Friday, April 30, 2010

Emotion versus Reason

I’m still thinking about NOVA’s Mind over Money: Can Markets Be Rational When Humans Aren’t? earlier this week, and the connection it drew between emotionally fueled subconscious decisions and the economic meltdown of 2008. I’d encountered similar ideas in George Lakoff’s The Political Mind, with a focus more on politics than on economics.

We all grew up with an Enlightenment view of reason: that it is logical, universal, unemotional, and interest-based. (This could be a textbook definition of the process supposedly underlying Chicago School’s efficient markets hypothesis.) My father was my model: confronted with a problem, my first impulse is to learn as many facts as possible, to master it with knowledge, just as he did. This is me — hyper-rational. I used to actually believe that voters use primarily facts and reason to make electoral choices. I no longer do.

Recent brain research, especially that facilitated by functional MRIs that show in which areas the brain is active during tasks, has conclusively demonstrated that the dichotomy between reason and emotion is false. Books like Damasio’s Descartes’ Error and Westen’s The Political Brain go into this in detail, but the thesis is that reason requires emotion. In an extreme example, people with specific brain damage making them incapable of feeling emotions or detecting them in others are unable to function rationally.

We think we can divorce reason from emotion because most (and they really mean "most" — an estimated 98%) of reason is unconscious. Our ancestors didn’t have time to reason consciously about the best thing to do, so we’ve evolved to think and behave reflexively. Malcom Gladwell’s Blink is all about these quick and sophisticated judgments. Scientific experiments (see Restak’s The Naked Brain) demonstrate conclusively that your body reacts before your brain has received the nerve inputs on which to base a conscious decision. Our cognitive unconsciousness is really running the show.

That’s why a self-proclaimed rational person like me can think she wants Just The Facts, Ma’am, but reacts to subconscious stereotyping in a decisive way. In elections, I prefer the eloquent candidate who rallies us by appealing to our best instincts, rather than the “Trust me, I know how to do this” daddy figure.

I agree with the research that says we are not nearly as rational as we think. We are making very complex and subtle assessments all the time of which we are not consciously aware. Our reasoning is more like after-the-fact rationalization of decisions we’ve already made. Now, I do think that more information makes for better decisions, but both research and the results of “negative campaigning” show that our “free will” is more limited than we like to think. We use the emotional subtext in our decision-making because we can’t not do so. And these kinds of subconscious evaluations have been shown to be surprisingly sophisticated and often reliable. If someone makes your skin crawl, you should probably trust that instinct or intuition.

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