How rational are we? Dan Ariely on emotion, reason, and making wise decisions

Is it better to make decisions based on emotion or reason? The answer is anything but simple. 
Photo: Professor Dan Ariely

FLORIDA, November 10, 2012 — Few questions are so perplexing as whether we should base our actions on emotion or reason.

Many argue that the latter is the clear choice. After all, if what we are doing does not make sense, then what is the purpose of carrying on with it? Others say that the human condition is far too complex for reason alone, and most of life’s intricacies can only be explained through emotion.

Dan Ariely has written much about this quagmire. In addition to being a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, he is the author of “Predictably Irrational,” “The Upside of Irrationality,” and “The Honest Truth About Dishonesty.”

During this first part of a candid interview, Dr. Ariely explains about why most people rely on feelings rather than thought, whether or not humans are actually geared toward irrationality, and if making decisions on reason alone is a good idea.  

Joseph F. Cotto: When faced with a tough decision, most people rely on feelings rather than thought. Seemingly, this makes little sense. Is there any concrete reason that humans frequently allow themselves to be guided by emotion instead of reason? 

Dr. Dan Ariely: I think people let themselves do this when they don’t have a particular reason to choose one thing or another. So, if there’s a very strong, compelling reason, there’s no question. But in many cases, it’s not easy to come by the compelling reason. It’s not that it doesn’t exist, but it’s not easy. Then we have these gut feelings, and I think we rely on these gut feelings because they’re so powerful, and they’re internal.

Sometimes gut feelings are correct. For example, when you see a tiger, your gut feeling tells you to run away. When you see a snake, your gut feeling tells you to not play with it. The problem is that with many other things in the modern world, our gut feelings are not necessarily correct.

Honest Truth About Dishonesty

The way to think about it is “Under what conditions would gut feelings be correct?”. So one is, of course, if you have an evolutionary reason. But when you deal with the modern world, the question is “Under what conditions could you learn that something is actually bad?”

If you’re a chess player, and you have played for many, many years, you have kind of a feeling of what’s a good move. If you play tennis, you have a feeling of how your body should look.

In those cases, it’s better to trust your feelings because it’s an automated response, and you don’t have to think. The automated response is so well learned that it’s actually very, very good. In the modern world, aside from the few areas in which we’re experts, and in most cases, we have a strong gut feeling, but no real reason to trust it. The problem is that there are some areas in which we should trust it, but then we overgeneralize.

I actually think that people trust their gut feelings in business and in politics —just think about how our decisions about who to choose for president, for example, are influenced by our gut feelings.

How our decisions about medical treatment, about trusting physicians, about all kinds of things — this is really a very sad state of affairs. It would have been much better if we didn’t trust our gut feelings to this high degree.

Cotto: Some scientists claim that humans are invariably geared toward irrationality. Do you agree with this opinion?

Dr. Ariely: My first book was called “Predictably Irrational,” and my second book was called “The Upside of Irrationality.” I think that irrationality is an inherent part of our nature, but it’s not always bad.

For example, people are generous. People give money to charity, even for things that are not going to help them. In my last book, “The Honest Truth About Dishonesty,” I talk about how people lie and cheat and so on. We don’t do it as much as the rational economic theory would predict.

So, I think that the human mind is not a calculator like Mr. Spock from “Star Trek.” We don’t work based on perfect, logical calculations of all the different options. From that perspective, I would say that we are definitely not designed to act rationally. There are some things that we are not too far from rationality on, not exactly perfect, but not too far from it. There are some things on which we’re very far from it, but on those things, sometimes we’re actually better than the economic theory, and sometimes we would have been better off if we would have been closer to the economic theory.

Cotto: Many scholars do not believe that humans can or should make decisions based on reason alone. What is your opinion about this idea?

Dr. Ariely: This goes back to the first question. Under what conditions are emotions good? I think, for example, when you saw a tiger a hundred thousand years ago in the savanna, you would just run away. There’s no reason or time to make decisions. When you play tennis, if you’re good at it — I play squash, personally, but I’m not that good, though I’m okay — and you get good at it, your natural instincts are really better than the slowness of logical reasoning.

So, I think that as we become experts in something, we should rely more on our emotions. Now, sometimes, things are just about emotions. Think about art. Let’s say you see two pieces of art, and one gives you more pleasure than the other, but the one that gives you less pleasure is more logical. Which one should you get?

If you get a piece of art where you’re going to reason about it everyday and think about it carefully, maybe choosing the one from the thinking perspective is better. But if you’re like most of us, you’re going to have this piece of art hanging in your house, and you’re just going to look at it and enjoy it in a hedonic, pleasurable, emotional kind of way. Then the emotion is the right way to consume it.

So lots of things we consume in terms of emotions. In those things, emotions should guide our decisions.  


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Joseph Cotto

Joseph F. Cotto is a social journalist by trade and student of history by lifestyle choice. He hails from central Florida, writing about political, economic, and social issues of the day. In the past, he was a contributor to Blogcritics Magazine, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book about American society.

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