Rationality and Emotions

What does it mean to be rational?

Many might think of computers – pure logic. But I don’t think it’s about keeping your thinking emotion-free or being unempathetic. Instead, I subscribe more to how Eliezer Yudkovski describes rationality. In fact, he describes two types, epistemological and instrumental.

Epistemological rationality is all about truth. How accurate are your beliefs about the world?

Instrumental rationality is more goal-oriented and describes how to systematically achieve results.

You might notice that both those definitions don’t exclude emotions. In fact, if your intuition or emotional responses help you to achieve certain results or recognize truth, it’s absolutely rational to integrate them. Why then are emotions so often seen as the opposite of rational thought? Probably, because for most of us they are often terrible advisors to get results or see the truth.

This has two reasons:

First, emotions are highly instinctual and automatic responses to outside stimuli. They’ve developed through a mix of evolutionary pressures (the genetic influence) and our life experiences so far (with our childhood contributing a large portion to this). The problem is that both of these sources are not reliable.

Our world is different from the world of our ancestors that inhabited the world thousands of years ago. Our emotional responses to notifications on our smartphones are not useful, because they’ve not been subject to evolutionary pressures so far and don’t offer us healthy guidance.

Our childhood experiences might be more recent but their influence is often way out of proportion. The hypersensitivity of a child can interpret an experience as traumatic, even though the experience itself might be an objectively minor one from an adult’s perspective. I’m not sure if the tantrum of a child should significantly guide your behavior as an adult with completely different circumstances, strengths and responsibilities. To be clear, I’m not saying they’re irrelevant or not important, I’m just saying that they’re often not the significant experiences that should guide our lives.

The second reason is that we’re not that good at tuning in with ourselves and our emotions. Sometimes people don’t even recognize that they are swept away by them. Everyone who’s been in an argument where an angry person screams “I’m not angry!” when confronted with it knows what I’m talking about. And even if we recognize the emotion, do we know why it is there and what external information triggered it?

So does that mean we should throw emotions out? Of course not. They not only make life more interesting from a subjective point of view but also if listened to and interpreted correctly, more rational too. We just need to get good at being emotional first. We need to learn to tune into them and actually recognizing them for what they are and why they are there.

Improving Our Emotional Fitness

I suggest three ways to improve emotional fitness. I’ve either benefited from these approaches myself or have seen them have profound results on others.

Meditation

Doing this regularly does two things: 1) You improve your ability to become aware of your emotions when they arise and recognize them accurately. 2) You realize that you’re not your emotions and that you can influence your response. For example, when being angry you can choose not to lash out and instead let it go if it serves you better in the moment.

Bias

Learn about the various cognitive evolutionary biases that color our thinking. The more you recognize these biases the more you can counterbalance them in your thought process. Common ones to start with are confirmation bias, survivorship bias, and the halo effect. This measure targets the evolutionary mismatch of your emotions and thinking.

Therapy

More specifically, cognitive-behavioral therapy. Here you focus on changing your cognitive distortions found in your beliefs and attitudes as well as thought patterns. This one is probably the most effective but also the most expensive option.

There are many more things you can do: Read books about the topic, get coaching, journal… Some things work better for some people. Do what works and feels right.