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Emotion and Instinct

Last time, I mentioned the historic concept of human beings being distinct from all other animals due to our ability to reason. Under this conception, failures in our thinking can be attributed to emotion or animal instinct overwhelming that reasoning ability. You can see echoes of this conception today in commentary regarding voters making choices emotionally or tribally, rather than by thinking through which candidates best represent rational choices.

We have all had experiences when anger or passion led to decisions or actions we later regretted, so there is no question emotion and instinct can short-circuit more systematic thinking processes. But making those non-cognitive functions the primary culprits for phenomena like tribal politics or vulnerability to “fake news” misses the complex roles emotion and instinct play in our lives, including our thinking lives.

For example, our emotions include bad ones such as hatred, anger and fear, as well as good ones such as love, sympathy and courage. When we think about the damage emotion can play in our lives, we are normally thinking about bad emotions leading to counter-productive results.

For example, President Trump’s press conference after he was acquitted in the impeachment trial, full of gloating and fury directed at his political enemies, had more to do with settling scores than with changing an antagonistic dynamic that has prevented him from achieving his policy goals. Similarly, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision to rip up the President’s State of the Union Speech on national television was meant to demonstrate her anger. While this fit of pique might have played well on Twitter, it also reduced her ability to present herself, and her party, as a mature alternative to rival Republicans.

Emotional appeals can also come off as manipulative, exemplified by many of the surprises Donald Trump bestowed on people in the audience during his most recent State of the Union address. While those manufactured heartwarming moments might play well to certain segments of the television public, people turned off by such stunts expressed legitimate concerns that their emotions were being played upon.

At the same time, the good emotions not only lead us in better ethical directions, they also give us new sources of data that can play the role of premises in the kind of systematic logical arguments you have been learning about on this site.

For example, the emotional connection a parent has for a child allows a mother or father to ascertain a child’s needs long before verbal communication comes into play. When my kids were young, I didn’t hook them up to EEGs in order to determine when they were hungry, uncomfortable or tired. Rather, my love for them made me highly attuned to evidence about their current state. This provided information that drove rational decision-making, such as choices over when to feed them, change them, or put them to bed.

Many of the good emotions are based on empathy, the ability to get into the head of another person to better understand what they are thinking and feeling. You have already read about the role empathy plays in the argumentation process through the Principle of Charity. How much better might our political system as a whole be if we went out of our way to understand those we opposed, rather than treat them as enemies whose ideas and opinions should be ignored or shunned?

Regarding instinct, like emotions our baser instincts contribute to everything from bad reasoning to outright horrors. Mankind’s tribal instinct, for example, very likely originated in our evolutionary history and helped our species to survive. Yet the persistence of that tribal instinct into the modern age has led to ossified partisanship, racism, and even genocide.

At the same time, positive instincts – such as trust – provide valuable data that cannot always be obtained through cognitive means alone.

I thought of this recently when a colleague alerted friends about one of those web sites that allows you to specify your stance on different political issues, after which the site would deliver to you an algorithm-driven choice of which candidate to vote for in the Democratic primary. A conversation ensued over the fact that nearly everyone was told they should support someone they had no interest in voting for.

In theory, this might mean we were all behaving irrationally, substituting feeling or gut instinct for an “objective” choice to vote for the person with whom we agreed the most on the issues. In reality, however, our decision to reject the algorithmically “perfect” choice was likely based on not trusting the candidate a computer had chosen for us, including not trusting them to act on (or at least prioritize) the issues we might agree are important.

So updating the historic model of humans as reasoning beings, we should instead think of ourselves as a complex mix of reason, emotion and instinct. Emotion and instinct can lead us astray, but they also provide data (including data that can serve as the premises of logical arguments) as well as insights that provide new explanations for how those premises might lead to conclusions.

This is particularly important since, as you read about last time, human reasoning is far from perfect which is why much of the manipulation we see in politics is not based on playing to our emotions, but rather taking advantage of flaws in our cognitive wiring. Those flaws manifest themselves as biases, the great enemy of reason, a subject we shall turn to next.


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