real reason” behind a decision, in Araton’s words “the main selling point”. This is the point where people say “ah, you’re right, that’s the real reason for him going to Miami.” For another example of speculation on the “real reason” see Gene Wojciechowski’s comments in Lebron’s Unsavory ‘Decision’ Spectacle:

The minute Wade and Bosh chose Miami is the minute The Decision was made. James can (and did) frame it any way he wants, but if winning a championship was his No. 1 priority — and he said weeks and weeks ago that it was — then the Heat made the most sense, followed closely by the Bulls.

So, what’s going on here? What do people mean when they say that something is the “real reason” behind a decision? I have a theory – I think people are referring to the factor that they think carries the greatest emotional weight for the decision-maker. For Araton, it would be the relief of the pressure for Lebron, for Wojciechowski it would the greatest probability of winning a championship.

Regardless of who is right, there is a decision model that can account for and test this “real reason” effect. The Proportion of Emotion model (Reid & Gonzalez-Vallejo, 2009) can explain this phenomenon through it’s emotional weighting mechanism on the factors that influence decisions. The model draws from the literature on the function of emotion which suggests that emotion is a “relevance signaling mechanism” for humans (Frijda, 1994). Meaning that the degree of emotion we feel when considering the aspects of choice options (for example, the Cavs vs. Heat) signals to us how important the option is to us. The model looks like this:

decision making formula

But don’t worry it’s easier to understand than that. In essence, the formula above says that we take a difference between the attributes of one choice option (e.g. Cleveland = $125M) and the attributes of a second choice option (e.g. Miami = $110M) and the importance of that difference is determined by the degree of emotion we feel when we consider it, relative to the total emotion we feel across all choice considerations. The difference here is $15M, but as most would argue, that difference is not particularly emotional for Lebron, and so the POE model would argue that it carried relatively little weight. Now consider a second attribute: the # of championships Lebron felt he could win with each team. The assessment might have gone something like this (Cleveland = 0) (Miami = 4). The difference in championships in this example is 4 and that is likely highly emotional for Lebron, thereby indicating how much more important the probability of winning multiple championships is to Lebron versus the $15M difference in salary.

This is the simplest case, but the beauty of the decision model is that as more aspects of the decision are considered, they are added or subtracted as advantages and disadvantages of each option. For example, Lebron’s feelings of loyalty would be a positive weight toward Cleveland, and as Wojciechowski points out, perhaps having the pressure taken off of his shoulders by playing with other super stars was a big emotional weight favoring Miami. Even the way Lebron said the phrase “South Beach” suggested that the location itself was a positive emotional weight favoring Miami.

I’m not pretending to know what really mattered to Lebron in his decision, but rather suggesting a fundamental principle for understanding what drives this (and any other) decision. So what is the “real reason” why someone chooses what they choose? While obviously there are many factors influencing any decision, when people refer to the real reason, I think they mean the “reason” that carries the greatest emotional weight. If we want to know what Lebron’s “real reason” for choosing Miami was, we need search no further than what he found most emotional.

For for formal detail on how the Proportion of Emotion model works see Reid & Gonzalez Vallejo, 2009.

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