Reason Versus Emotion ?

Michael Riley was a British naval radar officer in the First Gulf War. He saw a blip that scared him, headed toward a U.S. battleship. Yet the radar profile seemed to match U.S. fighter planes he’d seen repeatedly. For forty seconds, he tracked it, trying to spot a difference, but couldn’t. He had to decide. “Shoot it down,” he ordered.

Riley was right: it was a missile.

Investigators reviewed the tapes, struggling to figure out Riley’s unexplained intuition. Eventually, they found the subtle clue in the timing of the blip’s first appearance on the radar screen.

Had Riley acted rationally?

I’ve mentioned how my wife twits me for supposedly believing in reason, when humans so often seem irrational. And a whole spate of books has shown, from a scientific standpoint, all the ways in which we make bad, irrational decisions and choices, because of specific quirks in how our minds work. (I recently read one, Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide.)

Plato saw reason and emotion as two horses pulling a chariot, with the charioteer struggling to make them work as a team. But while reasoned thought and emotional response are distinct mental modules that even operate in different brain areas, yet they do work together. For a normal person, they are so intertwined that it’s really a single combined process of mental functioning.

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio studied people injured in specific brain localities responsible for emotion. They did become calm and emotionless. But not Spocklike paragons of rationality! In fact, their lives fell apart because they couldn’t make the simplest decisions. Because making any decision or choice entails serving some objective. That objective is supplied by emotion; indeed, it supplies the entire framework for everything we do. Remove emotion and we are not left rational, but adrift without meaning. Damasio’s patients didn’t even care that their lives fell apart.

And emotion is not the opposite of reason. It is a different form of it. When you experience the emotion of anger, it isn’t just something that happens to you; it happens for cause, and normally it’s a perfectly logical response to that cause. Emotion is always prompting us to serve and advance our needs and interests. Oh yes, it’s a crude tool, and frequently misfires. But in the big picture, emotions do an excellent job of steering us. Again, look what happened to Damasio’s patients without emotions.

The Riley and Damasio stories are discussed in Lehrer’s book. He also reports an experiment with fascinating implications:

Test subjects were given four decks of cards to pick from. Each card meant either winning or losing money. Two of the decks were overly loaded with losing cards. It took the average player fifty picks to start avoiding those “bad” decks, and eighty before he could say why. But here’s the stunning thing: after only ten picks, the player’s hand already showed signs of nervousness when reaching toward a “bad” deck.

In other words, a deep intuition figured out the game long before the conscious rational mind did. Michael Riley’s story is similar. Something in his brain spotted the signature of a missile, even though his conscious mind could not see it; and indeed, it was very hard even for the subsequent investigation to see it.

But isn’t this Rationality with a capital R? Wasn’t Riley’s unconscious intuitive mind being supremely rational? Wasn’t this true of the card pickers too? Their minds also reached a correct insight long before conscious thought could.*

This should not really surprise us. We evolved in a very challenging, threatening environment, which often required quick life-or-death decisions. We had to make those decisions as good as possible. Often there would not have been time to think them through with conscious rationality. That’s why we evolved the quick intuitive capabilities shown by Riley and the card pickers.

This also accounts for the thinking “defects” discussed in the books I’ve mentioned. A good example: when weighing potential gains and losses, we tend to overweight the risk of loss; a big cause of bad investment decisions. But it’s obvious why our brains are wired this way. For our caveman ancestors, a “negative outcome” might easily have been death, an excellent reason to be much more loss-averse than gain-hungry.

That particular vestige from our past probably does disserve us today, more often than not. But that’s only one of innumerable mental biases, decisional shortcuts which enable us to smoothly navigate through all the choices facing us continually throughout the day. If we had to analytically think our way through every decision, we couldn’t function. So even if some of those shortcuts sometimes work badly, in the ways the books say, as a package they serve us exceptionally well. And for us to utilize this package of intuitional, emotional mental shortcuts is therefore the height of rationality.

You might suppose that we humans are controlled less by instinct compared to other animals. But in fact, we have a far larger repertoire of instincts. That indeed is the depth of sophistication of our big brains; our range of complex behaviors not even requiring us to stop and think.

This doesn’t mean the prefrontal cortex – where conscious rational thinking occurs – is superfluous. To the contrary, it’s a great boon to have both systems, with the rational thinking module also far more developed than in any other creature. This means we are not slaves to our emotions and intuitions, but can take their benefits while also knowing – a lot of the time – when not to. Our best thinking is when we think about our thinking, to consider the reasons behind it, which enables us to revise it. Thusly using both systems together – reasoned thought and intuitive emotion – gives us much better results than would either alone.

All this is why I see humans as rational even when they’re not.

* Such intuitive decision-making is the subject of Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink.

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13 Responses to “Reason Versus Emotion ?”

  1. erobinson100 Says:

    In response to your Riley example: how many times have there been similar instances when someone made a comparable decision, but turned out to be wrong? I assume that Riley’s intuition is the exception rather than the norm.

    [Great point! Reminds me of Epicurus visiting the temple showing pictures of the sailors who prayed to the gods in storms and were saved. “Where,” he said, “are the pictures of the ones who prayed and drowned?”
    But actually Riley’s case is instructive because it turned out there was a good reason for his intuition, that was unavailable to his conscious mind, but nevertheless perceived deep in his brain.]

  2. Anonymous Says:

    How totally coincidental and ironic that the very next thing I read after this post was an article in my FB feed from Reason Magazine:

    “It takes about thirty seconds to get altitude information after the 909 radar is turned on….Maddeningly, the Gloucester’s weapons director failed in his first two attempts to type in the track number….As a result, it was not until forty-four seconds into the incident that the 909 informed Riley that the target was flying at 1,000 feet. Only then did he issue orders to fire missiles at the track.”

  3. M. Rodriguez Says:

    I do think we need both rational and reasonable thought and emotion. Because man was not made to be completely rational and logical.

  4. Gregory Kipp Says:

    The more rationality the better. But rationality requires data, and not all problems can be fully understood at a given moment in time. Application of intuition, or instinct if you will, thus becomes important in many situations. Emotions are great at telling us when we’re observing a pattern we’ve seen before, but not so great at distinguishing between similar patterns that actually might be different.

  5. John Says:

    From my point of view … things are pretty simple when it comes to reason vs emotion . Emotional thinking means getting what you want in life. Reason means avoiding what you don’t want in life . So you need both because life is a game of duality . Only the person who thinks in both terms is a man who can have all sorts of success in life. If you think only in terms of what you want … you may find yourself getting robbed by someone with a smile on his face that looks very friendly . So you got what you wanted …. you were happy , until you got home and found out that the thing you bought is worth shit . With rationality on the other hand you try to avoid all the time what you don’t want , but when you buy something …. you feel that you don’t really enjoy that much that thing you bought , even though you may find it useful . So you did not buy what you wanted , you bought what you thought it was useful .

    So what should you do ? Well …. I have no answer to you … because once you try to rationalize what you buy , you can’t really have the same confidence anymore , you can’t really see all the advantages without seeing the disadvantages . So your heart won’t ever tell you the story you want it to tell you if you try to think in those terms . But who knows right ?

    For every man that gets what he wants , there is at least a man who doesn’t.

  6. rationaloptimist Says:

    John, your final line is actually a big misunderstanding that lies at the heart of much hostility toward market economics. In general, most market transactions occur because the buyer gets something he values more than the money, while the seller values the money more. Thus both improve their welfare; win-win. And it’s through such transactions repeated over and over that human wealth is built.

  7. John Says:

    When I am talking about getting what you want , I’m talking about happiness . And happiness you cannot rationalize . Sure you can make right decisions and then buy yourself a car with the money you got . You will get yourself a burst of energy . But there are people who want to feel like that all the time . Rationality expends mental energy . Emotional thinking gets mental energy. Man is rational . Women are emotional . The sun expends energy . The moon gets energy. Energy and information are one and the same believe it or not . If I burn a log … there will no longer be a log , it will be ashes . In the Sistine Chapel you have this painted out nicely by Michelangelo . God , an old man , a rationalist , a man who knows the truth , gives energy to a younger man . A man who almost is not curious of anything . So Adam absorbs energy, like a Yogi if you want . Once Adam becomes a rationalist , he is expelled from the Garden of Eden . Rationality expends energy , Inspiration gets energy . It is that simple . Einstein was in the first part of his life a rationalist . Until he started to figure out that … that was not the key to make things happen , so he started to think in terms of imagination and emotions . “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere. ”
    Read more at . What does the word inspiration mean? To be inspired ? For me it means that someone else did the work , and I got the rewards . Jesus for example was not a rationalist , but in the Sistine Chapel God is a rationalist . There are Yogis who know lots of stuff just because they did their meditation . Buddha , and all those spiritual leaders were thinking emotionally . So it is the easy way out .

  8. Anonymous Says:

    I just read the story about Riley in Lehrer’s book, it’s a good example to show the positive side of emotions during decision making. Thousands of times, Riley trained his dopamine neurons for prediction accuracy. The ACC part in our brain memorized the subtle patterns and keep them up to date.So, when next time the prediction endures a mismatch with the outcome, our emotion could react rapidly and correctly.but in some conditions, emotions cannot solve the problem. you may be fooled by your feeling. best decision-makers know which situations require a less intuitive response.

  9. Don Says:

    Steve Jobs was an emotional thinker . In fact all great geniuses were emotional thinkers , from Michelangelo , to Gordon Ramsay . Emotion does not mean illogical . No way . Emotion simply means you ask yourself a question and you wait for the answer . Inspiration will give you the answer …. simple as that . When you feel good you have the answer . But … if you rationalize all the time what is happening you will never get inspiration . So these are two oposite ways of thinking . The brain functions on simple principles . You create a void in the brain by asking yourself a question … and the answer will come, if you don’t think too much about it . That is emotional thinking . Doing what you feel is right instead of comparing different data from your brain as you do when you rationalize . It’s really simple . Richard Feynman for example had an IQ of 122 … and he was the last great genius of this planet .

  10. Rashad Says:

    I enjoyed reading this. Thanks.

  11. Reason & Emotion | Theory Of Knowledge Says:

    […] F. (2012). Reason Versus Emotion?. [online] The Rational Optimist. Available at: [Accessed 8 Dec. […]

  12. Reason vs Emotion | camistok Says:

    […] F. (2012). Reason Versus Emotion?. [online] The Rational Optimist. Available at: 11 Dec. […]

  13. Reason vs. Emotion | Theory of Knowledge Says:

    […] Rational Optimist. 2015. Reason Versus Emotion ? | The Rational Optimist. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 10 December […]

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