We all have those moments when we say or do something foolish because our emotions “made us.” You decide to wait for the last minute to finish your work because you’d rather watch Breaking Bad, resulting in a last-minute panic. Or you lean in to kiss a friend because it “felt right,” only to be pushed away.
If anything, emotions make life interesting.
But for the most part, we like to think that we’re rational decision makers. To make choices, we consider our options and chose the one that makes the most sense. We’re not willy-nilly about such things. And those foolish, emotion-based decisions are a rarity, not the norm. As Samuel Johnson once said, “We may take Fancy for our companion, but must follow reason as our guide.”
Moreover, Most of our public discourse assumes that we are rational. Our economy’s dominant theory is “rational market theory” and the framers designed our political system according to Enlightenment ideals of rational government.
Philosophy, in particular has tended to focus on logic and reason. The Stoics are one famous example, but Socrates also prided logic over emotion, even to the point of death. Some exceptions exist, like Nietzsche and Rousseau, but they are precisely that: exceptions.
Indeed, most of us like to think that we control our destiny with rational choice–whether its in buying a car or choosing a profession–but research shows we may not be as rational as we think.
To understand this fact first requires us to change our view on emotions. Most people see emotions in light of the feelings attached to them—the subjective experience of being happy, sad, or otherwise. When people are sad, they feel sad. It’s a subjective mental state, nothing more.
However, many emotional elements go beyond the subjective. As Arne Öhman, psychologist and neurologist, puts it, “bodily changes are controlled by the autonomic nervous system, which is primarily responsible for matching metabolic resources to the muscular—and to some extent, mental—needs of the body” (Öhman 35). In other words, an emotion often arises out of a complex series of bodily reactions to stimuli. We embody our emotions just as we feel them in our heads.
This makes sense for anyone who’s ever been in love. Love is more than a mental state. The whole body changes. Love-sick nausea hits our stomach, hearts pound, palms sweat, and cheeks blush. Thought is just one element.
Moreover, many emotional reactions reach the amygdala–the main neurological core of emotion–through a nerve without entering the cortex, the site of consciousness and reason (Öhman 39). Thus, bodily reactions occur before our thoughts register the stimulus. We feel before we think.
For example, in one experiment, researchers hid very negative stimuli of snakes and spiders that flashed for a hundredth of a second in a movie of largely neutral images. The amygdala of subjects who had expressed a fear of spiders reacted to the spider image but had little reaction to the snakes (Öhman, 39). Moreover, they reported anxiety at the proper times. The subjects afraid of snakes reacted the opposite way. And neither type was consciously aware of the pictures.
Or, in another experiment, researchers hid negative stimuli in the blind spot of the conscious vision field. These blind spots occur when the brain processes the raw stimuli from the optic nerve, looses a small spot from its poor wiring, and fills it in on its own. You can often find tests to see for yourself. Thus, the patients didn’t “see” the stimuli, but the amygdala reacted, prompting bodily responses appropriate for fear and anxiety (Öhman 40).
While they are nowhere near conclusive, other experiments have prompted many neurologists to reconsider the role of emotions.
Neurologist Antonio Damasio, for example, thinks that the body’s reaction to stimuli causes the mental reaction. In other words, our body registers an emotion first, before we feel it as a mental state or feeling. This means that we can’t use our conscious powers–like reason–to stop our emotions. We feel despite what we think.
But fortunately for the rational thinkers out there, many researchers think we can use our thoughts to direct the feelings of the emotional state, altering our emotions. After an initial uncontrollable reaction, we can often control our full response with conscious effort.
This lies at the heart of many modern psyche practices–like cognitive behavioral therapy–and many ancient philosophies, like Buddhism.
The Buddha even has a handy parable about it called “The Two Darts.” Basically, says the Buddha, when we get hurt, we can think about it, obsess over it, and lament. But this will make it hurt more. It would be like getting hit by a dart and poking the wound with another dart, bringing up the pain. The wiser disciple registers the hurt and moves on, mindful and calm, without fixating on it.
As the sutra says, “in the case of a well-taught noble disciple, O monks, when he is touched by a painful feeling, he will not worry nor grieve and lament, he will not beat his breast and weep, nor will he be distraught. It is one kind of feeling he experiences, a bodily one, but not a mental feeling.”
The frontal cortex takes the brunt of this control, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that it’s also a key place for decision making. But, as you might have guessed by now, emotions affect decisions extensively.
In a recent study, researchers examined the effects of emotions on risky-choice situations. Risky choices are dilemmas in which the payoffs or gains have a potential risk. Many political decisions fall under this category. For example, a city may want to build a park for revenue, but people may not use the park, meaning the investment was for nothing. Thus, a risk is involved.
The ideal citizen makes rational decisions with little emotional disruption, but this is often not the reality.
First of all, emotions influence how we may approach a situation through the personal feelings we have about something (Druckman 298). But this is obvious. Observation shows us that happy people tend to make more optimistic decisions, and the anxious among us make more cautious ones. Research just backs this up (Druckman 308).
But, we often ignore the power of framing. In the words of one researcher, framing occurs when “logically equivalent cases cause individuals to alter their preferences… typically involving casting the same information in either a positive or negative light” (Druckman 298). In other words, how something is said effects what is said–or what we think it says. For example, people would be more likely to reject a plan that results in 5% unemployment but accept it if the plan promises 95% employment–despite the fact it says the logical same thing.
Advertisers are masters of framing. By planting the seeds of positive or negative images or putting things in certain formulations, ads influence us to chose one option over another regardless of actual logic or evidence.
Moreover, most of this is unconscious. For example, many ads make us laugh because this allows the images to sneak past our conscious skepticism. We think, “This is ridiculous,” but the seed remains planted. Jean Killbourne, author and filmmaker, is a major critic of this, arguing that the billions spent on advertising regularly warp decisions and outlook, generally for the worse.
We may decide to buy a product because the framing advertisers use prod and cajole us, not because we made a rational choice. Perhaps the lovely, green packaging makes us comfortable. Perhaps the repetition of a certain jingle makes a name stand out. Or maybe a fun commercial gives us positive associations with a product. It’s hard to tell what finally nudges us to our choice, and framing is so pervasive that we really can’t escape it. Our brain is wired for it.
Fortunately, all this irrational choice may not be a bad thing.
Damasio studied patients with lesions in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the portion of the brain just above the nasal cavity in the frontal cortex (Öhman 37). As mentioned, this area helps regulate emotions. It also integrates emotion with decision-making by evaluating “somatic markers” sent by the body. Somatic markers are bodily reactions to certain emotional stimuli that remain tagged in our memory. So, options with positive reactions in the body—like the dopamine released after a goal is reached—have positive somatic markers. The opposite is true for negative options, like failure.
Subjects with a damaged ventromedial prefrontal cortex wouldn’t process these somatic markers. A failure would have the same emotional “mark” as a success. Thus, no emotion tag would steer them one way or the other.
Damasio’s subjects took multiple psychological evaluations, showing them to have few deficiencies. But they all make horrible decisions (Öhman 37). Therefore, Damasio concluded that somatic markers must help us narrow and direct decisions by coloring our options with positive or negative somatic markers. We need the somatic fear of failure to make us register bad decisions and the somatic high of joy to register good ones.
But still, emotional reactions, framing, and typical up-and-down moods, among other things, can impede our reason. For some, like me, this is a little hard to face. I like the clarity reason allows, the crisp Spock-like process it follows, and the elegance it gives a decision. Also, logic allows us to make accurate assumptions with our evidence. Emotions disrupt this accuracy by coloring our facts with feelings.
What are we to do?
A book came out in 2012 called You Are Not So Smart that examines this neurology and psychology research. It tears down fallacies chapter by chapter, arguing that we are not that smart. Things like framing or bodily emotion influence us in ways that are difficult to control.
And for the most part, any astute person would reach the same conclusion. Most of make fools of ourselves regularly. We buy those products that sit idle on basement shelves. Make those impulsive decisions that haunt us like a bad Wile E Coyote scheme. But this is all part of the human condition. As the Romantics stressed, we’re more than mere reason, and sometimes the unreasonable can be just as powerful and meaningful as the reasonable.
And if nothing else, realizing our inherent fallibilities should at least make us more humble and compassionate as we consider how other people’s decisions. Sometimes, we just can’t help it. Life is complex and so are we. Sometimes the clarity of logic is impossible, and that’s OK.
Öhman, Arne. (2006) “Making Sense of Emotion: Evolution, Reason, & the Brain.”
Deadalus, 135.3, 33-45. Print.
Druckman, James N. and Rose McDermott. (2008) “Emotion and the Framing of Risky
Choice.” Political Behavior, 30.3, 297-321. Print.