Reasoning and Emotion, in the light of the Dual Processing Model of Cognition
Ronald de Sousa
Philosophy, University of Toronto (http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/~sousa)
I begin, in §1, with some distinctions and an attempt at a working characterization of rationality that is intended to be usable across the domains of action, belief, desire, and even feeling. In §2 I sketch the ambiguous role that emotions play in our capacity to reason. I suggest that emotions span the two tracks or “systems” posited by “dual process” theories of reasoning, or what Daniel Kahneman (2011) has recently called “thinking, fast and slow”. In §3, the main features of that hypothesis are described, and some questions raised about its significance. In §4, I briefly characterise emotions and describe some of the ways in which they seem to contribute both indirectly and directly to our capacity for reasoning, and straddle the two systems. In §5 I compare the learned and the evolutionarily more primitive components of S1. In §6 I turn specifically to the contributions that epistemic feelings make to our epistemic ends. §7 summarises my main conclusions.
§ 1. Preliminaries: What is rationality?
To describe someone as rational is generally held to be a form of praise. It suggests that they reason soundly, take appropriate notice of evidence in forming their opinions, and are willing to change their minds when confronted with a good argument for doing so; it implies that their attitudes are not grounded in superstition, swayed by prejudice, or driven by blind passions. Although it is difficult to see how one might find fault with such characteristics, it is also true that both laypersons and philosophers can be found to complain that one can be “too rational”. The accusation can stem from a number of concerns. Before trying to sort these out, it might be useful to fix the boundaries of my own usage. To that end, I begin with two stipulations about the word ‘rationality’, and make bold to offer a definition.
First, it is important to remember that the term can be used in either a normative or a categorial sense. These are distinguished by their antonyms. In the categorial sense, the opposite of ‘rational’ is ‘arational’, which applies to inanimate things and lower animals. (Whether it applies to higher nonhuman animals is contested). In the normative sense its antonym is ‘irrational’, which is usually taken as pejorative. In the phrase ‘rational animal’ the word must, of course, be understood in the categorial sense: it is precisely because human beings are capable of irrationality that they are said to be rational animals.
Second, the word ‘rationality’ covers more than ‘reasoning’. The latter concept belongs exclusively in the category of what is rational/irrational. There is no such thing as a-rational reasoning. Furthermore, reasoning aims at rationality in transitions between mental states (typically but not exclusively propositional states), to the exclusion of questions about the acquisition of such states. But although my title mentions ‘reasoning’ rather than rationality, I shall not adhere closely to this restriction. For my concern is with the role of emotions in epistemology more generally, and emotions relate to intuitions as well as transitions. I shall be interested in both.
Now for my definition. Despite the disputes and the vast technical literature to which the concept has given rise, I think it is possible to cut a fairly clean swath through those debates and provide a generic definition of normative rationality and irrationality. I suggest that normative rationality consists in the efficiency of means used in the pursuit of any given goal. Thus baldly stated, the definition must appear simplistic. Most of the complexities of the notion are packed into the questions that arise about the “goals” in question.
Our nature as human agents comprises four basic faculties. We experience the world, we have desires and form beliefs about it, and we act to change it. In acting, we pursue goals in the most obvious ordinary sense. So far, my simple definition works well enough: for any intentional action, we can identify a goal and assess the means we choose to it for efficiency. Any putative counterexample will, I surmise, rest on the fact that when pursuing a given goal, we necessarily have a welter of other goals and concerns that must also be taken into account. This can cause indefinitely many complications, but doesn’t impugn the general definition.
The specific form of rationality pertaining to the other faculties will be relative to the characteristic ends of that faculty. Although the notion of a practical goal is the most intuitively easy to grasp, it is not the most fundamental. More fundamental is the question of what goals are worth having: we could call this the goal of correctness in desire, or simply of valuing what is valuable. Similarly, we can criticise the rationality of our beliefs, in terms of the epistemic ends that govern what we believe and how we acquire beliefs. We can also, though more controversially, speak of the rationality of what we feel, providing we can identify the “ends” of emotion. In that spirit, we can tabulate the main forms of rationality in terms of the distinct goals to which they tend, their characteristic Direction of Fit (DoF), the intentional states typically concerned, and the processes that are assessed for rationality, as in Table 1.
TABLE 1 ABOUT HERE
Note that there is a certain symmetry between our practical and evaluative goals on the one hand and our epistemic goals on the other. For the pragmatic tradition, which goes back to Protagoras, truth is a tool of success: one needs to know how the world is in order to act effectively. Conversely, if one holds, with Socrates, that truth is the fundamental value, practical success is just a consequence of correct belief: its corollaries are that “no one does wrong willingly” and “virtue is knowledge” (see Meno and Protagoras in (Plato 1997).) In more recent history, William Clifford (1886) is on the side of Socrates: one ought to care more about truth than advantage – practical rationality be damned. William James (James 1979) was in the tradition of Protagoras, and so perhaps was Richard Rorty (1979): you should care about real consequences and not abstract truth – and your epistemic scruples be dammed.
In the light of these proposals, we can interpret and rebut the suggestion that we can be too rational. The reproach might stem from a number of concerns. One might be accused of being too rational because one fails to acknowledge the emotional reality of so-called “irrational beliefs”. If you have a strong feeling that so-and-so is not to be trusted, but are quite unable to articulate any reasons for that judgment, you might insist that those who deride your hunch are being “too rational”. Since hunches of this sort not infrequently turn out to be correct, however, you might retort that actually those who dismiss them outright are not being rational enough. The same might be said of someone whose idea of comforting a grieving friend is confined to urging a “stiff upper lip”, or pointing out that “life must go on”.
In a more theoretical vein, some philosophers have attacked the very idea that one can reason one’s way to solutions for life’s deepest problems. Telling examples of this last attitude are to be found in the attacks sustained by Richard Dawkins from thinkers who, while themselves acknowledged atheists, charge Dawkins’s dismissal of all religious faith with being simplistic. (Terry Eagleton’s reviews of Dawkins’s God Delusion, in which he describes him as a “card-carrying rationalist”, took this line, opining that “even Richard Dawkins lives more by faith than by reason” (Eagleton 2006).1)
It might also be suggested that the very idea of positing an all-encompassing life goal such as happiness or the good life, which one then undertakes to pursue, is misguided hyper-rationality. Chance plays an ineliminable role in our lives, and any life plan drawn up so carefully as to leave nothing to chance is bound to fail. Yet in the light of my definition such a plan fails because it is delusive: it simply is not the most efficient way to secure happiness. Trusting oneself to respond spontaneously to serendipity just might be the better way. Again, then, the over-anxious planner is not being excessively rational, but not rational enough.
And then there are some wilder and grander rejections of rationality, as in Nietzsche’s “Why truth? Why not untruth?”, or the contention attributed to Sartre that even the acceptance of the law of non-contradiction is an arbitrary subjective free choice.
§ 2. Emotions and Reason
Emotions, it is widely believed, are the enemies of reason. While many of our emotions are swiftly triggered by and incorporate beliefs, they are not as easily extinguished if evidence is produced against the belief in which they are grounded. Emotions typically control the salience of perceptible or conceivable features of our environment. When in the grip of fear, or hope, or jealousy, or anger, we apprehend the world in very different ways; emotion highlights certain features and blocks out others. “Emotion skews the epistemic landscape” (Goldie 2008, 159): when we are in the grip of passion, we are blinkered.
Blinkers have obvious disadvantages, but they also have their use. From the point of view of adaptive evolution, it is easy to see that the drawbacks of emotions are simply the reverse of their crucial function. By narrowing the range of facts to those most relevant to an urgent response, they spare us the need to deal with the “Frame problem” (Pylyshyn 1987). The Frame Problem consists in the fact that we cannot consider an indefinitely large amount of information concerning the potential consequences of any action we might take. Even if we could list all potentially relevant consequences of an action, the moment would have passed by the time we had done so. We must therefore, without reflection, choose what to ignore as currently irrelevant – but we must do so without deliberating about what to consider and what to ignore, lest we get trapped in an endless regress. So it seems we must either act rashly or get lost in precautionary reflections. The blinkers imposed by emotion control salience for us, and spare us that dilemma. In this way, they help to prepare the body for a quick response to a large range of situations likely to present themselves in most of our lives. 2
Emotions are Janus-faced in yet another sense. Because they can be triggered by cognitions, and specifically by beliefs conveyed in explicit language, and because they involve feelings, emotions seem to form an important part of our conscious life. At the same time, however, they escape conscious control: “experience shows that those who are most agitated by their passions are not those who know them best” (Descartes 1984 §28).
In what follows, I propose to trace some of the ambiguity in the role that emotions play in our capacity to reason to the way in which they bridge what Daniel Kahneman (2011) has recently called “Thinking fast and slow”, or what is more commonly referred to as the hypothesis of “dual processing”. In the next section, I sketch the importance of that hypothesis.
§3. The Two-Track Mind
A moment’s reflection can attest that we know many things without knowing how. Retrieving trivial pieces of knowledge such as your mother’s maiden name, is an obvious example. More interesting is the disconcerting evidence suggesting that when faced with a moderately complex problem, we are sometimes better off not thinking about it explicitly, and allowing our unconscious thinking to decide the issue without the help of explicit calculations and reasoning. This has led some researchers, notably Ap Dijksterhuis, to suggest that there are two kinds of thinking, one of which is conscious and the other unconscious (Dijksterhuis and Nordgren 2006) . This is one of many forms taken by the hypothesis of the Two Track Mind, or Dual Processing. Keith Stanovich listed over 20 variants of this view in (Stanovich 2004, 30), and I shall follow him in referring to the two tracks as the Intuitive and the Analytic, or simply S1 and S2.
The most important supporting observations for the Two Track Mind derive from the discovery of systematic modes of irrationality in reasoning: I shall turn to these in §4. But first, I note that the apparent power of unconscious thought, just noted, in itself constitutes a compelling motivating observation, particularly when joined to the realization of the surprising limitations of conscious awareness. In a classic paper, George Miller (1956) pointed out that our capacity for simultaneous attention to distinct items of thought or perception is extremely limited: Concentrating on seven unrelated items at once stretches most people’s powers. We deal with this limitation by “chunking”, which re-encodes complexes of related information into a single item – a regional code for a phone number, for example, may consist of 3 digits but is encoded as one “chunk”. While the “magical” character of the number seven (presumably offered tongue-in-cheek in the first place) has not proved robust (Baddely 1994), the limitations of conscious memory and attention have been well confirmed. It has therefore become apparent that any reasoning about even moderately complex matters inevitably relies on much processing that is inaccessible to consciousness.3
The narrowness of the immediate memory “channel” in “Global Work-space theory” (Baars 1997; 2002) confirms this first characteristic of one processing system and the requirement that something else be able to process information without being subject to similar limitations. Other contrasting characteristics of the two systems are handily summarised by Jonathan Evans, in an article that presents an authoritative summary of the state of the art on dual processes. (Evans notes, however, that “the attributes listed in Table 2 do not include emotion, the discussion of which is generally beyond the scope of this review.” (Evans 2008, 257).)
[TABLE 2 ABOUT HERE]
The contrasts listed in this table form a dauntingly large set, and it is far from obvious that the two columns really represent two unified systems, each containing all the features listed. Further, a single one of the contrasting pairs on the list may conceal a number of different distinctions. To take but the case of automaticity: Agnes Moors and Jan De Houwer have argued that this term and its contrast collect a number of relatively independent traits that don’t necessarily belong to a single “system” either in function or brain circuitry: “unintentional, uncontrolled/uncontrollable, goal independent, autonomous, purely stimulus driven, unconscious, efficient, and fast” (Moors and De Houwer 2006). Some of these items already appear separately on Evans’s table. Moors rightly worries about the tangle of conceptual and empirical assumptions that underlie the assimilation of so many contrasts to two “systems”.
Nevertheless, when we consider all these contrasts in the light of evolution, there is considerable heuristic value in the idea of a Two Track Mind. The contrasts in Evans’s list reflect three very general facts about human beings: First, we are mammals, and share with other mammals adaptations that have established themselves over hundreds of millions of years. Mammals, including humans, are superb at multi-tasking and solving everyday problems of living without explicit or deliberate thought, and many of them come about in the course of maturation. Second, among those mammalian adaptations is the capacity to learn complex routines that begin with effortful conscious practice, become “overlearned”, and come to look and feel like reflexive routines.4 Third, we have something that other mammals do not have, namely language. This involves both maturation and learning. Among other unique features, language enables us to make goals, belief and desires explicit, and to argue about them in such a way as to generate entirely new goals, beliefs and desires which could not have existed without the intervention of linguistic processing. The new potentialities that arise from our use of language interact with, and give rise to, a vast new repertoire of overlearned skills, beliefs, and values (de Sousa 2007).
Given these three characteristics, and given the importance of emotions in all aspects of our lives, it is worth asking what specific role emotions might play in our pursuit of epistemic goals.
§ 4. Emotions and Reasoning
What is an emotion? Most philosophers and psychologists would endorse something like the following definition of central cases of emotion, due to a leading psychologist: “an episode of interrelated, synchronised changes in the states of all or most of the five organismic subsystems in response to the evaluation of an external or internal stimulus event as relevant to major concerns of the organism.” (Scherer 2005, 695). The five subsystems are 1) a cognitive component; 2) a motivational component; 3) a subjective phenomenological component, or feeling; 4) a physiological component, which works to prepare the body for a response in accordance (2); and 5) an expressive component.
Note that the first three components are generally available to consciousness. The fourth belongs rather to the sub-personal level of organization. As for the last, while generally available to consciousness, it functions to communicate, in a way that is only partly under the subject’s control. We might look at emotional expression as setting up a sort of arms race between the sender’s ability to control what is communicated and the receiver’s ability to detect states that the sender would prefer to conceal. Non-human mimicry in nature contains many examples of deceptive messages; and it has been argued that human intelligence, with the large brain that supports it, evolved as an essentially Machiavellian tool destined to facilitate the manipulation of others’ responses (Dunbar 2003). Since it is a familiar cliché that the emotions play a dominant role in the sort of rhetorical art that aspires to carry conviction without regard to truth, the point might be sharpened. That seems to be the brunt of the contention in (Mercier and Sperber 2011) that the real evolutionary drive behind the honing of our capacity for argument lies in the need to persuade others (and perhaps oneself) of one’s existing convictions, rather than in the establishment of truth. But that is not a line of argument I shall have time to pursue.
I turn now to some of the classic forms of systematic irrationality that seem to call for the Dual Process Hypothesis. Some of these, but not all, seem to implicate emotional causes. What follows is a small sampling of cases, many of are expounded in (Kahneman 2011).5
My first example might be thought to follow almost logically from the characterisation of S1 as comparatively automatic, fast and effortless: If a S1 solution is available, we can expect it to be preferred to any S2 solution in view of a sort of principle of least action. Kahneman sums up a number of these effects in a single diagram:
FIGURE 1: [COGNITIVE EASE] ABOUT HERE
The various causes of ease or strain have interchangeable effects. When you are in a state of cognitive ease, you are probably in a good mood, like what you see, believe what you hear, trust your intuitions, and feel that the current situation is comfortably familiar. You are also likely to be relatively casual and superficial in your thinking. When you feel strained, you are more likely to be vigilant and suspicious, invest more effort in what you are doing, feel less comfortable, and make fewer errors, but you also are less intuitive and less creative than usual.” (ibid).
While taking the easy way out might be motivated by mood or emotion, some types of systematic mistake don’t involve any other specific emotion. Such types often come from our inability to reason statistically. We are good at apprehending that something is quite frequent, or more frequent than something else (As attested by a gambling friend of Blaise Pascal who had detected, but couldn’t explain, that he lost more often when betting on 10 than 9 when casting two dice.)6 Noticing differences in frequencies seems to be an S1 process. But understanding why requires explicit mathematical calculation, a typical S2 process.
Here is another striking example, again from Kahneman, of a tricky fallacy concerning probability:
A study of the incidence of kidney cancer in the 3,141 counties of the United States reveals a remarkable pattern. The counties in which the incidence of kidney cancer is lowest are mostly rural, sparsely populated, and located in traditionally Republican states in the Midwest, the South, and the West. What do you make of this?.... It is both easy and tempting to infer that their low cancer rates are directly due to the clean living of the rural lifestyle—no air pollution, no water pollution, access to fresh food without additives…. Now consider the counties in which the incidence of kidney cancer is highest. These ailing counties tend to be mostly rural, sparsely populated, and located in traditionally Republican states in the Midwest, the South, and the West.... It is easy to infer that their high cancer rates might be directly due to the poverty of the rural lifestyle—no access to good medical care, a high-fat diet, and too much alcohol, too much tobacco.... Something is wrong, of course. The rural lifestyle cannot explain both very high and very low incidence of kidney cancer.” (Kahneman 110).
The answer is that it that variance is inversely correlated to sample size. So if kidney cancer is distributed in a strictly random way, you should expect exactly this result: “sparsely populated” counties – small samples – will exemplify the most extreme deviations from the average for strictly mathematical reasons. To become aware of this, we need S2.
In that example, emotion is involved only by dint of our preference for intellectual laziness. The same is true of some other classic cases involving probability, such as the base rate fallacy, or the conjunction fallacy (Kahneman Chapter 15, 16). But here is an example that arguably involves more than merely intellectual laziness, concerning the effect of familiarity. The word ‘familiarity’ here doesn’t actually need to refer to any awareness of prior acquaintance. Mere “priming”, an important effect the workings of which have been demonstrated in countless experimental situations, acts in a way that requires no consciousness of the priming stimulus. Exposure to some visual or verbal stimulus for a time so short as to produce no conscious awareness whatever can have significant effects on subsequent interpretations of a situation or a sentence. Mere familiarity, in that weak sense, induces both the boosting of preference and an illusion of truth. What is not clear is whether it does the latter because it has done the former, or whether the two effects are both produced in parallel by the same cause.
A classic experiment illustrates the boosting of preference on the basis of unconscious familiarity. Robert Zajonc flashed on a screen a number of patterns (e.g. Chinese characters, to subjects who were not Chinese readers) for a time too short to register in any subject’s awareness or memory. He then presented the subjects with a number of patterns, and asked them to rate them for attractiveness. What he found was that those patterns that the subjects had been exposed to (but had not “seen”) were regarded as more aesthetically pleasing than comparable patterns to which they had not been exposed. Zajonc concluded, in the words of his famous title, that “preferences need no inferences” (Zajonc 1980).
A second experiment is more disturbing, and more relevant to reasoning. It shows that to be familiar with a random phrase is enough to make you inclined to believe any statement that contains that phrase. “People who were repeatedly exposed to the phrase “the body temperature of a chicken” were more likely to accept as true the statement that “the body temperature of a chicken is 144°” (or any other arbitrary number). The familiarity of one phrase in the statement sufficed to make the whole statement feel familiar, and therefore true.” (Kahneman 2011, 62).
Mere perceptual salience, like familiarity, will also promote both credibility and attractiveness. Kahneman cites another experiment in which proverbs couched in a catchy rhyming formula were thought more insightful than formulations identical in import but lacking the rhyme. Thus, “woes unite foes” was judged “more insightful” than “woes unite enemies”, and “a fault confessed is half redressed” more insightful than “a fault admitted is half redressed”. (Kahnema 2011, 63) citing (McGlone and Tofighbakhsh 2000) who conclude that “rhyme, like repetition, affords statements an enhancement in processing fluency that can be misattributed to heightened conviction.” (424).7
One more effect of effort is worth mentioning. Subjects were asked to solve a simple problem: In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake? Note that this problem is extremely easy, and that the subjects were all Princeton undergraduates whose IQ can therefore be assumed to have been unusually high. Here is what was surprising: to half of the subjects, the puzzle was presented “in a small font in washed-out gray print. The puzzles were legible, but the font induced cognitive strain. The results tell a clear story: 90% of the students who saw the CRT in normal font made at least one mistake in the test, but the proportion dropped to 35% when the font was barely legible.” (Kahneman 66).
From these various experiments Kahneman concludes: “These findings add to the growing evidence that good mood, intuition, creativity, gullibility, and increased reliance on System 1 form a cluster. At the other pole, sadness, vigilance, suspicion, an analytic approach, and increased effort also go together.” (Kahneman 2011, 69).
§ 5 Evolution and Learning
One item on Evans’s table that is puzzling is the contrast between “Evolutionarily Old” and “Evolutionarily Recent”. Although the capacity for learning is one we share with other mammals, as I noted above, the outcome of a process of overlearning can seem just as automatic, fast and effortless — in short, typically S1 — as any reflexive behaviour. And that should remind us that in the normal process of development we learn many things that are difficult at the beginning and become easy with practice. Operant conditioning is the best known mechanism. It works according to a logic that has essentially the same structure as natural selection: random operant behaviour provides the original variety corresponding to random mutation, memory plays the role of inheritance, and reinforcement, by increasing the probability of recurrence, takes on the role of selection. In the process of learning, a number of other emotions may intervene: anxiety, emulation, frustration, and so forth. Phoebe Ellsworth describes the change in emotional response that we can expect when a situation is encountered over and over:
Appraisals of a truly novel situation, except for the few biologically built-in stimuli, are slower, less certain, and more conscious than they will be the 30th time the situation is encountered, and the emotion less well-defined. Babies, who encounter novel situations every day, look to their parents for information about what to feel... By the time a person has experienced a situation several times, and it is more familiar, the emotional response is more automatic, and the person will immediately experience the full-blown emotion — anger, for example, at the person who has cut her off and taken her parking place – with little or no awareness of the component appraisals (Frijda, 1986; Ellsworth & Scherer, 2003).” (Ellsworth 2013).
In short, we might say, normal human development consists in making the transition from S2 to S1 performances.
§ 6 Epistemic Feelings
I turn now to consider emotions that are specifically involved in the process of reasoning. Such emotions have come under scrutiny quite recently, in particular with the work of Christopher Hookway, Catherine Elgin, and Paul Thagard (Hookway 2003, 2008; Elgin 2008; Thagard 2006, 2008), and other philosophers whose essays collected in a volume devoted to Emotions and Epistemology (Brun, Doğuoğlu, and Kuenzle 2008). But contemporary philosophers were not the first to notice them. They have important antecedents, including Plato, Descartes, Hume and Nietzsche. To recall just the first two: in the Meno, Socrates celebrates the despair of which Meno complains, by pointing out that it is, together with doubt, an essential stage in the rejection of falsehood and the acquisition of knowledge. Later in the same dialogue, the slave-boy, when confronted with a number of erroneous answers to the geometrical problem set by Socrates, finally experiences the feeling of rightness that goes with recognition of the correct answer. As for Descartes, he declares that wonder is the “first of the passions”; doubt is what drives his investigation, and the feeling of certainty, which he labels “clarity and distinctness” becomes the very criterion of truth. It doesn’t work out, alas; and others, including Hume and Nietzsche, are less sanguine about the connection of feelings to truth, but emphatic about the primacy of feeling over reason.
A wide range of feelings may be triggered in the pursuit of knowledge. They include hope, frustration, anger, envy, fear, greed, and many others. But for the most part these are not triggered by anything specific to reasoning or inquiry as such: they are associated with the perils involved in any sort of undertaking. In the rest of this essay, I shall be concentrating on a range of states I shall refer to as “epistemic feelings”. I choose that term in preference to two others that might stake a claim: ‘intuitions’, and ‘emotions’. I avoid the latter, because to speak of emotions may not sound altogether natural in the light of common usage, simply because some might contest (though they would not be obviously right) that our epistemic feelings never involve the sort of physiological upheavals typical of genuine emotions. And yet simply to speak of ‘intuitions’ would seem too weak. The terminology, however, is of minor importance: it remains that these are indeed affective phenomena essentially involved in the pursuit of epistemic aims.
Feelings specifically involved in reasoning can be divided into four types, classified in terms of their object, and of the epistemic operation to which they contribute.
(1) Wonder motivates inquiry, but presupposes no specific prior belief, and need not target any existing supposition. While it may be evoked by the contemplation of a particular statement or state of affairs, it can function as a completely general spur to seeking knowledge.
(2) Doubt also motivates inquiry but bears on hypotheses already entertained.
(3) Certainty bears on specific beliefs; it is, in a sense, antithetical to inquiry, in that it freezes any further quest for evidence or argument. On the other hand, it frees us for action by stamping certain facts or values as appropriate ones to be acting upon. The feeling of rightness seems to belong in the same general category.
(4) The Feeling of Knowing bears on specific propositions, but is unable to specify them: it is a kind of indication that it is worth the time and effort to keep trying to recall something that is in fact “somewhere in my head”. There is evidence that the Feeling of Knowing is a fairly reliable indicator of something’s being available to memory even if it is not currently retrievable; but like the other three, it can be manipulated to fall into error (Koriat 2000).
I have discussed these at greater length in (de Sousa 2008); their role is fairly obvious, and I will say little more. Instead, I will end by noting some more unusual connections between emotions and reasoning. These concern the sort of emotion that we might be tempted to call moods rather than emotions.
One such link is suggested by experiments that provide evidence that perceptual estimates, e.g., of size, are made more accurately by people who are depressed than by those who are not (Alloy and Abramson 1979; Carson 2001). Although this affects very concrete judgments of very specific quantities, this seems to lend some support to the intuition, reported by many depressives, that their condition affords a deeper insight into the nature of life (Dollimore 2001). On the other hand, as Keith Oatley notes, citing Alice Isen (1990), when they are happy “people are more generous to others, they make more creative word associations, they more easily solve certain kinds of problems, etc. When they are sad or depressed people tend to have previous sad episodes from their lives coming to mind” (Oatley 1996). Such effects of emotional states are manifestly not directly influencing conclusions arrived at from given premises; they appear, we might say, rather to grease the wheels of inference.
Something similar, but more difficult to interpret and rather more arcane, was also brought out in research conducted by Keith Oatley and his students. Here mood appears to affect neither the disposition to accept a conclusion, nor the choice of premises, nor even the feeling of rightness in the process of inference. Rather it seems to influence the order in which a piece of reasoning is presented. It seems that emotions influence our style rather than the specifics of our reasoning.
After giving subjects a story to read, describing a caddish man behaving badly, the experimenters asked the subjects a number of interpretative questions. They also assessed the readers’ emotional state. In the following quotation, “forward chaining” describes reasoning which is close to the standard in which reasons are placed before the conclusion; “backward chaining” refers to statements in which the conclusion was laid out first, and followed by the reasons for it.
Among our participants we found anger, sadness and, less frequently, disgust. Participants who became sad engaged predominantly in backward chaining. Participants who became angry engaged predominantly in forward chaining. This difference was significant at the p < 0.02 level for each of the three interpretive questions. In other words, each reader was emotionally affected by the story, and his or her mode of thinking became different depending on what emotion was experienced. Sadness is a mode in which one starts from the current state and reasons backwards to try and understand its causes. Anger is a state in which one reasons forwards from the current state about what to do next. Our result is from a single study. We nevertheless think it suggestive that distinctive modes of reasoning were associated with specific emotions (Oatley 2002, 53–4).
I find this particularly intriguing, because the way that the emotion is affecting the reasoning in this case is quite different from what one has been led to expect. It affects a style of presentation, rather than what is accepted or what is inferred. And precisely because it seems to affect a level in the process of argument that has little or no epistemic importance, it provides one more indication of the depth of the involvement of emotion in reason.
§7. Summary and Conclusion
It is generally accepted that both the virtues and the drawbacks of the emotions stem from their basic function: to facilitate the body’s preparation when it needs to respond efficiently to some relatively common life situation, affecting core concerns, in which the combination of evolutionary adaptation and learning has found it worthwhile to set up a relatively stereotyped strategy. That basic function requires them to straddle whatever wobbly line divides S1 from S2 processes. But it is not easy to say precisely how this general principle applies to the different ways in which emotions are involved in reasoning. Both moods and emotions seem to be causally influential in generating some of the systematic mistakes that have been uncovered by the work of Tversky, Kahneman, and their associates: sometimes, the only emotion that appears to be involved – if indeed it can be called an emotion at all – is a preference for the lazy option. But some more specific influences, such as the curious power of familiarity to breed liking and conviction, do seem to fall in with the general principle that emotions dispose us to respond in the most efficient way, when a quick and dirty (or “fast and frugal8”) response is required. I argued that specific epistemic feelings, including wonder, doubt, certainty, the feeling of rightness and the feeling of knowing, have very specific roles, either in stamping a kind of seal of approval on the steps of an argument or the conclusion of an inference, or, on the contrary in spurring further enquiry. In some cases, such as the different styles of presentations of arguments favoured by sadness and anger, the role of emotions is both more subtle and more difficult to fathom.
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Type Goal DoF Intent’l State Processes inducing change
Epistemic Truth M→W Belief Intuition, perception, reasoning.
Practical State of affairs M←W Action Deliberation
Evaluative Good M←W Desire Intuition, practical reason
Emotional Appropriate M→W Emotion Imagination, perception, reasoning
TABLE 1: Domains of Rationality
TABLE 2 (from Evans 2008 p. 257
Kahneman’s picture of the causes and consequences of Cognitive Ease