Asking Dr. Robert Sternberg: Why do most of us rely on feelings?

Sometimes we ignore our better judgment when faced with a difficult decision. Dr. Robert Sternberg, one of our time's leading psychologists, shares his views on emotion, reason, and more.
Photo: Dr. Robert Sternberg

FLORIDA, October 17, 2012 — Very often, we do things that are not in our best interest.

While it is easy to say that people act irrationally at times and that is that, the reality of human psychology is far more complex. Over the last several decades, many researchers have discarded introspection in favor of cognitive science.

This has allowed for an unparalleled study of mental behavior. Now more than ever, scientists are close to discovering exactly how our minds function.

Dr. Robert Sternberg is one of our time’s foremost psychologists. In this first part of a candid discussion with me, he shares his views about making decisions based on feelings rather than thought, whether or not humans are geared toward irrationality, what the greatest reward of formulating the triarchic theory of intelligence has been, and much more.     

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

Dr. Robert Sternberg: First, gut feelings often give the right answer. We just rationalize too easily and we know it. For example, you meet a person and are romantically attracted. You start dating the person. After a while, you begin to feel in your gut something is wrong but you can’t figure out what. You begin to rationalize and say that you are just afraid of commitment. Perhaps. But more often than not, if something feels wrong with the relationship, it is, even if you can’t put your finger on it.

Second, when in trouble or in a difficult situation, our feelings usually hit us right away whereas our thinking takes a while. In a tight situation, we don’t always have time to think it through. By the time we think it through, it may be too late. If we suspect someone is about to attack us, for example, we may not have time to think about all the ramifications of whether it’s true or not. We best get out of target range.

Third, evolutionarily, feelings came first and in tight situations, we rely on what is more basic to us.

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

Dr. Sternberg: No. I don’t think that we are “invariably geared toward irrationality.”

But we nevertheless often act in irrational way. I once entitled a book, “Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid.” The point was that even very intelligent people often think irrationally. They are at a disadvantage, many times, because they do not realize that their being smart does not protect them against irrationality. However, I think that if we put in the effort, we can think rationally. That’s not to say we usually do, however.

Cotto: Many believe that mental functions are best studied using introspective methods. Cognitive psychology begs to differ. Why is this?

Dr. Sternberg: Our introspections are often wrong. Much of our thinking is below our conscious awareness, and we simply don’t have access to it. So when we introspect, we only look at the conscious part and may draw conclusions that are incorrect. Also, much of our thinking happens very quickly, in milliseconds, and we cannot access it because it was just too fast.

There are mental operations, for example, that take 30 milliseconds. They are not available to conscious introspection. That said, introspection can be helpful in certain cases, for example, in asking ourselves why we did something we did that was thought through over a longer period of time.

There is no one best method of studying thinking. Multiple methods should be employed to understand it.

Cotto: Looking at history, it would seem that most human actions take place on the basis of perceived self-interest. Does cognitive psychology, generally speaking, support this standpoint?

Dr. Sternberg: Cognitive psychology as a field does not take a point of view on this. At times, this becomes more a philosophical debate, such as when I help another, is it really largely to make myself feel better about myself? People do many things in self-interest, but many they don’t. People die for each other all the time, and it is hard to see how it is in their self-interest, unless they have the belief that they will be rewarded in the afterlife. As I write, soldiers are dying in Afghanistan with little self-benefit.

Cotto: The triarchic theory of intelligence has had an immeasurable impact on modern psychology. What has been the greatest reward of formulating this?

Dr. Sternberg: The greatest reward has been that I think the theory has had some positive impact on our thinking about intelligence. I have argued that intelligence involves not only analytical skills, but creative, practical, and wisdom-based ones as well. The influence of the testing movement has been partly pernicious, concentrating as it does only on memory and analytical skills but not on creative, practical, wisdom-based, and ethical ones. Today, I worry that many of our schools are educating students to be “smart” and “knowledgeable,” but not to be “creative,” “practical,” or “wise.”

A degree from a prestigious college is no guarantee at all that a person is ethical or wise.  That said, I have discovered as I have gotten older how difficult it is to change a society and it pains me that narrow tests continue to have as much importance in society as they do.

The problem is not even so much with the test but with the over interpretations of their results, as when students select colleges on the basis of small average differences in ACT or SAT scores; or admissions officers select students on the basis of such small differences.


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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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