The myth of rationality: understanding how reason is powered by emotions

“Emotions and feelings are not a luxury; they are a means of communicating our states of mind to others. But they are also a way of guiding our own judgments and decisions. Emotions bring the body into the loop of reason.” – Antonio Damasio, neuroscientist & author of The Descartes’s error.

Emotions. Almost a swear word in the office, and a taboo in board meetings – as if having emotions totally blinds us. As if they prevent us from thinking rationally or making sound decisions. As if a judgment led by emotions can never be right.

A common perception would be the following: reason relies on explanations, facts, data; whereas emotions rely on sensations, feelings and impressions. Emotions are not concrete nor tangible. As such, we cannot trust them.

Let me share a couple of stories of what actually happens if we suppress emotions from our system, to better understand how emotions influence greatly our cognitive functions.

Meet Phineas Gage, one of neuroscience’s most famous patients. Phineas used to be a hardworking and pleasant American railroad construction foreman, until 1848 when, at the age of 25, a tragic accident occurred. An iron rod was driven through his entire skull, destroying his frontal lobe – the area of the brain responsible for important cognitive functions such as emotional expression, memory, judgment, and problem solving.

Although he survived his brain injury and was still undoubtedly intelligent, Phineas Gage was never the same person. He could no longer follow rules or stick to a job, he acted with almost no respect towards his peers and became somewhat aggressive.

This was the first case to ever suggest a link between brain trauma and personality change. Someone considered as smart and reliable suddenly became an impossible human being.

Another interesting case is one studied by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio: a brilliant and very successful lawyer named Elliot. Elliott suffered a brain injury that eventually prevented him from experiencing any emotion. He was now relying exclusively on his rational thinking. What happened is that being so ‘rational’, he wasn’t able to make decisions anymore, even the most basic ones such as which color pen to use. A lack of emotions translates into inappropriate and irrational behaviors.

To dig deeper, I recommend you to read ‘Thinking, fast and slow’, written by the Nobel prize economist Daniel Kahneman, explaining how we rely on two thinking systems: the fast one (system 1) which refers to the unconscious, emotional and instinctive; and the slow one (system 2) which is more conscious, deliberative and rational.

With over 35,000 decisions made each day, 98% of our thinking is operated by our fast system (system 1), which relies on our emotions. Overall, we are irrational beings.

What these stories tell us is that the dichotomy between reason and emotion is not pertinent; emotions are what drive most of our rationality, and make us function properly as smart human beings, especially for effective decision-making, critical thinking, and overall self-management.

So, if you think again about the most rational persons you know, observe how they deal with their emotions – do they try to shut them down? Do they use and leverage them to sharpen their perception? Are they in control of their emotions or avoiding them? You may soon realize that the wisest persons in the room are the ones who understand what emotions are, their different roles and ultimately how to manage them.

As Theodore Roosevelt said, ‘No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.’It was about time to reconnect reason and emotions, don’t you think? 🙂