Rationality irrationality and the function of emotions

When given a choice, people are less likely to choose an operation if told they have a 7% chance of dying than if they are told that they have a 93% chance of survival (e.g., Sutherland, 1994). These and a whole range of similar observations have come to question the long-cherished belief of the rationality of the Western male; at best it would seem that we can approximate to logic or rationality in our thinking, but there are a host of circumstances under which logic and rationality disappear in the face of something more important. From at least Plato onwards, emotions have had a bad press (e.g., Solomon, 2003): there has arisen a Western view that the "passions" circumvent the state of sanguine rationality to which we all should aim (see Chapter 2). Such views of course fail to recognise that the limits on rationality and logic are numerous and that emotions present merely one among many short-cuts that thinking may take because of necessity and circumstance.

The ideas of Keith Oatley and Phil Johnson-Laird have been particularly important in underscoring the role of emotions in thinking (e.g., Johnson-Laird & Oatley, 2000; Oatley, 1992; Oatley & Johnson-Laird, 1987). In a modular system with multiple goals and plans, it is crucial to have mechanisms that can put a current goal or plan rapidly on hold while another more immediate goal is given priority. There is little point in solving the theory of relativity if you are about to be run over by a bus. Occasionally though, our preoccupations can get in the way of our survival, as when the atheist philosopher David Hume almost drowned in a marsh and was only saved when an old woman spotted him and forced him to recite the Lord's Prayer before being saved. Most of the time, however, our lofty preoccupations are quickly supplanted by a range of survival needs; Oatley and Johnson-Laird's (1987) argument that emotions provide one such rapid switching mechanism at junctures in goals and plans provides an important understanding of one of the primary roles of emotion (see Chapter 3).

As we reviewed in the chapters on the basic emotions, the short-cuts that each emotion provides vary considerably. Although happiness is normally thought in our culture to be closer to rationality than the other "negative" basic emotions, it is clear that there are a range of self-serving biases associated with happiness that lead "sufferers" to overestimate their contribution to the positive things in the world and underestimate their contribution to the negative (see Chapter 1 and Chapter 10). Although we come to tolerate mild levels of grandiosity in our friends and colleagues, we know of course that really they have borrowed their best ideas from us and that we are far superior to them, but are careful not to point this out. Unfortunately, in some individuals the normal state of mild self-grandiosity can become completely out of control and the individual can believe in complete invulnerability, special powers, and that he or she is a special person (see Chapter 10). Such beliefs in invulnerability do not only happen at an individual level but also occur throughout history in groups and cultures, whether it be The Charge of The Light Brigade, or the Japanese entering the Second World War. In The Psychology of Military Incompetence, Norman Dixon (1976) catalogued a host of battles that have been lost due to, among other things, group-based illusions of invulnerability (see Chapter 1).

Each of the other basic emotions also provides short-cuts in thinking as a function of the modular reconfiguration of the SPAARS system. Fear permits the individual to switch rapidly to a threatened survival goal. Sadness in the face of failure or loss provides the opportunity to reassess important goals and plans and assign new priorities. Anger motivates the individual to overcome an obstacle that is blocking the path towards a desired goal. And disgust allows individuals to rid themselves of something unwanted, whether concrete or abstract, or to distance themselves literally or psychologically from something repulsive in the outside world and thereby maintain the model of the self. All of these emotions therefore provide a useful set of biases relevant to their functions. These biases are, by and large, adaptive and useful, and can lead to "depressive realism", "anxious realism", "angry realism", and "disgust realism". At the same time, however, they run the risk of generalising beyond their range of applicability and in doing so lead to "depressive distortion", "anxious distortion", and so on, especially when the temporary emotional states become long-standing and chronic disorders.

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