Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Emotion Research Meme

I've come across the following meme enough times now (most recently in a comment on GS' blog) that I'd like to respond to it and clarify. The meme says something along the following:

Research from psychology and neuroscience says people make better decisions with their emotions, so we should trust our emotions over our experience and intellect. So stop being so darn logical when it comes to God.

Reality check: that's a distortion of the research, which generally says something along the lines of, "emotion and cognition are more intertwined than we used to think." In contrast, the believer is acting as though emotions and logic are totally separate and emotion has been found to be superior.

The main research usually cited (though not in the latest case I'm responding to) is Antonio Damasio's Somatic Marker Hypothesis. According to this hypothesis, when we make decisions, our brain creates a representation of the bodily state we would feel if we went ahead with the alternative under consideration. I.e., you are deciding whether you want to stick your hand in a fire, and your brain creates an affectively-laden representation of how you would feel, and you pull your hand back. Thus, decision-making and emotional cognition are intertwined, and can't be pulled apart neatly into logic vs. emotions.

The more recent example I saw cited neuroscience research, which suggests that emotionally-laden stimuli are treated as more salient by visual and attentional systems. (In other words, emotional things, like things that could hurt you, get higher priority in being processed by your brain.)

Does any of that mean we should "trust our emotions over logic?" Not really. It means that even when we think we are thinking logically, there may be emotional representations at play that guide our judgments. Or, that emotional overtones may determine what our brain finds important enough to attend to. Now, there is indeed research that suggests that in some cases a gut decision will be better than a deliberated decision, but that's about conscious vs. unconscious processing, not emotion vs. reason.

But we already knew the research couldn't have meant what the believers claim it does. Let's consider what it would mean if we should literally trust our emotions over experience and logic:

Fred is afraid of getting a shot, and so he refuses to do so. His doctor tries to persuade him that he needs the vaccine before he goes overseas, but Fred insists that he is better off trusting his emotions, which tell him not to get the shot.

Arthur feels a special high around his cult leader. Arthur's parents try to show him the facts about the leader's scamming history, but Arthur insists on following his emotions and giving up all his money to the cult.

Does anyone actually intend this? Of course not--they want it only to apply when it comes to emotions regarding religion. But it's important to note how the research is being distorted in these scenarios and the religion scenario: part of the reason these scenarios are bogus is that Fred also has a "somatic marker" of what it would be like to get malaria and die, which will also influence his decisions. That's the point--the research says emotions and logic are often intertwined on both sides of a decision, whereas the believer is acting as though logic and emotion are separate and emotion has been found to be superior. This is just plain wrong.


G*3 said...

Interesting post.

It should be pointed out that no one has come up with a good definition of exactly what an “emotion” is. Is it a pattern of neuron firing in the brain? Is it a release of a hormone suite? Is it the physical response (sweating, stomach clenching, relaxation, euphoria, smiling, frowning…)? Is it a subjective experience matching a given definition?

Also, emotions are useful as shortcuts and motivators. Fear keeps us from doing dangerous things. Love reinforces pragmatic social and family bonds. Emotions are hardwired reactions or learned responses. Those that are learned responses let us tap into our experience without having to think about the situation, something that’s very useful when thinking could take time better spent doing other things. But emotions aren’t the result of some intelligent faculty giving us a heads up, and certainly aren’t reliable indicators of the truth about empirical questions.

JewishGadfly said...

That's a great point. Regarding the definition issue--in particular, in this latest example, one way to phrase the research is, "the amygdala sends an emotional signal about a stimulus, and the brain decides that the stimulus is important." Another way to frame it is simply, "the amygdala is signaling that the stimulus is important and should be prioritized."

MKR said...

I remember reading that cretinous comment on the other blog and being tempted to rebut it, but restrained myself from wasting my time, as the writer did not even bother to give a name. (One could not tell which of the numerous anonymous comments on that post came from the same blockhead and which ones from different blockheads.) Than you for addressing the matter in impersonal terms. It is amazing what wildly unwarranted conclusions people draw from the results of social-scientific experiments.

JewishGadfly said...


>It is amazing what wildly unwarranted conclusions people draw from the results of social-scientific experiments.

Yes. Although in this case, it was also the fault of the popular science writer who described the research in the article linked to. The title was: "Want to Think Logically? Trust Your Emotions," which is a horribly misleading title. The fact that our brains automatically process things more quickly if they are associated with fear says nothing about what we should consciously do if we want to think logically. It's an awful distortion of science for an interesting headline, although if you read the description of the research in the article itself, you realize that in a few seconds.

MKR said...

I remember noticing the disparity between the headline and the content of the article. But the headline may have been written by an editor, who thought the article needed some "sexing up."