ActivismMental HealthPhilosophySkepticism

Irrationality and Emotions

So last weekend at Skepticon I have been having an absolutely fabulous time hearing speakers, going to workshops and hanging out with generally awesome people. Over the course of the weekend, I noticed a couple of themes cropping up, and one of them is extremely important to me. Stephanie and James led a panel about irrationality and ethics, and the topic that we focused most on was emotions and their role in rationality.

I’ve been struck all weekend by how many people seem to be opposed to the idea that emotions can be rational, or that even if they aren’t, they can be useful. There seems to be a very harsh opposition to anything that is not strictly empirical or logical, to the point where JT went so far as to say that we have a moral obligation to be rational. I can understand that mindset, I truly can. Many times, there is a dichotomy set up between emotions and reason, and as skeptics we want to stay as far on the reason side of things as we can. It’s easy to look at times when we’ve been very emotional and see that we might not make the most rational choices, or note that we lose some of our higher level thinking skills.

But here’s the difficult part about shunning emotions: human beings are emotional creatures. It is healthy and normal to have emotions. They are part of our makeup, and if psychology has taught us anything, it’s that if we want to be healthy and live a good, fulfilled life, we have to accept our emotions and integrate them into our decision making process. And it’s actually becoming more and more apparent to more people that emotions are actually incredibly useful. We have our emotions for a reason, and that reason is to keep us safe.

What many people who dismiss emotions fail to recognize is that emotions are an extremely important source of information, and are often a way to analyze information very quickly in order to motivate necessary action. In this way, emotions are actually very rational much of the time. Sometimes they come to the wrong conclusion, and sometimes their logic fails, but at root they operate in a logical way: they take an input, analyze how it affects us, and react to protect us.

For example if you see a car coming straight at you, you feel fear. This is a completely rational emotion. It has taken a situation that is immediate, distilled all the information very quickly, and given you an appropriate response. Because of your fear, you run. You don’t get hit by the car. Without that immediate push of fear, you probably won’t get out of the way in time. Without fear, you make stupid, irrational decision, because fear helps to protect you.

All of our emotions have similar purposes. Negative emotions in particular tell us when we need to change something, tell us when a situation is harming us. Different emotions give us different kinds of information. I have recently become aware of the incredible importance of getting angry. Anger tells us when someone has crossed our boundaries. It tells us where we stand, what is important to us. If someone tells you a story about a priest raping a child, and you don’t get angry, that is irrational. And without the anger there, you don’t have the impetus to act and change the world.

Emotions are another source of information, just like our senses, just like logic. But in addition to giving us information about where we stand, about what harms us, about what we want and need, they also give us the immediate information that we need to change something. They compel us to act. Those people who have damage to the parts of the brain that create emotion often have an extremely difficult time making decisions, because emotions are what push us to act. They are not irrational, they are necessary, and I believe that the dismissive attitude of the atheist and skeptical community towards emotions is actually damaging to us as individuals, and to our appeal to a wider audience. We don’t need to be Spock. We need to use our emotions to help us improve our lives and the lives of others.

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Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at


  1. November 19, 2012 at 2:31 pm —

    “So last weekend at Skepticon I have been having an absolutely fabulous time hearing speakers, going to workshops and hanging out with generally awesome people.”

    Error “have been having”?

    I agree with pretty much everything here. Puts me in mind of a blog post I read a while ago: I think Franklin Veaux puts this distinction very well (in the context of talking about relationships in particular), as, “Feel with your heart, but check your facts.”

  2. November 26, 2012 at 4:53 pm —

    It’s true that our emotions are important. Any attempt to dismiss or suppress emotions will lead to enormous problems, and ultimately fail.

    But the bit about the anger is a misconception. Anger does not help us to act, it
    paralyses, and stops us from seeing the world rationally. Acting in a rage rarely leads to good results. And keeping up the anger takes an immense toll on us, both emotionally and physically (blood pressure and heart disease are cases in point).

    Anger is a secondary emotion, something we work up when the underlying emotion – usually something like sadness, desperation, helplessness – is too painful, or too strong for us to face. Better to ask ourselves why we are angry; usually it is because we need/want something very, very badly. With the priests it’s probably something like for all children to be safe, to be protected, to be unharmed. Connecting to that thing we need/want is usually a much better motivation to fight for it.

    Replace it with “…and you don’t get upset…”, and I’m with you.

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