Emotional Rationality

Wait a second. You can’t put the words “emotional” and “rationality” together. They’re exact opposites of each other. In fact, appeals to emotions are considered logical fallacies.

That notwithstanding, I am going to argue that emotions are, indeed, a form of rationality. I’ve discussed before the many forms rationality can take. These ideas are based on Barbara Townley’s book, Reason’s Neglect. I’ll start off addressing the abuses of appeals to emotions before I state the case for emotions’ rationality. I’ll close with a discussion on the importance of blending different forms of rationalities when making decisions.

Appeals to emotion: A logical fallacy

We consider appeals to emotions logical fallacies when we use emotions to manipulate others to a course of action. An advertisement might show a scene showing that bad breath makes you undesirable, cut to an image of an actor chewing gum, and then switch to a scene of that gum-chewing actor surrounded by gorgeous friends and laughter. Instead of presenting evidence supporting the assertions between foul breath, gum, and desirability, the advertisers play on your fears and desires to trick you into buying gum. Someone is exploiting your emotions to influence your behaviour.

Are all my emotions, however, illogical? Is my desire to belong to a group of friends irrational?

The rationality of emotions

Emotions have rationality of their own. If you were at a graduation ceremony where proud parents watched their excited children cross the stage to pick up their diploma, and someone interrupted the service by screaming in terror for no reason, that emotion demands explanation. It is out of place. Pride, excitement, boredom, these are the emotions appropriate for a graduation ceremony. In the absence of a threat, the emotion of fear is inappropriate. That person must be crazy. They are acting irrationally.

Emotions are a form of social communication. Laughter communicates all is well, we are safe. Fear conveys danger–look out! Expressing the wrong emotion breeds confusion. Emotional cues further demonstrate our ability to perform a task–if my accountant is crying, her tears inform me she might not be capable of managing my year-end taxes right now.

Our emotions also communicate our values to ourselves. We may desire wealth, yet feel guilty should we deceive a friend in pursuit of it. Our feelings tell us what ends we find worth achieving and the means we find appropriate to achieve them.

Our emotions are far from irrational. They are the grease that smooths the workings of society. So, how then do they lead us astray when it comes to logical fallacies?

The risk of relying on one form of rationality

Coming back to the logical fallacy in the chewing gum advertisement, there is nothing inherently irrational about wanting to belong to a group–there are, in fact, valid reasons for joining groups. What turns the reasonable desire to belong to a group into a logical fallacy is the reliance on a single form of rationality when choosing what action to take.

In a previous post, I explored the different forms rationality takes–that is, the different ways we come to know things. Disembedded rationalities were means to understand objective truths. Embedded rationalities explored what was rational within a social setting. Embodied rationalities used the senses of our bodies to understand the world (emotional rationality is a form of embodied rationality). Collective rationalities were how groups arrived at decisions, and practical rationality combined all the previous forms to generate powerful insights.

Each form of rationality has blind spots that others fill. If you rely too much on a single type of rationality, those blind spots become serious problems. For example, you might recall in another post I shared my experience where the Canadian healthcare system’s over-reliance on economic rationality erected barriers to the adoption of a potentially life-saving technology due to the fear it would increase costs.

Our solutions are stronger when we blend rationalities. Our emotions may tell us we want to be desirable, but are there studies confirming gum is the best way to achieve that? What have other peoples’ experiences been?

What have been your experiences with emotional rationality? Have you been in situations where emotions gave you sharper insights? What have been the effects of inappropriate emotional responses that you’ve experienced? Please take a moment to share your stories in the comments.

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