Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Logical Facts of Emotion

I recall a story airing on Public Radio about a man who had suffered a serious brain injury. The individual made what appeared to be a full recovery – but with one lingering bit of permanent brain damage; he had lost the ability to apply emotional qualities to certain aspects of his personality.

His disability manifested in a very peculiar way; though his analytical functioning remained intact, he was severely inhibited in his ability to make decisions requiring choices from more than one set of options. For example, when shopping for groceries, he was incapable of determining whether he should buy “Catsup” or “Ketchup”. Though he was able to continue his employment, other problems arose during the course of his work. Upon finalizing a lengthy and complex contract he had written, he could not decide if he should sign the contract using a pen with blue ink versus black ink. Both options had perceived merits, yet he was unable to determine which color in pen to use.

Most of us believe that we are capable of making objective decisions based on fact and reason. But being purely logical is problematic. I was always intrigued by the highly logical character of Spock on the Star Trek sci-fi series. Ingeniously, Gene Roddenberry created Spock to be the progeny of an abjectly logical Vulcan father and an emotional human mother. Roddenberry knew that a purely logical character would be both predictable and uninteresting. But by imbuing the character with an inherently illogical “human” element, he created a built-in dramatic conflict between Spock’s logical leanings and often contradictory emotional responses - quite ingenious drama.

We are often unaware that we are making decisions; we actually make hundreds of decisions every day, a majority of them unconsciously. The choice of clothing, the route we drive to work, our lunch choices – they are all a combination of rational and emotional evaluations.

We believe we are capable, rational and perhaps analytical in our decision making when important choices, such as purchase of a car, for example. But we do not make decisions in a vacuum. Consciously or not, we place value judgments against our thought processes. We weight the projected consequences of our decisions, which we may accept or find we need to rationalize in our minds in order to feel good about the choice. Heck, this is why cars come in colors like Candy Apple Red, have sport wheels or a kick-ass leather interior.

Advertising is cleverly designed to tap into the emotional aspects of our decision process and it is extremely effective. Appealing images and convincing statements skew our analytical processes. This is why that even though brand name Tylenol and generic acetaminophen are exactly the same products, consumers consistently purchase the higher priced brand name over the generic.

Research has even shown that that employers often come to decisions about who they wish to hire within mere seconds of initially meeting the applicant. The results of these tests have shown the surprisingly high incidence that the applicants who an interviewer immediately likes, overwhelmingly results in that person being offered the job. The qualifications, skills and experience of the application become secondary concerns, justifications may be created in an attempt to rationalize a wholly emotionally made decision.

However, there are pitfalls to rendering a decision based largely on emotions. The notable French scientist Louis Pasteur became concerned as scientific methodology surged in 19th century Europe. He saw many scientists engaging in experimentation who he felt were fixated on using the tools of science to confirm their already held hypothesis and thereby throwing out data which contradicted their expectations. He warned that discarding data could result in lost discoveries and incorrect conclusions: “Did you ever observe to whom the accidents happen? Chance favors only the prepared mind,” he cautioned.
Leaders in the so-called "birther" movement argued their case over President Barack Obama's U.S. citizenship before a federal appeals court Monday in Southern California, claiming the full birth certificate he released last week had been doctored. [Full story here]


Jerry said...

The older I have become the more I can look back and see so many of my decisions, including financial decisions, have have been emotionally driven...this from a person whose job involves logic-based decisions with careful justification.

I think it is interesting to note how many emotion-based decisions have to do with 'how I will be perceived' rather than 'I've always wanted this' or 'I will get pleasure from this'. We are a curious species.

The Birther Issue -- another prime example of discarding facts when they don't agree with the preconception.

Enjoyed this, Robert.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in a culture/faith where "truth" was (still is) defined by an unquenchable need for validation of belief -- which is ultimately rooted in a need for validation of the believer's sense of self. The religion defines them. If it isn't true, who are they? The alternatives are simply too frightening to consider.

Thus objective facts that don't support those validating truths are minimized or justified or simply disregarded. People are also and very effectively conditioned to shut down critical thinking skills on matters of faith and to place their unquestioning trust in religious authority.

I suppose the Birthers suffer from the same irrational need for validation of what they simply must believe -- maybe not so much about Obama, but themselves?

Thought-provoking post, Robert. I'm enjoying your blog very much.

DJan said...

I cannot imagine a life without emotional content, since I pretty much laugh and cry at everything, including this post! I love Spock, and after realizing that the food industry, as an example, has me "choosing" what I eat by manipulating those emotions... I sometimes wish I could lay 'em down. Good post, Robert, I always enjoy them.

Paul said...

Robert I think therefore I am. What defines me is the gray matter between my ears. I like old Spock, but I have no desire to emulate Vulcans...:-)

Robert the Skeptic said...

Jerry I hadn't thought of it until you mentioned it, yes we do place some valuation on how we believe others perceive us. The emotion of acceptance can be a strong influence, among others.

Dissenter Yet again something I hadn't thought of, indeed our beliefs can define us as. Religion is a prime example; people who identify themselves as Christians may be so caught up in that identity they become blind to their actions which are contrary to their supposed belief. We term them "hypocrites". They are capable of justifying suffering of others not like them or even fly planes into skyscrapers.

Robert the Skeptic said...

DJan Exactly the point, we cannot separate emotions from our logical rational brain. What we can do is recognize that we do this, be conscious of it. Besides, as you say, emotions are where we often find meaning and joy in life.

Paul Yes it is true, what defines us operates in that gray matter. What I try to emphasize is an attempt to understand and recognize the processes which operate under our conscious level as so much of what goes on in that gray matter does so automatically. In being aware of those subconscious processes, we have the potential to make effective use of that matter... and hopefully be less likely to be "taken in".

Kay Dennison said...

They say that man is a rational animal. I question that. I see less and less reason everyday.

Jon said...

Paul, I heard the Moody Blues state, "I think I am therefore I am, I think." Preconceived notions often play a large part in the decision making process. Except for me. I am totally objective. ;)

Robert the Skeptic said...

Kay Precisely my point.

Jon Aren't we all?

billy pilgrim said...

i watched a series on the seven deadly sins and how the pope and his crew had been unable to control these impulses in their flocks. a lot of brain scans and technical stuff concluded that certain emotional triggers would turn off the logic and inhibition centers in the brain resulting in a good time being had by all.

if a priest can't control his impulses how can we mere mortals be expected to act rationally.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Billy The priests in particular seem to have a difficult time controlling their impulses... which is proving costly to the Vatican.

Jayne said...

Oy vay. This is why some folks can't leave well enough alone.
(And why I tape any show I watch on TV--so I don't have to see the commercials.)

Spock was my favorite. ;)

“The word "belief" is a difficult thing for me. I don't believe. I must have a reason for a certain hypothesis. Either I know a thing, and then I know it - I don't need to believe it.” - Carl Jung

Robert the Skeptic said...

Jayne I have generally viewed the term "believe" for acceptance of things for which one has no proof; synonymous with "faith".

I prefer instead "trust" which one builds upon experience over time and shown to be true.

Antares Cryptos said...

There is much in your recent series of posts. Small decisions are indeed made subconsciously. I liked the Spock character although a lack of emotion would probably cause us to make harmful decisions.

I'm curious as to your definition of belief. We believe in our current scientific theories until new discoveries change our thoughts and "beliefs" about it. One of the most recent examples is that we believed that Pluto was the ninth planet in our solar system. I still find it difficult to believe that it's no longer true.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Cryptos I try to maintain a distinction between the word "belief" versus "trust", although many conveniently use belief interchangeably. I don't "believe" in gravity, for example; it just is. Belief can exist outside of whether or not the supposition is true, hence religious belief. Trust, on the other hand, I view as gained through experience over time.

I trust that Pluto is an object in earth orbit, like the other planets, because of the preponderance of evidence that astronomers have independently concluded. Because they have decided to not classify it as a planet doesn't change the fact that the object is there.

Again, that is the beauty of science; it becomes more accurate over time. No where is this more true than in the taxonomy of plants and animals which, for hundreds of years, were classified based on morphology. Now DNA testing has caused some reorganization, life forms we thought were related are having their relationship and their evolutionary lineage redefined.

So I would say we "trust" that our scientific theories are true until new discoveries change and correct that view.

Nance said...

If I hear one more freakin' story about the faked OBL operation or the faked Situation Room photo or the name it! Where were all the conspiracy theorists when Bush produced proof of WMD's with the storage capsules and tubes?

Adrenaline flooding from sheer fear. Or, in the case of some FOX mongers, commercial crassness...but look how worked up it's gotten America, after all.

KleinsteMotte said...

You have very nicely placed ideas over several posts that actually demonstrate how easy it is to pull a mind of another towards a thought. Calculated, brilliant and amusing.

Snowbrush said...

"we actually make hundreds of decisions every day, a majority of them unconsciously."

I would submit that our "decisions" are ALL made beneath the level of consciousness and are then presented to us by our brain. For example, if I was asked to name the first kind of cat that I thought of, and I said leopard, I could not have made tiger be first. Likewise, if I say I have a hankering for pancakes for breakfast, could I change my hankering to cereal? Or if blue is my favorite color, could I instead choose yellow. How about if I believe something to be true, by an act of will, could I believe it to be false?

The Heathen Republican said...

Good post. We'll never succeed in removing emotion from our decision-making, so it's best to try and identify the emotions and at least be aware of how they're influencing us. Back to car choice: after going through all the logical steps to pick the right kind of car (cost, quality, extras), pick the one that makes you feel good that still meets your logical criteria.

Think of it as a modified logic: acknowledge you're being emotional and not logical in your choice, then tell yourself you're okay making the choice even though it's an emotional one. Not perfect, but it's better than not knowing why we make our decisions.

Sightings said...

I remember I took a philosophy course in college called "On Knowing." We tried to define how we "know" something to be true ... and it seemed like we went around and around in circles.

So I wrote my final exam, arguing that we can never know if we "know" something for sure.

I got a C. The professor agreed with me: I didn't know anything at all!

That being said, some people are more knowledgeable, and rational, than others.

Anonymous said...

Many of the "small decisions" become not a decision at all, but mere habit. I have coffee for breakfast each morning. Is that really a choice, or a habit?
My husband researches large purchases to the extreme. I am his counter balance, I am much more likely to make a quick decision-based on emotion, that gut feeling, or facts? Probably a combination.
Your posts are always thought-provoking, Robert.

Paul said...

Too much worldly wisdom can make one a philosophical eunuch Robert ...

secret agent woman said...

I'm a generic-buyer myself.

But not immune from emotion-based decisions in other areas. I notice this when I'm buying paint for a project, I pick put a color based on the actual color, but in spite of myself I look at the silly color name and if I don't like it it changes the way I feel about the color itself.

GutsyWriter said...

Funny you should cover this topic as I wrote about being creatures of habit and perhaps needing to stimulate our brains to try new things and take risks. As far as decisions to move to another house, state or country, I also go with my emotions on "how does this place make me feel."

Robert the Skeptic said...

Nance I recently watched the film "Idocracy", it lampoons the dumbing-down of America. Where I think they got it wrong in the film is this all happens 500 years from now; I'd say one generation instead... tops!

KleinsteMotte I probably lean more toward the amusing than brilliant, but thanks for the compliment.

Snowbrush What is interesting to me when I watch "Jeopardy" on weekday evenings, how often the answer just pops into my brain without consciously thinking about it. I find that remarkable.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Heathen Indeed, it is quite difficult to separate the emotional part of our decision making - quite the point, it may not even be desirable to do so. That we recognize that is the important concept.

Sightings I have wrestled with this as well; I "know" the sun is 93 million miles away and that light travels at 186,000 miles/second - but I have no independent way to personally verify that fact. I have to accept what is generally "known" to be knowledgeable. As people often say: "consider the source".

BackRow I find I am consumed by the coffee "choice" as well. Most major decisions I run past my wife (as she is usually affected by them) but also I welcome having another set of brain cells look at the question to identify concepts I may have missed or otherwise mis-considered.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Paul Philosophical eunuch?? Hell, I think it actually takes "balls" to seek worldly wisdom.

SecretAgent My wife completely ignores the silly color names and ensures that the mix code is clearly written on the paint can. She has a very discerning eye and if it is even the wrong "sheen" she will pick that out in a heartbeat. I like that she is not afraid of bold colors too.

Gutsy Our emotional components cannot and should not be divorced from our decision making for the prime reason that we have to live with the consequences of many of our decisions. Without that emotional component, we might make some very "right" choices which end up making us miserable.

Mandy_Fish said...

What a fascinating post. I never thought about choosing between a blue and a black pen as an "emotional" decision. But it really is. For some reason I'm struck by how basic that it is.

Antares Cryptos said...

Thought of you when I saw this. A little exaggerated, but...

Robert the Skeptic said...

Mandy It is basic, very basic and THAT is why we never really notice the emotional components we use in decision making, they are under our radar, unconscious as they have to be.

Cryptos I've seen this. The "Thinking Atheist" really has their stuff together. Great content.