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Emotions Rule: How Jonathan Haidt Can Help Us Have Better Relationships

Ever thought something like this?

“I don’t understand why my girlfriend is being so emotional. Why can’t she just be rational like me?”

Or how about this?

“Why does my boyfriend never listen? I’m being perfectly clear.”

Or maybe even this?

“I wish my friends would change their stupid opinions. Can’t they see how obviously wrong they are?”

We all have, I imagine. It’s easy to look at other people and wonder why they don’t behave rationally, why they hold on to beliefs that seem stupid.

Well, I’ve got some good news for you. You don’t have to think like this. It’s perfectly rational, of course, but that’s exactly the problem. Your supposed rationality is an illusion. You’re as irrational as everyone else–you’re just really bad at noticing it.

Now I had known this for a while, but I didn’t truly understand it until I read a book that changed the way I view emotions, relationships, and the way humans think and (un)reason.

The book I’m talking about is Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

Since this is a college advice blog, I’m going to stay away from the topics of politics and religion and focus on what the book can teach us about being better boyfriends, girlfriends, friends, and people.

“Stupid” Emotions

I can only speak with authority from a masculine perspective, but I know I’ve had the thought more than once that emotions are stupid. I like to imagine that I’m Spok, capable of mastering my emotions and achieving greater enlightenment and peace than everyone who is “controlled” by their feelings.

I had in mind a classic dichotomy in Western philosophy: reason vs. emotion. In more everyday terms, people often call it “thinking vs. feeling.” It was only through thinking, I believed, that we can master our emotions.

As I learned from Haidt, however, this is a fallacious view of emotions: “Emotions are not dumb….Emotions are a kind of information processing” (45). It’s easy to think that emotions are the source of all our unhappiness. Haidt’s view, then, was quite radical to me.

To explain what he means by emotions being “a kind of information processing,” Haidt asks the reader to imagine an elephant and its rider

Within limits, the rider can control where the elephant goes, but if the elephant really wants to get somewhere, there’s nothing the rider can do but hang on (45). Being an intelligent creature, however, the elephant doesn’t just move about randomly–it acts in a fashion that serves its interests.

In general, the relationship is mutually beneficial: the rider gets a break from walking, and the elephant gets someone to feed and speak for it.

Image Credit: Brahmskontor (Hamburg-Neustadt).Elefantenreiter.8 by Ajepbah, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

If you imagine that the rider is the conscious, controlled kind of cognition (what we generally think of as reason) and the elephant is the unconscious kind (consisting of automatic processes such as emotion and reason), then you have a pretty accurate model of the way that your mind makes judgments.

The emotional part of the brain (the elephant) was the first to evolve, and it’s still the most dominant. The controlled-reasoning part evolved later. It’s crucial to understand, Haidt says, that the “rider was put there in the first place to serve the elephant” (46). Conscious reason evolved to help us better negotiate the world. Reason isn’t the master, much as we think or wish it was.

Everyone’s A Hypocrite

Okay, you say, but I’m a reasonable person. Other people may be controlled by their emotions, but I’m above such nonsense.

Hate to break it to you, but you’re wrong, at least according to Haidt. Everyone makes irrational judgments, and while you can (and should) be aware of that tendency, there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

Haidt puts it this way:

“Conscious reasoning functions like a press secretary who automatically justifies any position taken by the president. With the help of our press secretary, we are able to lie and cheat often, and then cover it up so effectively that we convince even ourselves” (91).

Our elephants are the ones making the bulk of your decisions and judgments, and we’ve gotten so skilled at using our riders to justify them, we don’t even realize it most of the time.

No one is smart enough to be above this fallacy. In fact, Haidt says, a 1991 study by psychologist David Perkins found that “IQ was by far the biggest predictor of how well people argued, but it predicted only the number of my-side arguments” (81). Being smart doesn’t make you more likely to be right–it just makes you better at convincing yourself and others that you are. I’m sure you don’t need my help to think of certain historical figures for whom this was a deadly combination.

Most of us aren’t going to be world leaders, of course, but you can see these kind of situations play out in your everyday life as well.

Think back to the last argument you had with someone close to you. The disagreement might have begun for legitimate reasons, but how quickly did it devolve into each of you wanting to prove the other wrong? This kind of fighting, in the scheme of things, is pointless.

Which do you value more? Being right, or having friends?

Why This Matters To You

Okay, you say, that’s all great, but why should I care? I’m not a neuroscience or psychology major.

You should care because understanding the way your (emotional) brain works will save you a lot of unnecessary pain and frustration.

When you understand that most information processing is automatic, you realize that most “frustrating,” “stupid,” or “annoying” things people do are just the result of emotional, intuitive snap judgments.

When you understand that the emotional part of the brain is the oldest and most dominant, you stop blaming others (and yourself) for being “unreasonable.”

When you understand that “independently reasoned judgment is possible in theory but rare in practice,” you can embrace a more accurate model of the mind, one which not only accepts but also celebrates emotion as the primary driver of decisions and judgments (46).

I’ll end with this quote from Buddha that Haidt uses on p. 54:

“It is easy to see the faults of others, but difficult to see one’s own faults. One shows the faults of others like chaff winnowed in the wind, but one conceals one’s own faults as a cunning gambler conceals his dice.”

So the next time you get mad at a friend or loved one for acting “unreasonably,” remember that it’s unfair to blame the rider for what the elephant does naturally. Remember that you’re just as unreasonable as the people you criticize.

Remember: at the end of the day keeping friends is a lot more important than winning arguments.

Note: If any of you (especially the psychology majors) are curious, the original paper in which Haidt published his findings is called “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment.” It’s probably available online through your library database.


Featured Image: Riding elephant in Kanha by Honza Soukup, CC BY 2.0