Can the emotions predict?

By Jonah Lehrer:

For thousands of years, human beings have looked down on their emotions. We’ve seen them as primitive passions, the unfortunate legacy of our animal past. When we do stupid things – say, eating too much cake, or sleeping with the wrong person, or taking out a subprime mortgage – we usually blame our short-sighted feelings. People commit crimes of passion. There are no crimes of rationality.

This bias against feeling has led people to assume that reason is always best. When faced with a difficult dilemma, most of us believe that it’s best to carefully assess our options and spend a few moments consciously deliberating the information. Then, we should choose the alternative that best fits our preferences. This is how we maximize utility; rationality is our Promethean gift.

But what if this is all backwards? What if our emotions know more than we know? What if our feelings are smarter than us?

While there is an extensive literature on the potential wisdom of human emotion – David Hume was a prescient guy – it’s only in the last few years that researchers have demonstrated that the emotional system (aka Type 1 thinking) might excel at complex decisions, or those involving lots of variables. If true, this would suggest that the unconscious is better suited for difficult cognitive tasks than the conscious brain, that the very thought process we’ve long disregarded as irrational and impulsive might actually be more intelligent, at least in some conditions.


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  • Amos Paul

    I’ve long argued that rational thinking is emotive reasoning. Rationality is defined as proper-working human reasons. Human reason has never been divorced from a emotion and is, thus, actually defined by taking place within an emotive context.

    If we remove emotion, we remove the context which actually defined well-working human rationality.

  • Chris

    This is the second blog post in a few days that I’ve read about this concept. The other related one is at Very interesting.

  • James Palmer

    This post makes rational sense to me, but my emotions are telling me to disregard it. Oh no, what to do!?

  • Tom F.

    This, and other studies that suggest as much, should be required reading for all pastors. How many sermons have been preached about the need to ignore feelings and hold on to the truth (that is, rationally perceived truth).

    The flesh/spirit dichotomy in Paul is not equivalent to a feelings/rationality dichotomy.

    Of course, both feelings and thoughts have to be transformed. But its not as though they are transformed in any sort of hierarchical way, as though you get your thoughts right and then your feelings follow.

  • DRT

    I agree, but disagree with the language of emotions. I consider the more integrative method to be thinking, and analysis, plus emotion, plus intuition, it is holistic. This holistic thinking can lead to good decisions, but it can also send us to ruin.

    I use this holistic thinking extensively causing some who know me to wonder about me. My wife chides me because most people cannot do that and still look analytical, so it almost seems to them that I am consciously thinking through all of the alternatives but I am not. I am a top down thinker.

    The reason that big decisions can be better if approached this way is because there are some many intricacies that it is difficult or impossible to have consciously thought through them all ahead of time unless you are in that particular profession. Instead, you are relying on the innate pattern matching abilities of our brains and that pattern matching is a sort of sixth sense for us. It is in our being that we do that.

  • DRT

    …and as luck would have it (or my holistic thinking working), there apparently is a already the holistic vs. analytical type of thinking in psychology. I thought I invented it 🙂

    The part that drives people nuts with me is that I do that with mechanical and technical things. In Dilbert, they refer to it as “the knack”

    An excerpt:

    There is, however, another type of intelligence. Some people go for the overall idea or the “big picture” and seem less attentive to details. Holistic abilities are said to be used for art, music, religion, intuition, and a host of other good things. The word holism comes from the Indo-European word kailo, which means whole, intact, or uninjured. A holistic person does not tear things apart mentally, to understand them. The holistic person tends to approach a subject by trying to understand its gist or general meaning.

  • Susan N.

    Knowledge can be taken in and analyzed, in a rational and emotionally (detached) manner. My latest example is Ayn Rand! She was a character…

    As I have learned from a roundtable discussion on mental health recovery court in our area (restorative vs. punitive justice program), *some* sociopaths have enough fear of negative consequences to themselves that they can be rationally persuaded to avoid the anti-social behavior. Trying to teach a sociopath empathy for others is an impossible task, though. The head –> heart connection is broken, somehow.

    Leading entirely from the heart will get a person into much trouble also. BTDT, over and over again. Be ready to get your heart shaken, stomped on, chewed up, and spit back out at you. It mends. God lives in the beat-up abode, too.

    Henri Nouwen wrote something to the effect once that we should pray that our head sinks deeply into our hearts, in order that we should deeply *know* God and His will.

    Intuition / sensing — emotion can jam the signal and lead to false readings… But. often, to my dismay, the funny feeling in my gut proves to be absolutely correct. Anybody read Gavin deBecker’s book ‘Protecting the Gift?’ I needed that book very much. Affirming in the sense that it articulated a lot of what I had experienced.

    Discernment — wisdom found through prayer and Holy Spirit’s guidance. Sometimes, for me, this takes time to decipher, and I don’t always have time. Decisions need to be made regularly that don’t wait for my confirmation of Holy Spirit (I always question, “Is it just me talking to myself?”)

    Once, a kind and caring friend told me in consolation for thinking/feeling that I had made bad choices, “You did the best you could, with the information that you had, at the time.” That’s the thing about knowledge. And choices. No one possesses perfect knowledge at any point in their human life. We make mistakes, either way. We live and learn, and keep pressing on.

    We are each the product of God’s workmanship, after all. Cracked eikons. Beautiful, even in the brokenness, for the glimmer of Light that glows through the cracks. [Sigh.]


  • You want my gut reaction? I think there is something to it.

  • MatthewS

    I recently took a class on Human Growth and Development. A famous dichotomy has long been nature vs. nurture, yet it seems that usually there is a transactional relationship between the two influences on a person, somewhat like how a vine growing in the forest has an effect on the forest even as the forest shapes the vine’s growth.

    I would imagine that there might be something similar happening in the realm of our intellect where our fact-based reasoning interacts with our feelings and vice-versa.

    I wonder what the relationship of all that might be to intuition, such as in Gladwell’s “Blink”?

  • Diane

    I’m interested but wary–and with Tom F. believe that our feelings have to be transformed. Emotion got us–or the Germans– Hitler.

  • I agree. Our emotional aspect needs to be redeemed and discipled just as much as our rational.

  • Alex

    A couple of things come to mind. First, I think that the idea that God is impassible has directly affected the way many theologians conceive of the role of emotions in theology – there is no role. Secondly, Matthew A. Elliott’s book “Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament” does a fine job of emphasizing the important role that emotions play in discipleship in Christ.

  • Adam

    Here’s a TED talk by Dan Ariely who studies behavioral economics. His main premise? You are not in control of yourself.

    Our emotions are deceptive and most people are acting out of their emotions even when they think they are being rational. Humans are simply not rational beings. But because we are not rational does not mean we should abandon the pursuit of rationality.

    Our irrationality is what causes us the most harm. We should work towards disciplining that irrationality. This statement …

    ” it’s only in the last few years that researchers have demonstrated that the emotional system (aka Type 1 thinking) might excel at complex decisions, or those involving lots of variables”

    …is total bunk. The real research (you can get to the studies from here says that you should only trust your instincts if you’ve got less than 5 seconds to decide. If you have more time than that, go with the rational thought process.

  • I am wary of any way of thinking that divorces thought from emotion. The way I understand it, they are intertwined. When people say they made a bad decision because of their emotions, what they are really saying is that they had poor rational thought patterns, mostly subconscious, which produced an emotion and led to a bad decision. If people get overly excited about buying a new car, it is because they are, consciously or otherwise, reasoning that a new car will make them happy and will be fun all the time, and going into loads of debt over it cannot compare with the joy to be had.

    You can’t separate the two very easily. For every emotional decision that ignores sound reasoning, at it’s core is simply unsound reasoning. If an emotion causes people to make a good decision, it is most likely because the person has a habit of reasoning well, and that habit is a pattern that has established itself in their subconscious. The brain sends signals it is used to sending. Thought patterns become stronger the more you use them and automatically trigger emotions, which reinforce the reasoning. If you get in the habit of slowing down and figuring out why you feel a certain way about something, you’re more likely to be able to break bad thought patterns and establish better ones.

  • Susan N.

    Diane (#10) – agreed, that feelings must be transformed. But that is true of our rational/intellectual selves as well, is it not? Hitler, ISTM, was ruled by the emotions of hatred, fear, and a lust for power. He capitalized on the fears (economic scarcity) of the German people and used it to control the masses.

    Near as I can tell, Hitler was nothing short of an evil genius — clever (intelligent, strategic) and charming (charismatic). It took a lot of thought to pull off what he did! Cold, calculating rationalization.

    We cannot divorce mind from emotion, or we would not be *whole.* Ultimately, I think Rom. 12:1,2 is key…if we are not to miss the mark altogether.