Today we’re going to talk about emotions and logic and critical thinking.
There are lots of videos and talks out there about logic vs emotion and how these are two different kinds of thinking, or how emotions mess up critical thinking and make it difficult for people to make good decisions or form accurate opinions. I disagree with that analysis because let’s be real: emotions are not something you can separate out or take away from people. Despite having very strong feelings on lots of different topics, people have been able to make perfectly valid and reasonable decisions about all kinds of things. Even Mr. Spock from Star Trek, the ultimate logical thinker, experienced a full range of emotions. He just suppressed the crap out of them because his people adopted a philosophy that emotions were bad. They had good reasons to think so, but as I think any psychologist would tell you, suppressing or denying how we feel only gets us into some real psychological messes and is not much of a solution for critical thinking.
Emotion, information, logic and our implicit and explicit biases all work in partnership to drive our thinking. In human beings, these are inseparable components. If you are going to talk about practical critical thinking, you need to take all of these things into account, otherwise you’re going to fail since we are not purely logical computers and not purely emotional or instinctual animals. Emotions get a bad rap in critical thinking, but there’s nothing wrong with having them, and there’s nothing wrong with acting on them. If we didn’t act on our emotions, many of us would never have relationships, would never have children or wouldn’t try to push the envelope of innovation. Believe me, you can think of hundreds of very logical reasons to not do almost anything but we do them anyway because despite the odds, we just feel we can pull it off. We owe a lot of our forward progress in history to people who had very strong emotions driving them to do what they did.
Where emotions become a concern in critical thinking is when appeals to emotion become the overriding factor in a person’s decision making and they then nullify or ignore reasonable or logical reasons to do or not do something. And these concerns are legitimate because the problem with appeals to emotion is widespread. Almost all advertising is based on this, with the minimum of facts and maximum of emotional appeal used to sell everything from cars to baby food. Just ask yourself when you go to the grocery store, do you make your purchases based on what you know are the crucial differences between products or are your purchases based on the colors and pictures on the packages and their relative price differences?
Paying attention to our emotions and putting some regulation and control on them is called emotional intelligence. Emotions aren’t just how we feel, but actually do determine our choices in many subtle ways that are still being researched. For example, people can reject information not because it’s factual or fake, but because of how it makes them feel. If we have a vested interest in our political candidate being right or our sport team winning, it’s easy for us to reject some criticism or bad news about them without even thinking about it. These days, the big catchphrase is “fake news.” It’s certainly true that fake news exists, but not every mainstream media outlet is pumping out fake news 24/7. Many times, claiming a story is “fake news” is just an excuse for not wanting to believe some bad but true news about someone or something that a person is emotionally invested in.
As another example, it’s unpleasant for people to accept that the world is more random and out of control than a lot of people want it to be, so intead they buy into all kinds of nonsensical ideas about fate and karma and how much influence their diety of choice is having on their life. This goes both ways actually, because over-optimism and over-pessimism can both be illogical depending on the circumstances. It’s totally understandable because it’s not just unpleasant but downright scary to accept that life is unfair, there is no cosmic justice and that evil people get away with being evil all the time. The truth is that life can be very rough and that’s just the way it is. Wishful thinking not only doesn’t make it better, but can impede making things better because a wishful thinker is not honestly assessing what is really going on or what actual problems exist. If someone is just wishing hopefully that a dam is going to hold in bad weather, they won’t go look at where cracks are forming and fix them and people could end up dying who didn’t have to.
As a critical thinker, being aware of your emotions opens the door to controlling them to some degree. It’s not about suppressing your emotions or not feeling what you feel. It’s about being smart about how you use your emotions to enhance your thinking instead of letting them get in the way.
So let’s take a quick look at how emotions affect our decision making in positive and negative ways. There’s been a lot of research done on this actually and a lot more to be done. For example, when a person is in a bad mood, they are more likely to make decisions that are higher risk and that they know are bad for them.
The emotions of fear and anger generally come about through the presence of an active or remembered threat of some kind. Depending on how active the threat is or how strong the memory is, thought processes go into action to rapidly determine what is the best course to deal with the threat. This is called the fight or flight response. There’s not long contemplation of what options are available to the person or what the intended and unintended consequences of their actions could be. That’s why making important life decisions or arguments from a position of anger or fear generally doesn’t work out too well and why angry people can be so unreasonable. They aren’t thinking their thoughts through all the way.
Empathy, on the other hand, is by definition the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Compassion, tolerance and understanding are good for critical thinking because these emotions and attitudes reinforce a willingness to be open to new or different ideas than your own. This is why when you can calm someone down in an argument and explain your position and listen to theirs, you usually end up finding some common ground and can reason with one another to resolve your differences. Sure, it doesn’t always work out, but how often do people who are shouting at each other come to an amicable ending and resolve their differences? It happens but not very often.
Emotion and logic and critical thinking are big subjects and I’m just scratching the surface of it all here with this video. In this time when the United States seems more divided politicaly and socially than ever before, I thought it might help to let people know that it’s fine to have strong feelings about what you care about, but don’t let those feelings cloud your judgement or blind you to accepting new facts or new information which could help you and others get along and sort things out. We face extremely complex issues in health care and tax reform, as well as in our more day-to-day affairs of keeping our relationships going, raising our families and just doing our jobs. Good critical thinking skills can help all of that, but they have to be practiced and utilized.
Thank you for watching.