Emotional responses should not be overlooked: lessons from the beer game

A few weeks ago, we played a game in my Procurement and Supply Chain class—the beer game.

Contrary to the schema that was just invoked in your mind, and unfortunately for the participants, the beer game involves no actual beer. Rather, the game simulates the challenges of distribution through multiple levels of a supply chain and illustrates the bullwhip effect.

Players occupy different levels of the chain (i.e. retail, wholesale, distributor, factory), and each each hopes to match supply and demand.

The big catch is that players cannot talk to each other; they communicate only by placing and filling orders. You can learn more about the game here, but the gist of the game is that mistakes are made and uncertainty is amplified up the supply chain at increasing levels.

The game induces a battery of emotions for participants. People experience frustration, anger, and confusion, and people often resort to blame.

Something went wrong, and assigning blame is the quickest way to a conclusion—it requires little by way of thinking and it shifts the burden from ourselves to others.


Before proposing a solution to the problem, our Professor asked us to brainstorm the emotions we felt, individually and then as a group. We shared and he said, “I want you to anchor this feeling.” He paused and let it sink in before warning us, “remember this feeling—you will feel it again.”

It’s easy to operate in a framework of problem and solution—the problem is x and the solution is y—but it’s more complicated than that.

These simulations often illustrate problems and then jump to solutions immediately, overlooking feelings experienced in the process. Problems generate strong emotional responses, which can cloud our judgement and produce poor solutions.

Glazing over the emotions creates an implicit assumption that either (a) people do not have emotional responses, or (b) the emotional response is trivial. This is simply not true—people will have emotional responses.

The important thing is that we understand how our emotions shape our decisions and how we can best account for them. We will feel frustration, anger, and confusion, and  acknowledging it’s existence, validity, and importance will improve our ability to cope with it.