Friday, January 23, 2004

Some preliminary thoughts on reason, emotions and politics

[R]eason may not be as pure as most of us think it is or wish it were... emotions and feelings may not be intruders in the bastion of reason at all: they may be enmeshed in its networks, for worse and for better. The strategies of human reason probably did not develop, in either evolution or any single individual, without the guiding force of the mechanisms of biological regulation, of which emotions and feeling are notable expressions. Moreover, even after reasoning strategies become established in the formative years, their effective deployment probably depends, to a considerable extent, on a continued ability to experience feelings.

This is not to deny that emotions and feelings can cause havoc in the processes of reasoning under certain circumstances. Traditional wisdom has told us that they can, and recent investigations of the normal human reasoning process also reveal the potentially harmful influence of emotional biases. It is thus even more surprising and novel that the absence of emotion and feeling is no less damaging, no less capable of of compromising the rationality that makes us distinctly human and allows us to decide in consonance with a sense of personal future, social convention, and moral principle. Nor is this to say that when feelings have a positive action they do the deciding for us; or that we are not rational beings. I suggest only that certain aspects of the process of emotion and feeling are indispensable for rationality. At their best, feelings point us in the proper direction, take us to the appropriate place in a decision-making space, where we may put the instruments of logic to good use. We are faced by uncertainty when we have to make a moral judgment, decide on the course of a personal relationship, choose some means to prevent being penniless in old age, or plan for the life that lies ahead. Emotion and felling, along with the covert physiological machinery underlying them, assists us with the daunting task of predicting an uncertain future and planning our actions accordingly. ...

There has never been any doubt that under certain circumstances, emotion disrupts reasoning. The evidence is abundant and constitutes the source for the sound advice with which we have been brought up. Keep a cool head, hold emotions at bay! Do not let your passions interfere with your judgment. As a result, we usually conceive of emotion as a supernumerary mental faculty, an unsolicited, nature-ordained accompaniment to our rational thinking. If emotion is pleasurable, we enjoy it as a luxury; if it is painful, we suffer it as an unwelcome intrusion. In either case, the sage will advise us, we should experience emotion and feeling in only judicious amounts. We should be reasonable.

There is much wisdom in this widely held belief, and I will not deny that uncontrollable or misdirected emotion can be a major source of irrational behavior. Nor will I deny that seemingly normal reason by be disturbed but subtle biases rooted in emotion. ... Nonetheless, what the traditional account leaves out is a notion that emerged from the study of patients [with frontal lobe damage who are incapable of emotional responses] ...: Reduction in emotions may constitute and equally important source of irrational behavior. The counterintuitive connection between absent emotion and warped behavior may tell us something about the biological machinery of reason.

Antonio R. Damasio
Descartes' Error (1994)

If I understand Damasio's thesis correctly (and although I have a copy, I haven't read his more recent work The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotions in the Making of Consciousness), we think of emotion and reason as forming a dichotomy in opposition to each other. Emotions, we think, prevent us from reasoning rationally, and when we do perform rational evaluation, we put emotions aside and deal with facts and their analysis. Certainly that's the naive psychology underlying this second piece, written by me during the height of the O.J. Simpson trial:

All the various theatrical devices -- the writing, the scenery, sound, lights and costumes, the physical positioning of the actors on the stage and, most of all, the performances of the actors themselves -- have a single goal: to reach the emotions of the audience, to make them feel for the characters, to create a sympathetic or, even better, empathetic bonding between the people portrayed on the stage and the viewer sitting in the seats. The performance exists not to make the audience think about the issues or events of the drama -- there are other, better, ways to bring about thoughtful consideration -- but to provoke emotions and feelings. Catharthis is the ultimate goal, rarely achieved, but no performance can be considered successful if the audience hasn't laughed or cried or at least felt something.

A courtroom is a different place, with a different purpose. Despite the structural similarities (the jury is somewhat like an audience, the well of the court something like a stage), the purpose of the court proceeding is entirely different. The trial does not take place to provoke emotions or provide catharthis. Although an observer could very well feel strongly about the participants or the issues or the result of the trial, its purpose is to resolve issues of law and facts.

At its core, the trial is intended to be a event centered around rationality and thought, in which the jury is charged to determine "beyond a reasonable (i.e. rational) doubt" whether the charges brought by the state have been proven. To reach their conclusion, the jury is told by the judge that they shouldn't be swayed by emotion, that they should consider only the evidence and testimony they've seen in the courtroom when they deliberate, that it is their job to be the "judge of the facts."

Anything that occurs in the course of the trial which has the tendency to appeal to the emotions of the jury (base or otherwise) acts counter to the purpose of the trial. Every time a lawyer asks a question which he or she knows is improper, just to get an idea in front of the jury which would never come up otherwise, the action subverts the purpose of the trial. Every opening statement or closing argument which suggests that a jury ignore the law and the facts and vote with their hearts or their prejudices is fundamentally destructive to the process. Every sneer or suggestion of innuendo slid into the record over the objection of the opposing counsel or the admonition of the judge serves a purpose antithetical to that of the trial itself. Each hypothetical question posed without a good faith basis for its possible applicability is a step towards confusion and obfuscation and away from rational exploration of the facts. ...

The jury is a fundamental part of our democratic system, but it can only be effective if jurors are allowed to use their uniquely human capability of rational thought to reason their way to a decision. They should not be encouraged (even subliminally) to vote with their guts instead of their brains. Barry Scheck, and other lawyers like him, both prosecutors and defense attorneys, do not deserve our respect or admiration, whatever their technical capabilities. Their actions undermine the system.

Ed Fitzgerald
Posted on the O.J. Simpson discussion boards on AOL (10/10/97)

So rational reasoning is (obviously) not possible without consciousness, and, according to Damasio, consciousness is not possible without emotions, but emotions can, if overly provoked, get in the way of rational reasoning. We can possibly draw two conclusions from this:

  1. Like the hoary "nature vs. nurture" debate, where it appears that in reality environment and heredity are not opposites, but work in tandem in complex interaction with each other, the traditional "emotions vs. reason" dichotomy is also most probably a drastic oversimplification, with those two elements of consciousness interacting in an intricate fashion that's difficult to unravel.

  2. Nevertheless, we perceive emotions and reason (naively understood) as standing in tension with each other, as our innate folk psychology understands that emotionality can reduce or deflect our ability to reason.

This leads me to a third piece of writing, this one prompted by Dave Johnson's essay about Message and Dean and Branding on The American Street, which I blogged about a few days ago.

The Oversimplified Message

The best approach to take in our overcommunicated society is the oversimplified message.

In communication, as in architecture, less is more. You have to sharpen your message to cut into the mind. You have to jettison the amiguities, simplify the message, and then simplify it some more if you want to make a long-lasting impression.

People who depend on communication for their livlihood know the necessity of oversimplification.

Let's say you are meeting with a politician whom you are trying to get elected. In the first five minutes, you'll learn more about your political product than the average joe is going to learn in the next five years.

Since so little material about your candidate is ever going to get into the mind of the voter, your job is really not a "communication" project in the ordinary meaning of the word.

It's a selection project. You have to select the material that has the best chance of getting through.

The enemy that is keeping your messages from hitting pay dirt is the volume of communication. Only when you appreciate the nature of the problem can you understand the solution.

When you want to communicate the advantages of a poltical candidate or a product or even yourself, youmust turn things inside out.

You look for the solution to your problem not inside the product, not even inside your own mind.

You look for the solution to you product inside the prospect's mind.

In other words, since so little of your message is going to get through anyway, you ignore the sending side and concentrate on the receiving end. You concentrate onthe perceptions of the prospect. Not the reality of the product.

"In politics," says John Lindsay, "the perception is the reality." So, too, inadvertising. in business and in life.

Al Ries and Jack Trout
Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind (1981)

As their language makes clear, what Ries and Trout are advocating (quite correctly, I would imagine, from the viewpoint of the efficacy of advertising) is bypassing rational evaluation by appealling directly to the emotions. Putting aside the practical power of branding and positioning (and I have no reason to dispute Johnson's points about Dean's mistakes in Iowa), it's surely a matter of concern that by accepting and using these tecniques, we are essentially advocating a political process which ignores (or at least radically de-emphasises) rationality in favor of direct emotional appeal.

And yet, who can really deny that this is how the majority of people make their decisions about who to vote for? They are swayed not on the basis of careful comparison of programs and policies, but on a visceral level, in response to the output of a much more primitive engine of information analysis. (To call emotional responses "primitive" is not to denigrate them but merely to indicate that they predate rationality in the evolution of human psychology.)

As always, the answer to the apparent paradox before us here is that dusty old cliche about the need for balance. We work best, I imagine, where our emotions guide us through the gross pitfalls which could betray us, but we then use our rational facilities to narrow our range of options.

It's perfectly reasonable (in my opinion) that I and many of my liberal friends have a strong, visceral dislike of George W. Bush which predates his stealing the Presidency and which is so intense that we cannot abide to watch him on TV or listen to his voice on the radio. This "liberal hatred" that right-wing commentators are so incensed about isn't really hatred, per se, it's simply our emotional apparatus responding to cues that we perceive to exist underneath Bush's apparently pleasant folksy exterior. We see there a hard, grim, joyless, unenlightened man, and those impressions are reinforced by what we know about his personal history. Our emotions warn us against trusting him, and our rationality, examining the effects of three years of his misadministration, finds plenty of evidence to support that mistrust. Emotions and reason thus work in tandem to reach the self-same conclusion.

We can see the same interplay between two different kinds of value-systems in my friend Roger Keeling's idea that liberalism is essentially the scientific method turned to the social and political world, not ideologically-driven or dogmatic, but based on trial and error and experience and underpinned by rational evaluation of the results. But, he goes on, in liberalism, reason does not stand on its own, because our humanistic values mediate the purely rational through empathy and compassion, emotions that I find sorely lacking in the programs and policies of the right-wing, even in those who label themselves "compassionate."

So in liberalism, we find the tension between reason and emotions harnessed for its value as a creative engine in a way we do not see in other systems of political thought.

Ed Fitzgerald | 1/23/2004 02:40:00 AM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


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