Think v. Blink: When Reasoning, Should You Be Attentive to Your Emotional States?

When reasoning, should you be attentive to your emotional states?

I say yes.

To illustrate why, let’s pretend that a friend of yours comes to you with the following claim:

I’m pregnant.

Should you believe her? Perhaps your blink (your first visceral response to her announcement) is this:

She can’t really be pregnant. This is wrong.

But, then again, maybe you can’t say exactly why you feel this way, and that so strongly. This doesn’t mean that your first response is irrational. The source of your intuitive skepticism may actually stem, for example, from a conversation that you had with her a few months back—now forgotten—in which she told you that she’s celibate. While you don’t remember the conversation consciously, your brain-body system does and signals it to you, not as a memory, but as a feeling of unease: something’s not quite right about this claim.

This, I would submit, is a plausible way that an emotion or intuition can accurately inform your rationality even when you can’t give a plausible explanation for why it is doing so. And a few days later the information that came to you as an emotion might return as a memory:

I know why I reacted the way I did to my friend’s claim: a few months back she mentioned to me that she was celibate!

That emotions and reason might interact in this way suggests that it could be a very bad thing to exclude emotion from one’s reasoning. Psychopaths, for example, lack empathy (and emotions generally), and their reason, and even sanity, quite evidently suffers for it. As G.K. Chesterton put it in his book, Orthodoxy (chpt. 2):

If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment. . . . The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.

So I say this: listen to your emotions and intuitions. They might be telling you something important. When you’re trying to arrive at the truth of matters, pay attention to what you think—and also what you blink.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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