Oct 06, 2014 | By

Can we be Emotional and Rational at the Same Time?

In the first post on rationality (September 15, 2014), I mentioned the controversy over whether emotions, among other things, could be part of being rational. This statement deserves further explanation. We can start with a discussion of the role of emotions in each of the three parts of our model for rational decision-making: evidence – outcomes – reasoning.

There should be little disagreement that emotions can be treated as facts. If my friend is angry with me, this is a piece of evidence that I should consider in making a decision about what to say to him. And, on the flip side, if I am angry with my friend I may rationally decide not to say anything until I have a chance to think things through. In both cases, the emotions are simply facts that I need to factor into my rational consideration.


However, when it comes to the reasoning part of being rational, the consensus is that emotion should not play a role. Reasoning is either logical and consistent – or it is not. While there may be concerns (as discussed in the September 22 posting) as to whether the universe meets this standard, I think we can all agree that the goal of human reasoning is to be logical and consistent. Emotions, and other factors such as intuitions or hunches, may be admissible in the process of assembling and weighing evidence and outcomes, but they should play no role in how we actually think.

This leaves the third leg of our model – outcomes. In this case the role of emotions is more complex. There should be little disagreement that emotions can help shape our selection of desired outcomes. If I have a fear of flying, it is rational not to fly. However, one may question whether the fear itself is rational if the consequences of a decision to drive rather than fly, based on the evidence of relative travel risks, is to increase my risk. Even so, it may still be considered rational for someone to respond, “yes, I understand I am increasing travel risks but I choose to drive because, all things considered, including my fear of flying, I will have a more pleasant journey if I drive.”

To take this further, it can be argued that the weighing of desired outcomes entails a valuing of the options – something that is impossible without emotions, feelings and corresponding personal values or moral framework. We desire a particular outcome because we feel a certain way about the consequences. Moreover, this valuation often requires a complex balancing of different considerations. As the flying example shows, there can be trade-offs, and how we feel about those trade-offs makes a significant difference. Among all the options one could consider (suffering from anxiety as one flies; taking drugs to counteract the fear, not making the journey; experiencing increased time and risk from driving, etc., …) it is ultimately how we feel that forms the basis of our decision. In fact, it is impossible to assign values, and to make choices among them, without emotions (see, for example, “The Science Behind How Emotions Lead to Smarter Decisions” posted September 29, 2014, by Janet Choi ).


So, emotions are actually quite integral to rational decision-making. In some cases they constitute evidence, but more significantly they are necessary for the evaluation and selection of desired outcomes.  We cannot be rational without also being emotional.

So when are emotions a barrier to our being rational?  That’s a good discussion for a future post.

3 Responses to “Can we be Emotional and Rational at the Same Time?”

  1. […] 22) we questioned whether the universe was rational (it does not seem to be). Last week (October 1) we looked at emotions and concluded that they are integral to rationality, both as evidence and […]

  2. Karl Olsen says:

    As an order of classifying a feeling as a fact, it is true they can be roughly consider the same thing, it could be concluded that emotions is a fact that can cause a rush to a conclusion or decision that could be very irrational or just striking out in response to the feeling, be it helplessness,fear,a perceived threat, or even something as simple as not knowing what conclusion to make. In a state of heightened emotion, there can not be a logical or even a clear pattern of thought, rationality goes right out the window. As far as fear of flying, this represents an irrational fear, as you can be snuffed out in a car quicker than a plane. The rational thought is knowing as a living being, we begin the process of dying before we are even free of the womb. This is the true rationality for everyone on the planet. It is not like that its rational to do your taxes every year, deciding to have a family, what car to buy, or what you want to learn as a means of earning a living. Yes, emotions are used for decisions of these things, but being agitated to the point of jumbled thoughts and a eclectic series of uncontrolled emotions leads to an irrational line of thinking that has no logic.

    • George Gantz says:

      Thanks, Karl – I agree that a “rush to judgment” is a common failing of our rational processes, and agitation, angst, fear and other triggers in the limbic system can be most unhelpful when we are trying to sort out the best choices. This is exactly what the article following this one (October 9) deals with.

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