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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