Dangerous Dismissing of Evidence
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | December 2016 (Re-written February 5, 2021)
Our biased reliance on emotional reasoning will lead us astray. We dismiss empirical evidence from compelling research simply because we wish it weren't true.
I have no exalted claim on truth. I spent several decades exploring the human condition, gathering insights and refining my opinion; but new discoveries continue to arrive, often discounting my previous findings. I am not exempt from errors, flawed premises, or misguided meanings. My understanding of life, pain, sorrow, and joy is constantly evolving. The truth is not emblazoned with labels and can’t be easily separated from inaccuracies.
One of my greatest discoveries is that life is full of paradoxes, behaviors that are healthy but can be damaging, nourishment that is laced with toxins. Many confused by the complexities dismiss intelligent reasoning and rely on emotionally laced intuitions. "If it feels good," they argue, "it must be right." Marketing geniuses quickly move on this. Instead of providing data driven proof, they cater their poisons to joyfully excite our minds.
Easily manipulated, we prefer misrepresented pasts to the opportunity to create promising futures. Emotional reasoning mocks scientific discoveries as stupid while holding to ridiculous unsubstantiated theories. They feel good so they take root. Our emotional reasoning romanticizes hatred and division, lifting some but damning others.
Falsehoods and Truths
When we stumble upon truth, it doesn’t appear different than a falsehood. Truths are not majestically wrapped, distinguishing them from misguided or deceptive ideas. Both truth and fallacy can feel good—or bad. Depending on what they mean to us individually and how they will impact our lives moving forward. As individuals, we must develop enough wisdom to discern which ideas are worthy of investigation and which should be ignored and rejected.
Sadly, much advise comes from uninvestigated but emotional catching thoughts. Something sounds good, so we latch on. We think we are doing right; but with hindsight discover that our well-intended action led to disaster.
Emotional Reasoning is the belief that a positive feeling affect to an idea proves that it is true. With emotional reasoning, we reject facts for feelings. Emotional Reasoning often occurs unconsciously.
Emotional Reasoning as a Thinking Style
Albert Ellis, Aaron Beck and several early pioneers in cognitive-behavior style therapy tagged emotional reasoning as a thinking style.
They target emotional reasoning in personal judgements such as "because I deeply and consistently feel that I am despicable and unlovable, this proves that I really am despicable and unlovable" (Ellis, 2007).
Aaron Beck described emotional reasoning as a depressionogenic thought process (Beck and Emory, 2005). In a 2013 paper, researchers described emotional reasoning as "a process whereby one's emotional states, as opposed to objective evidence, are used to form conclusions about oneself and the world" (Berle and Moulds, 2013).
Through emotional reasoning, we draw invalid conclusions based upon subjective emotional responses. "I feel bad, this must be bad," or, conversely, "I feel good, this must be good."
Judgements and Emotional Reasoning
Judgments, when facts are deficient, often lean on underlying feelings—emotional reasoning. Underlying currents of feeling seem unflappable. We feel 'good' about information and use that feeling to dictate choice. While certainly subject to error, this is very adaptive to living in a complex and uncertain world.
The problem enters when we take an adaptive characteristic, such as emotional reasoning, and remove other checks and balances. Emotionally driven judgments are flawed, influenced by bias, filling gaps in knowledge with flimsy subjectivity.
In areas of personal expertise, feelings guide efficiently, drawing from extensive exposure, infusing feelings with collected wisdom from years and decades of experience. This is the premise of Malcolm Gladwell's best seller Blink (2017). However, even professionals decisions are heavily weighted by bias. Would we wish criminal convictions to be based on a veteran street cops intuition? We know that systemic bias poison intuitions.
Bias and Emotional Reasoning
We can't dismiss experience. We must, however, consider the limitations. Painstaking examinations of facts impact the conscious and unconscious mind, fine tuning biases, feelings become more attuned to reality , and assist discernment. Hidden knowledge from years of contact frees cognitive load from the strenuous demands of reflection and consideration. An all-pro running back doesn’t carefully analyze the movement of a linebacker before bouncing to the outside; he instinctively knows, moves and evades the tackle.
But even with expertise, hidden biases still intrude. Experts with strong investments stubbornly resist opposing evidence, carrying faulty premises to their grave. New information confronting cherished beliefs doesn’t feel right because it challenges a life’s work. Naturally this would stir unpleasant affect, so we deny, fight and scream.
"Experts with strong investments stubbornly resist opposing evidence, carrying faulty premises to their grave."
Valuing and Feeling
Feelings are essential to find value in information. The constant flow of data must be filtered. We could never process everything. Our minds select a few sets of incoming facts and lets the rest go.
An Austrian economist, Ludwig von Mises describes valuing as our "emotional reaction to the various states of his environment, both that of the external world and that of the physiological conditions of his own body” (Schwartz, 2003).
Our feelings often need instruction in 'revaluing' incoming data. Just like relabeling, reattributing or refocusing, our minds left to their own slide off course and need correction.
Jeffery Schwartz, M.D., an American psychiatrist and researcher in the field of neuroplasticity, explains that he teaches the revaluing concept from the concept of wise attention in Theravada Buddhist philosophy. Buddhist philosophy refers to the term 'wise attention.' Wise attention, Schwartz explains is "seeing matters as they really are or, literally, 'in accordance with the truth'" (2003, p. 87).
We need constant revaluing, recalibrating emotional resonance 'in accordance with the truth.'
See What is True? for more on this topic
Emotional Reasoning and Resistance to Change
Many courageous revolutionaries of science died confronting generally accepted beliefs supported by the emotional reasoning of the majority. The truth rocked stability, shaking the foundations of power, and creating pockets of doubt; truth is threatening. Newness creates confusion, inviting chaos by disturbing once commonly accepted meaning. A truth doesn’t simply displace a falsehood, but fractures a foundation, critically challenging all meaning assembled based on that falsehood. Our beliefs create order with the unknown. When truth disrupts that order, it’s seldom welcomed.
We create order with beliefs; but beliefs often simplify ungraspable complexities. Calming delusions infiltrate our visions of reality to dull the ravages of anxiety. Our fragile selves seek protection from reality. We close our eyes, holding to the childish belief that what we don't see can't hurt us.
When truth illuminates a protecting delusion, we take arms and ferociously defend the falsehood. The blindness feels right, and wisdom feels stupid, so we condemn knowledge. Like prisoners in Plato’s cave, we see the shadows as the beginning and the end, missing the reality of the material figures casting the images on the dungeon walls where we are imprisoned.
See Truth Hurts for more on this topic
We must spot emotional reasoning. We can allow feeling to draw our attention to important elements in our inner and outer environments; but then use additional cognitive and scientific resources to support or discredit the information.
Our lives are beautiful—ugly at times. We must accept life—our life—with its beauty, flaws and struggles. I desire my thoughts, and writings encourage closer inspection of commonly accepted beliefs, not to cause disruption, but to encourage growth. We learn by approaching thoughts that occasionally disturb. Discomfort isn’t sufficient reason to reject but a reminder to skeptically examine—take a closer look, examining a proposed premise and our conflicting belief. I am pleased when an essay unearths emotion, not hatred, but gentle pushes for a reader to examine their preconceived notions supported by their emotional reasoning and pause, just for a moment, to consider alternate explanations.
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Beck, A. T. & Emory, G. (2005). Anxiety Disorders and Phobias: A Cognitive Perspective. Basic Books; 15th edition
Berle, D., & Moulds, M. (2013). An experimental investigation of emotional reasoning processes in depression. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 52(3), 316-329.
Ellis, A. (2007). Overcoming Resistance: A Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy Integrated Approach, Second Edition (Springer Series on Behavior Therapy and Behavioral Medicine). Springer Publishing Company; 2nd edition
Gladwell, M. (2007). Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Back Bay Books.
Schwartz, J. M. (2003). The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force. Harper Perennial