Thursday, September 26, 2013

Gut Feelings, Snap Judgments, and Rational Thinking

I was briefly looking at an online article from Scientific American called “Why We Should Choose Science over Beliefs.” Someone had commented on the article, beginning with the claim: “Sometimes gut feelings are at odds with scientific experts.” The commenter went on to talk about the necessity of faith even in accepting scientific claims, but my issue is with neither the comment nor the article, both of which I barely looked at. It is with the initial sentiment expressed by the commenter. Too often, I think we see this type of thing. “You can’t go by emotions. Emotions get it wrong. Reason is what’s reliable.” I’m glad that some books have challenged this view, at least to a modest degree. I’m thinking of books on intuition and the importance thereof, such as Educating Intuition by Robin M. Hogarth, Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious by Gerd Gigerenzer, and the popular Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. Of course, these books also point out the many shortcomings of intuition and the ways in which snap judgments, fueled by gut feelings as they often are, can lead one astray. But herein lies an important distinction that I feel is way too often overlooked. Snap judgments are not the same as gut feelings. Insofar as we are referring to something visceral and/or emotional, gut feelings can never be wrong. That’s because they aren’t the kinds of things that can be wrong. They are feelings! They do not have truth-values. A feeling of dread cannot be true or false. A feeling of euphoria cannot be true or false. A feeling of confusion cannot be true or false. Only the interpretations thereof can be true or false. If I feel dread and think “I am not in a safe place,” I can be wrong in my judgment but not wrong in my emotional reaction to my surroundings. True, in ideal situations, my emotional responses will be reliable guides to reality. I won’t feel unsafe if I’m not. But the point is, my feelings and impressions, before I translate them into something expressible in language, are not right or wrong in the sense of being true or false. They just are.

This is a topic I have been quite intrigued by over the last few years. I have come to believe we are largely emotional beings, and that even rationality is a more emotional endeavor than we suppose it to be. (Perhaps I’ll post on that in the future.) Our experience of the world is largely interpretive, and in almost every case, what is being interpreted is something qualitative. Thus, I scoff at the notion that rationality is superior to emotion. To say such a thing is to suggest that the two are independent of each other. I don’t think there is such a thing as rationality without emotion.

Anyway, I’m getting off on a tangent. The simple point I wanted to make in this post is that gut feelings are not snap judgments, and it is snap judgments that can go wrong. A snap judgment is a misapplication of reason, not the antithesis of reason. It is hasty rational thinking, not irrational thinking. And I for one am skeptical of discounting emotion. I think the better solution is to learn how better to assess our emotions. Assessment is where the errors of snap judgments creep in. Paying attention to our emotions is not the problem. The problem is that we sometimes incorrectly identify the cause of our emotions, the implications of those emotions, etc. I suspect that, in many, many instances, even poor snap judgments are underwritten by something I would call intelligent emotion. That is, I think the emotions that underlie even mistaken snap judgments are, more often than not, “appropriate.” I may incorrectly judge the used car I am looking at to be a good value, but my positive feelings may be tied to something that is genuinely good—the friendliness of the used car salesman, the pleasant smell of the car, and/or the fact that the car is reminiscent of the car driven by my wife when I first met her (which I may not even consciously recall). It may be quite appropriate for me to experience good vibes when looking at the car under these circumstances.  If I then mistakenly decide that the car is worth purchasing, it does not follow that my gut feelings were wrong. Only my snap judgment was wrong. It is my opinion that recognizing this distinction is vital to being a rational thinker, not because gut feelings are incompatible with logic, but because they are so indispensable to it.


  1. I think this may have answered a big question I've been trying to figure out lately. Thanks!

  2. I love this! Using this logic, I can finally let go of guilt I have about my emotional responses I have. It's unfortunate that we are often told how we should feel, but there is no value judgment for feelings. I like that!