The Role of Emotions in a Supposedly Rational World: A Dangerous Oversight

We live in a world that glorifies few things more than reason. And rightly so. Everything around us reminds us of the power of reason and how it has transformed our lives. It gives us those analytical skills that are indispensable for making informed decisions. Reason allows us to distinguish between fact and myth. It gives us the ability to know the difference between assumptions that can be used temporarily as placeholders for facts, when the latter are not possible to obtain, to help us progress towards a particular goal, and other uninformed guesses that  can only hinder our progress. Without reason we would not have excelled over all other forms of life that share with us this generous planet.

Of course, reason is not only a power for good. Just like any power, it can be used to create good but it can also be abused to generate evil. Reason is what helped us develop our medical knowledge, increase life expectancy, and improve our quality of life. But it is also the power of thinking that created biological weapons. It is not difficult to think of many such dichotomies. Nevertheless, no person would think that we would be better off living without reason!

But this acceptance of reason as an indispensable driver of our human behaviour has often made us lose sight of another powerful force that shapes how we act and react: “Emotions.” Because of our reverence of reason and the fact that we use it all the time and think in terms of it, we very often fall into the trap of thinking that it is the only driver of our actions. The reality is that our reverence of reason and the advance of our reasoning skills have not reduced a bit the role of emotions in determining what we are and what we do. The widespread of mental health illnesses and issues today are testimony to this.

Here is a powerful expression of this dangerous oversight: Even when we make unreasonable decisions that we know we took while we were in an emotional state of mind, we tend to justify them using reason, ignoring any role that our emotions might have played. This is how we want to present the sequence that led to our action or reaction:

reason-emtions1

We accept that the event not only promoted us to think but also triggered emotions in us, but we tend to believe that emotions did not contribute to whatever action we took. The reality, however, is that we acted the way we did while under the influence of both reason and emotions, so the real representation of what happened is something like this:

reason-emtions2

When we think or get asked about what caused us to react in the way we did, we almost always bypass the role of the “emotions” and link our behaviour to the trigger event. We do that because we want, and are brought up, to believe that we behave reasonably, i.e. that reason drives our behaviours. Of course, there are situations where we have no option but to admit that we simply responded to an emotional need, but this is not our default way of thinking.

The respective shares of reason and emotions in shaping any action differ from one situation to another. In some cases, the effect of our emotional state of mind can be so small that we can safely presume we are driven by reason. On the other extreme, our emotional upheaval could be such that reason is all but disabled, leading us to behave completely irrationally. It is often an imbalanced mix of the two that drives our behaviour.

There is one particularly negative emotional state that I would like to mention: Anger. Under anger, or its more extreme form that we call “rage,” the person can lose a lot, and at times almost all, of their reasoning capabilities. The person’s judgement can be totally impaired, leading them to make irrational decisions that their reasoning power, had it been present, would have told them were completely wrong. Studies have shown that anger can even negatively affect moral reasoning:

Anger may lead to more automatic information processing and also to an intuition based judgment. Angry participants chose harsher punishments and considered it more morally correct. It was also shown that anger does not lead to greater willingness to help in an immoral situation. The research notes that actual emotional states can influence the process of moral reasoning and determine moral judgment. (Grežo & Pilárik, Journal of European Psychology Students, 2013, 4, 56-68)

The Qur’an highlights controlling anger as one of the attributes that the believer must seek, and it links that to forgiveness:

Those who spend in alms in prosperity and adversity, repress their rage, and pardon people; Allah loves the good-doers. (3.134)

The significance of recognizing the role of our emotional state of mind in driving our actions is that dealing with our emotions is a completely different process to managing how we reason. To improve our reasoning, we mainly want to gain better reasoning skills, such as analytical thinking and problem solving, and more relevant information about the issue we need to reason about. A combination of reasoning skills and relevant knowledge is what we need to get our reason to make the best possible judgement. But this approach would not make us less susceptible to, say, getting angry. Improving our emotional wellbeing is a psychological and spiritual quest. This is one function of the religious acts of worship. This, for instance, is what the Qur’an says about “dhikr” or “remembering God”:

Those who believe and whose hearts gain comfort by the remembrance of Allah. It is by the remembrance of Allah that the hearts gain comfort. (13.28)

Recognizing the fact that both reason and emotions contribute to our decisions is critical to understanding human behaviour. Ignoring or underestimating the role of emotions, which is what often happens, can only lead to misunderstanding behaviours that are significantly driven by emotions. Let me give an example that we are reminded of everyday. We are now living in a world in which terrorism is being committed under the name of Islam in many places almost everyday. There are usually three explanations that are offered to try and understand such atrocities:

  1. Islam inherently promotes terrorism
  2. The terrorists abuse Islam for their own agendas
  3. The terrorists misunderstand Islam

I, like numerous other people, have already discussed in detail and rejected the first absurd suggestion. The sooner this explanation is recognized for what it is — an absurdity — the better, because it is a distraction from understanding the real problems.

The second explanation is certainly true for some cases. But this is simply a case of terrorists using Islam as a cover. It is criminal behaviour, nothing more, nothing less. This, for instance, is the way to understand the Boko Haram heinous crimes of abducting girls to turn them into sex slaves, stealing the property of people…etc. I would like to quote here this particular verse:

O you who believe! When you travel in the way of Allah, investigate and do not say to someone who offers you peace: “You are not a believer,” seeking riches of this world, for with Allah there are abundant spoils. You too were so before, then Allah conferred favors on you. So investigate. Allah is aware of what you do. (4.94)

I have commented on this verse in more detail in my book on Jihad in the Qur’an in a section on “the Qur’an’s Warning Against the Abuse of Armed Jihad.” God here warns the Muslims not to use a false religious pretext to attack peaceful non-Muslims to steal their property as spoil of war.

In the case of the third explanation, better education is clearly what is needed. But this is only true when the misunderstanding is the result of ignorance, as is the case with many Muslims who have poor understanding of their own religion. Misunderstanding can also be engineered by one’s emotional state of mind, significantly reducing what they know and their thinking capabilities. In cases such as these, the person may, for example, forget or ignore critical information about Islam that would stop them from committing the atrocities they are considering, or their ability to process such information may become seriously compromised.

Let’s take an example of this. Feelings of grievance, injustice, revenge, and/or anger are behind many cases of suicide bombing. Why do these people do it when they must know that it does not solve any problem? Surely, killing one’s self and others, at times indiscriminately, can only be a response to an emotional need. The problem here often is not ignorance for better education to be the solution. The driving factors are rather those negative emotions, as the person’s behaves in a way that meets his emotional needs rather than reflects what he knows best when he is not in such negative states of mind. The solution in this case is addressing the underlying causes of those negative feelings and helping people learn how to deal positively with such feelings. This has to happen before those emotions overpower the person’s rational thinking and best judgement and ultimately drive them to commit the acts of terrorism that we describe as “senseless,” “meaningless,” “impossible to understand”….etc. They are indeed incomprehensible because they are not as much driven by clear reasoning as the lack of it. They are the outcome of surrendering to one’s negative emotions.

Copyright © 2015 Louay Fatoohi
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1 Comment on "The Role of Emotions in a Supposedly Rational World: A Dangerous Oversight"

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Ibrahim
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Salam Louay That is a brilliant analysis brother. I heard Dr Ahmed al Mansour narrate a similar response to acts of terror committed In the name of Islam. At the moment though the current media frenzy campaign is definitely demonising Muslims even if they say they are not….they contradict themselves by saying this does not mean that all Muslims support this but they keep referring to the terrorist as Strict Muslims…devout Muslims….Radical Muslims….etc etc..they keep showing clips of people praying in Mosques….veiled women and ISIS…..over and over again….I also feel that those European nations who are shouting out ‘Democracy’ and… Read more »
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