It seems to be a commonly accepted idea that there is a dichotomy between logic and emotion; that rational thought and instinctive decisions are opposites. Although it’s obviously true that there are different kinds of thought processes and that logical thought and emotional feelings don’t work in the same way, I think it’s an incorrect oversimplification to see them as comprising a dichotomy. I don’t think it even makes sense to imagine a logic/emotion spectrum from Spock to McCoy, because, in my opinion anyway, there is actually a relationship between logic and emotion. Otherwise, why would it be frustrating to be unable to understand something? Or why would it be exciting to learn something that you’d always wondered? Why would strategy games be so much fun, and why would schoolwork be stressful?

Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2005.

On the other hand, I’ve also heard the idea that logic and emotion actually are more or less the same thing and the real distinction is between instinctive thought that takes place subconsciously and step-by-step thinking that takes place consciously. There’s a book I’m reading now; it’s called Blink and it’s by someone named Malcolm Gladwell, who is apparently not a psychologist, but he does get his information from experimental psychologists. He, along with the psychologists he cites, believes that snap decisions and first impressions are actually reliable because the fast-thinking subconscious process that forms them is just as rational as the slower conscious thought process. To quote from the book, “In high-stakes, fast-moving situations, we don’t want to be… dispassionate and purely rational… We don’t want to stand there endlessly talking through our options. Sometimes we’re better off if the mind behind the locked door makes our decisions for us.” (I used the ellipses to avoid mentioning the Iowa ventromedial patients, because I’d have to quote an entire two pages in order to explain who the Iowa ventromedial patients are and what they have to do with decision-making thought processes.)

The problem with reading these kinds of psychology books is that many of them are more pseudoscientific than scientific, and some are bordering on the mystical. For example, there have been multiple times that I’ve started reading a ‘psychological’ book about dreams only to find that it places an almost occult prophetic significance on them, even though the book is categorized as a scientific book. As fascinated as I am by the actual psychological theories and research behind things like personalities, dreams, the nature of intelligence, and so forth, I have realized that I have to be very suspicious of books that claim to be about those things without being based in academically factual information. I kind of expected this book to be one of those non-scientific ones; it seemed like it might be a ‘how to tap into the hidden and mystical powers of your brain’ kind of book. I decided to read it anyway. Although some of the claims it makes seem a little outlandish, they are all backed up by official scientific experiments done by official psychologists.

(I have omitted the following several paragraphs because they were going on for quite a while and it didn’t look like I was going to finish writing that bit anytime soon.  I eventually decided that since this is a blog post and not an academic paper, I don’t have to cite multiple examples from the book in order to make every point. Therefore, for the sake of brevity, I hereby skip to the last three paragraphs.)

I am finding that book very interesting, and I have no doubt that there’s something to the claims Gladwell makes, but I don’t think he’s entirely right about the reliability of instinctual thought. My instincts don’t always tell me things that lead to accurate assumptions and good decisions. Sometimes, I have a feeling that I really ought to sleep up several hours late and then spend the rest of the day playing scrabble and watching science fiction instead of going to classes. That’s not some kind of hypersentient instinct, though; it’s just me being a lazy stupidhead. Then my conscious mind has to tell me that I’m not allowed to do that. Or sometimes, I have a paranoid feeling that I’m being followed and watched by invisible evil monsters, but that’s not because my subconscious brain is picking up on subtle clues and coming to rational conclusions. It’s just because I have a very weird imagination, and my conscious mind has to figure out that my imagination is just being silly again and that I’m going to have to ignore it. I can’t even imagine what a weirdo I’d be if I always paid attention to my instincts and feelings.

Gladwell underestimates the weirdness of the human mind. Although he does acknowledge the effects of false or overly generalized stereotypes, (and discusses them at great length) I still have the impression that he is ignoring the sheer number of variables that affect thought, and the fact that a person usually can’t even tell what factors led to a certain decision or impression unless the thought process was conscious. The point of his book is that people can learn to sort out the different things that affect their subconscious thoughts and to rely upon the logical subconscious thoughts for all time-sensitive decision-making. He acknowledges the value of stopping to think things through, but argues that it isn’t necessary and isn’t often worth the time it takes. Gut feelings, he claims, are just as rational as deductive reasoning.

My point is this: I don’t think that logic and emotions are entirely separate or entirely connected. It makes sense that intuitive feelings sometimes can come from a quick and automatic but analytical thought process, but intuitive feelings and snap judgments can also be determined by completely random factors. Countless studies have shown that subtle things like the weather or the color of the walls can influence someone’s attitude or mood, and it’s obvious even without any scientific research that people’s thought processes are affected by whatever else they may have on their minds. The studies that Gladwell cites demonstrate that observation and logic also can affect our thoughts on a subconscious level, but they can’t disprove the presence of countless other variables.  I’m obviously not a scientist, but even I know that you can’t make valid scientific assertions without analyzing the variables in the experiment and considering whether the experiment conditions are too contrived to allow the results to correspond to real life. Although I think that this book is very interesting, and there may be some truth to some of his ideas, I don’t think that Gladwell’s theory is valid enough to be applicable in reality.