Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Anticipation of Emotion

The interplay of reason and emotion in the decision-making process is highly complex, and it’s largely acknowledged that it is not a matter of categorizing decisions as rational or emotional, but recognizing that both are engaged to some degree, and sorting out which might be leading the other in any given situation.

In this regard, a distinction must be made between the emotions that are influencing a decision during the decision-making process and the emotions that are rationally evaluated as a component of the outcome of the decision, and it is my sense that the latter are far more influential than the former – and that they are in fact the product of reasoning.

Generally speaking, decisions are made with the objective of having a net positive effect on the emotional status of the decision-maker: we choose a course of action because we believe the outcome will make us happier than an alternative course (including the choice not to take any action at all).  

Even when there is a veneer of practicality, it masks a core of emotionalism.   The stoic businessman chooses a course of action because it will be the most profitable may claim that he has set aside his emotions so that logic and mathematics can determine his course – but the desire to have the greatest profit is still essentially an emotional desire.   He expects to feel happier if he makes a large profit. And he does not wish to feel embarrassed or incompetent by choosing an option that yields less profit than another.  So it is feelings, not reasonings, that define his objective.

But even at that, one cannot say that the decision is emotional: the objective is emotional, though the decision-making process may be as devoid of emotion as he can possible make it.   But even the emotional objective has a rational basis – the decision-maker is not feeling the emotions that will arise when the outcome of the decision is realized at the time he is making the decision to act.   Instead, he is anticipating his emotional state – considering, in a very rational way, how he imagines that he will feel in a moment he has not yet experienced. 

To predict a reaction to a future event is not to feel, but to think about feeling.   To understand, in a very rational way, the causes of our emotional states and to assemble a logical model in which we can consider the possible effects of a given input that has not yet occurred.   This is not done while experiencing emotion (or the same emotion as we will in future), but it is done by anticipating emotion – and predictive models such as this are not emotional constructs, but rational ones.

So while we may say that even a seemingly rational decision is really an emotional one, we must also concede that even a seemingly emotional decision is really a rational one – and in the end, the false dilemma that any decision is purely one or the other misguides us into failing to recognize the degree to which each contributes to the decision-making process.

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