The Polarization Series: Why We are Mostly Emotional, and Sometimes Rational

Over the course of our lives many of us will have gotten into arguments with friends, family or loved ones which goes somewhat along the lines of:

“You are not thinking, can you hear yourself? You need to stop being so hard headed and stubborn, and just listen to the facts. Can’t you just be a bit more reasonable!?”

Notice how we are quick to charge others of being irrational or unreasonable. However, we rarely look inwards at our own internal biases or lapses in thinking. Moreover, we tend to think that we are free from emotion and are able to make decisions on a purely rational or logical basis.

Perhaps, we even periodically ponder that if more people were to just overcome their passions and desires, and think with their head instead of their heart, we would all be better off.

An Old Debate: Reason vs Emotion

For centuries, philosophers have been debating whether reason or emotion was the dominant force in human decision making. Thinkers from Plato to Immanuel Kant praised the rational part of the mind while having contempt for our baser passions, drives and emotions. Others such as David Hume claimed that “reason is a slave to our passions.”

So, who was right in more accurately modelling human decision making?

Evidence from modern psychology points towards the latter view. Emotions come first, and reason is secondary. This makes sense if you think about the history of humanity from an evolutionary and developmental perspective. For hundreds of millions of years our ancestors deployed automatic processing and intuitive thinking to navigate the world around them. It was only when we began to develop and use language, around one million years ago, that we acquired the ability think in a systematic or logical way.  

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman distinguishes between two different types of cognition – System 1 and System 2.

  • System 1 (Emotion): This is our intuitive judgements about events or our ‘gut feelings.’ It requires low effort and is automatic. Our minds often have the tendency to jump to conclusions without sufficient evidence.  We construct stories to justify our decisions based on the information we have and what is currently available to us. This makes us susceptible to a whole range of biases and heuristics. Kahneman uses the concept of ‘What You See is All Their Is’ to explain our ability to have overconfidence in the information already known to us rather than searching for alternative ideas or opinions. Similarly, we also are inclined towards confirmation bias which is the idea that we are more likely to accept new information which confirms our existing beliefs, and ignore evidence which contradicts our views. [1]
  • System 2 (Rationality): On the other hand, we also have another mode of cognition which is responsible for rational thinking. In contrast to our automatic intuitive judgements, deliberate logical thinking takes a lot more effort. It is slow and methodical. Activating System 2 thinking requires attention and focus. System 2 is capable of high-level abstract thinking, enabling us develop and test models and theories which help us better understand the world around us. 

Elephant and the Rider Metaphor

Jonathan Haidt created a useful metaphor of someone riding an elephant which can help us understand the interaction between these two systems. The elephant represents our emotions while the rider symbolizes the rational part of the mind.

The rider can do several useful things to guide and shape the path for the elephant. It can set intentions, goals and provide a set of clear instructions. However, when there is conflict between these two, it is pretty clear who will have the upper hand – the elephant of course.

Despite our best intentions, many of us may be able to recall situations when we said or did something that we had no intention of doing. Our passions got the best of us.

Unfortunately, looking at the current events of today, with all the outrage and fiery debates we see on various media platforms, it seems like we are giving our elephants (our emotional mind) steroids. 

The Importance of the Environment

Given the significance of rational thought in advancing humanity and moving towards progress, how do we give reason a chance is prevailing in our personal development or public discourse?

One thing we can focus on is shaping our environment, and limiting the opportunities of us engaging in unintentional acts or becoming overwhelmed by our emotions.

If you want to have a productive work environment the first thing one ought to do is remove all possible distractions from the room. You don’t want to be in a room with a television or with your noisy roommates.

The same holds true for when we want to shape a more balanced and nuanced public sphere or hold more productive dialogues with others who share different views. Unfortunately, much of what happens in the digital sphere and from media isn’t conducive to truth and fact but rather clicks, views and profit.  Our attention is for sale. This is not to say we should completely disengage, but rather use the information we gather from these sites with a degree of prudence and reservation.  

In his book Enlightenment 2.0, Joseph Heath urges us all to slow down and think. Complex policy issues can not be accurately articulated in short sound bites, 280 characters or from passionate monologues from your favourite news anchor. Nuanced detailed analysis will most likely not come from your social media feeds. Rather it requires the hard work of comparing and contrasting different viewpoints and arriving to conclusions which are based on evidence, not assumptions.

Just like a good scientist testing, validating and proving their hypothesis, we can all benefit from a bit less certainty in our own views and opinions.

Humility, sensibility and empathy must serve as the backbone of good public dialogue – not arrogance or pride.      

Politics should be about cultivating intelligence rather than demeaning it, building on experience rather than going with our gut feelings.

Joseph Heath, Enlightenment 2.0

Collective Intelligence

To fix our internal cognitive biases our proclivity towards emotional thinking, we have to rely on the wisdom that the ‘whole is greater than the sum of its parts.’ We all have individual flaws and lapses in judgement, but these can be identified and resolved when we have the opportunity to have open and honest conversations with others. As Haidt states in his book The Righteous Mind,

We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. This is why it’s so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth.

The path that lies ahead of us in our deeply divided frantic world is not an easy one, but we can start to repair fractures in our discourse and work towards the common good one constructive conversation at a time.

We all must find a way for the elephant and the rider to work together.

[1] You can view some of the most common cognitive biases here

Featured Image Source

16 thoughts on “The Polarization Series: Why We are Mostly Emotional, and Sometimes Rational

  1. Love this Andrew.

    On Wed., Jan. 13, 2021, 7:35 a.m. A Life of Virtue: Philosophy as a Way of Life, wrote:

    > Andrew posted: ” Over the course of our lives many of us will have gotten > into arguments with friends, family or loved ones which goes somewhat along > the lines of: “You are not thinking, can you hear yourself? You need to > stop being so hard headed and stubborn, and ju” >


  2. Excellent article. Absolutely true, there is so much here for everyone to learn. The elephant & the rider analogy is epic.
    Excellent read


  3. Great post Andrew – I very much like idea of shared wisdom. If we can communicate with one another from a position of learning. By assuming that there is always something we can learn from each other – then I believe we can all come away a little wiser.

    I’m curious what you make of this quote by Albert Einstein?: “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” He wrote this some time ago of course. It got me thinking that maybe this quote doesn’t apply anymore – that many now see the rational mind as the enemy because it’s the harder one to engage with? And because society has increasingly pandered to our elephants so to speak?


    1. Thank you for the read and for the comment! Well my thinking is that the logic of the Enlightenment, which corresponded to the scientific and industrial revolutions, highlighted our capacity for reason. However, it discredited the emotional aspect of the mind.

      Recent research shows that we are significantly influences by how things are ‘framed’, and how our unconscious mind tends to jump to conclusions (ie. confirmation bias) and make up stories to verify our existing beliefs – even in the absence of evidence.

      That is not to say we can’t act rationally, rather that the environment we are surrounded in if of significant importance. It becomes difficult when media, advertisements etc. create spaces where disinformation is prioritized and outrage media gets more views. It is sort of a race to the bottom.

      This interests me on a policy side as well, what can be done to shape our public sphere to prevent this.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for the thoughtful response Andrew. Individually less time on social media seems like a sensible place to start. As for policy it’s a tricky one. It’s a slippery slope if we start telling media outlets what they can or cannot allow. Perhaps if claims by certain powerful individuals can’t be substantiated then maybe they should come with a warning label telling the reader that? You can go ahead and smoke your cigarettes but not before you’ve seen/read the label on the packet. This would protect freedom of speech but force people to think about what they are consuming online before doing so – to analyse it more critically when they do.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Hume was right.

    If you want rational thought about a topic, you have to leave it to the people who don’t care what the outcome is. Take the shape of the solar system. The church was deeply invested in a geocentric model. Copernicus and Galileo didn’t care one way or another. They didn’t have any skin in the game. They look at the data – observations – and think, “I wonder what kind of universe would best fit this data?”

    Voila! The Copernican Revolution.

    The best scientists are disinterested scientists. Seekers of the truth but no interest in any particular truth. Not a lot of that out there. Advocacy science was an important part of why it took so long for climate change to be accepted. It certainly clouded a lot of my own early thinking on it. I saw study after study that made assumptions and did not lay the proper groundwork for the conclusion reached. I saw clues that data had been fudged. I got the feeling that there was an urgent need to prove global warming and force a change, not a disinterested search for truth. And God help the truth, once people start hitching their political wagons to a particular research outcome.

    The utter lack of anything intelligible by opponents of climate change was most convincing. They were just as politicized but lacked any real data.

    By now it is pretty clear that something is going on and we are involved in it through CO2 emissions. This realization was much delayed by turning it into a political football.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. An interesting topic to explore indeed, the philosophy of science.

      On another note, are you familiar with the Limits to Growth paper published in the 1970’s. It seems to lay out many of the arguments, we still see being hashed out today, the notion we expect endless growth on a finite planet etc.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I saw that paper when it came out. It was scary and I was too young to analyze it properly.

        Many of its assumptions have turned out to be false. That famous graph of population, food production, pollution, resource depletion, etc. has not evolved as predicted. There were a number of other trends they ignored – or couldn’t be aware of – that changed things.

        Who would have thought that the western world would have achieved ZPG or was actually shrinking without any effort on the part of government to change things? Thank you birth control and feminism!

        Oil shortage doesn’t cause a drop in energy production, it just causes us to develop new resources. Resource depletion would only make recycling more profitable.

        It is in the nature of predictions that the farther one goes into the future, the greater the error bars have to be. Uncertainty compounds faster than the interest from a loan shark. That’s chaos for you.

        The prediction also suffers from inability to forecast black swans. There are always going to be black swans, some good and some bad and some whose true nature will not be seen for a long time.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s