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

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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

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The Polarization Series: A Path Towards Restoring Good Faith Dialogues

Our current age is one riddled with several apparent contradictions and paradoxes.

Despite access to an almost unlimited flow of information, we are less certain of what is true. Further, we have a more difficult time in discerning fact from fiction, and rarely look to sources outside of our narrow ‘information ecosystems’.

The Enlightenment and the rise of objective scientific inquiry was supposed to rid us of superstition and group think. It promised to place reason at the bedrock of society and ensure that rationality and logic would be the basis for decision making.

So where did we go wrong, and why are we currently faced with so much polarization and division unable to come to a consensus on the most basic of facts?

Rather than exercising our freedom to think independently, we are moving closer and closer towards conformity and dogmatic thinking. As more issues become politicized, society sorts into its respective teams or ideologies insisting that those who don’t agree with us on certain issues are either blindly naïve or ignorant. It is the mentality that you are either with us or against us.

Yet, we are all exhausted by all the outrage and constant bickering of who is right or wrong on contentious issues.

Can’t we all just get along, be kind and give each other a hug (well maybe after the pandemic)?

To look at these issues I want to draw from the work of Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind:  Why Good People are Divided over Politics and Religion and other research to look at why we have such a hard time discussing political issues.

This series of articles will focus on the following themes, exploring how:

  1. We aren’t as ‘rational’ as we think, and we rarely can get someone to change their view with a more logical or coherent argument. Emotion has the upper hand in our thinking and  Haidt’s metaphor of the elephant and the rider is a good example the fight between reason vs emotion.
  2.  We all share the same moral foundations, but differ in which morals and values we prioritize (Moral Foundations Theory).
  3. Evolution can explain our tendency to sort into groups or teams. As Haidt puts it, morality binds and blinds.
  4.  We can restore good faith dialogue and compromise. The key is transcending the strict dichotomy of black\white or good\evil type thinking and being able understand the wisdom and truth found in many different positions or perspectives.

Hopefully this series will convince you to look critically at your own opinions, and look to others who share different views with a bit more kindness and understanding.

Real dialogue is when two or more people become willing to suspend their certainty in each other’s presence.

David Bohm

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The Power of Art: How Beauty Can Save the World

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Beauty will save the world

Fydor Dostoevsky

It seems awfully naïve, and perhaps a bit idealistic to ponder such a question – but in this article I want to explore if art and beauty save the world.  What did the existentialist writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky mean by such an ambiguous statement, and how can art make a difference in a world divided by conflict, strife and division?

It was when I was travelling in Europe, and sitting in one of the many breathtaking cathedrals, that I was filled with inner calm – a sense of peace and solitude swept over me. External events and the frivolous pursuits of the everyday world felt insignificant, so trivial. Existential worry and anxiety became drowned out by the beauty and wonder that was revealed to me in that moment. Nothing else mattered.

Great art, that which has been able to stand the test of time, points to the transcendent, the infinite, and the absolute.

 Art inflames even a frozen, darkened soul to a high spiritual experience. Through art we are sometimes visited – dimly, briefly – by revelations such as cannot be produced by rational thinking.

Like that little looking-glass from the fairy-tales: look into it and you will see – not yourself – but for one second, the Inaccessible, whither no man can ride, no man fly. And only the soul gives a groan

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, Nobel Lecture

Throughout history, religions understood that the communal experience of the arts in practices of worship provided us with a glimpse of the sacred. Rituals of worship including art, music, and dance lured people to cherish the spiritual side of human existence. It drew us towards altered states of consciousness and higher truths, unveiling the illusive nature of material things and earthly pursuits. Connecting to something greater than ourselves, awe and beauty signal to us that there was something beyond the limited constructs of the human mind – a reality which words and language cannot fully describe.  

Beauty presents us with an ideal to strive towards. Further, it provides us with meaning, our ‘why’ and purpose to help us conquer the many uncertainties in life.  Coming to us through flashes of insight or intuition, beauty acts as a signpost which reveals the path towards the good life.

In the final analysis, it is the gift of aspiration as well as of hope.  

Photo by Julia Volk on Pexels.com

It is said that Dostoyevsky’s idea of beauty is characterized by the love of God. Jesus’ death and resurrection is one of the many reminders for humanity that redemption, joy and bliss can be found on the other side of suffering. The cross presents us with a symbol of hope, representing the idea that good will always transcend over evil. Our suffering is not in vain, but is a guide towards a higher purpose.  

This experience of awe, reverence and beauty in art and in life is of course is not exclusively limited to the domain of religion. Nietzsche, an atheist, was particularly fond of the idea that life itself can be treated as a work of art. Nietzsche thought of humans as inherently creative beings, who wish to assert their individuality by bringing something original and authentic into existence.

Art presents us with the opportunity us to rise above hardship by using difficult experiences as inspiration and raw materials in working towards a more wholesome meaningful life. We turn chaos into order and the apparent randomness of our existence into wonderful harmony. Think of the many great songs that reflect on the common experiences of sorrow, heartbreak or grief.  

Through this catharsis we realize we are connected through a common bond with the rest of humanity as we share those same feelings and emotions with others. We hear the same story over and over again just with different words. 

Through the pursuit of beauty we shape the world as a home, and in doing so we both amplify our joys and find consolation for our sorrows.

Roger Scruton

Within this enduring beauty and truth that is illuminated in great art, we can arrive at a better understanding of citizens from different cultures and traditions. Art offers us portals into the worlds of those who are seemingly different from us. Rather than acting in hesitancy or suspicion, we can come towards greater empathy and compassion.

For we all have the same drives to experience beauty, moments of awe and wonder in which our consciousness transforms from ‘me’ to ‘we’ or from ‘I’ to ‘us’. For a brief period, selfish egotism all but vanishes, and new possibilities arrive. A new door opens for us all.

In beauty, and through beauty we are united as one.

A thing of beauty is a joy forever; its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness

John Keats, Endymion
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