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Are emotions bad? Wouldn't it be better if we were completely rational?

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In the TV and film series Star Trek, one of the protagonists, Spock, was valued for his ability to make every decision based on pure rationality, without any emotional influence. And this is a view often perpetuated in society. Emotions are seen as a pollutant in proper decision making. It is volatile, it makes us pick the wrong decision, the types we regret. It prevents us from seeing a clear picture.


"If only we could be like Spock."
"If only we could be more rational and less emotional."

But is this true? Are emotions bad? And would we be better off without emotions?

Before we answer these questions, 2 quick points:

1) In reality, it is not possible to separate emotions and rationality. One of the most prominent neural links in our brain is the link between the centre of rationality - the pre-frontal cortex, and the centre of emotions - the amygdala. The 2 centres mutually influence each other, regularly, quickly, and continually. In fact, the pre-frontal cortex has an important part (if you're interested - the ventromedial pre-frontal cortex) dedicated solely to interface with parts of the brain that deals with our emotions. (We are in the process of updating a new chapter on the interaction between the rational and emotional parts of our brain - do check back for updates!


2) Before we tackle our questions, we should first understand what emotions are. In general, all emotions carry these characteristics:

  • It is triggered by a stimulus 
    The stimulus could be a thought or an experience. For example, you worked long hard for a project - and it fails. But it doesn't need to actually happen - just thinking and imagining the project failing is sufficient to trigger emotions. 

  • It happens quickly, automatically and subconsciously
    The failure makes us feel sad. We don't need to tell ourselves to feel sad... it just happens. Just like we don't need to tell ourselves, hey, you won the lottery, time to feel happy. 

  • It has an amplification effect
    While the emotion happens subconsciously, when you become conscious of it*, it hits you and has an impact on you. It makes you want to take some action or have some response. 

  • We cannot control the triggering of emotions (in the short term), we can only control our response to the emotion
    We will almost always feel sadness with every failure. We can't change this in the short-term. But we can control the secondary response - failure isn't pleasant but we shouldn't feel too bad; instead, we can focus on the lessons we can learn and improve on. 

(*for those who are more familiar with this, especially of the work of scientists like Damasio, you will know that emotions and feelings are different. There is an important technical difference, but this difference does not affect this discussion, and I have chosen not to over-complicate the explanation.)

"In short, emotions are our quick, natural,
and subconscious reactions to stimuli.
They shout out to us that something is important,
and we should look at it. 

We can't change our emotions,
we can only our response."

Great. Now that we have gotten these out of the way, we can answer the questions:
Are emotions bad?

Wouldn't it be better if we could just be completely rational?

Emotions are not bad for us. They are not only necessary, they are meaningful. 

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1.   At the most basic level, our emotions have kept us alive and allowed humans to still be around

This happens in 2 ways:
First, the oft-repeated sabretooth tiger story. Your ancestors were lying on grasslands about to go to sleep when they catch sight of a blur in the bushes. Suddenly, they bolt upright and prepare to start running. It could be a sabretooth tiger on the prowl. Amazingly, our brains can recognise threats and instil fears even before we are consciously aware of what we saw. 

If we were completely rational and without emotions, it would have taken too long for us to assess the threat, by which time we would be dead. It is precisely because we have emotions, and our emotions have the characteristics above - automatic, quick, amplifier - that we survived. 

Second, the amplification effect of emotions helps us learn things permanently. Nothing makes us learn that hot stoves are dangerous better than the pain from touching it once. You would probably also have a personal example of a difficult theory or a complex piece of information which you learnt while you were emotionally aroused - when you were particularly excited, or it was tied to a story that touched you. And you always remember it. The theory or information stays with you throughout life. There is a neurobiological reason behind this: emotions trigger a specific neurotransmitter (acetylcholine) that encodes incoming information deeply. 

Finally, no amount of cognitive learning can translate the joy of sharing time with a friend, a family member, a spouse, your kids, your pet - a joy that you makes you want to do it again. Which segues nicely into our next point.


2.   Emotions make our lives meaningful

Earlier, we mentioned that even the most rational part of our brain, the pre-frontal cortex, has a region specifically dedicated to interface with our emotions. What happens if this region is silenced (with a magnetic scan) or suffers damage? We see that such folks have no problems advising otherson what the rational thing to do is. But they are unable to do the same for themselves. When faced with

And this is not surprising. Imagine if you have trained for a very difficult personal challenge. Say you wanted to climb Mount Everest. And you put months and months of excruciating training. And finally, you made it to the top of Mt Everest, the top of the world. 


Now imagine if you had no emotions. What would that be like? Ok - I worked hard for this, we've ticked the box. The rational thing would be for us to go down quickly before we suffer from altitude sickness. 


Or you are on a sports team. And after years and years of trying, your team had never won any competition. Your team was never even close. Rationally, it's pretty shite. But why do you and your teammates turn up week after week to play? And rationally, how do you explain why, even though you guys never won anything, it still meant something. To be on a team with everyone else, who supported and played for one another. This meaning cannot be appreciated without a large dose of emotion.

Or an example we can all try out now. Look back at your life. What are the moments you remember? What are these major moments that flash before your eyes? I am sure that all, if not the vast majority carry strong emotions, good or bad, which makes you remember and treasure these the most. Sure, there might be some achievements which we are proud of which required tremendous rational analysis. But without the coupling of emotion, these moments mean far less.

Life, the living, the value - rests with the emotions we generate. 


3.   It allows us to bond with and understand others. Just like emotions are coupled with our most meaningful moments, such is also the case for everyone else. And it is the emotions that others exhibit which allows us to understand what is meaningful to them, and in what ways.

It is the presence of one particularly strong emotion - empathy - that allows us to forge a bond with others, even those who at first instance appear very different from us. It is empathy that allows us to connect with others without a more tedious logical sequence. It is empathy that allows us to realise that instead of trying to pay people more money to do work, perhaps we can get them to do it even better through understanding and acknowledgement. It is empathy that paradoxically provides an outlet for the harmful effects of stress.  It is empathy that allows us to form some of the best friendships, because there isn't just mutual understanding, but mutual sharing. 


And as we shall soon see, it is empathy that allows us to maximise utility beyond what rationality can. 

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Sometimes it is not emotion that gives us the wrong answer

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It must be recongised that emotions do cause us to make bad decisions sometimes. We all have moments when we made an impulsive choice when angry, got impatient and acted hastily, over-spent because we got excited, or escalated a small misunderstanding into a major argument because of our pride and anger. 

How can we deal with the adverse effects of emotions on decision making? We will get to that. But we should also acknowledge that there are reasons beyond emotions that causes flawed decision making. 

Consider some examples.

First, lying. At some point in time, we have all chosen to lie. The reason for lying is very likely to be a combination of emotions and rationality. You might feel fearful that the other party finds out the truth, but there is also usually a rational element where you calculate that you can get away with lying. Moreover, once we have made the decision to lie, it becomes completely the domain of the rational part of our brains to manufacture layer upon layer of convolution to make it harder for the lie to unravel. Which is why a small lie becomes a bigger one, and a bigger one, until when it uncovered, it has become an unforgivable web of lies. 

Second, cognitive biases. We have many such biases which are commonly labelled as "irrational", though, in truth, these biases result from the effects of both the rational and emotional parts of our brain. Take, for example, judging someone or something based on heuristics - say the age-old HR practice of judging interviewees based on criteria like whether they have shined their shoes. This is irrational - shouldn't we be more concerned about the interviewee's actual skills? He could be brilliant, just untidy. And this would be true if there was just one single case. But think about how many decisions we have to make, how many new stimulus we encounter, and how many new people we meet throughout life.

If we rationally assessed every new stimulus, we would simply have no time or energy to do anything else. So is it rational or irrational to introduce quick heuristics to make most decisions fairly accurately? 

Third, there are some decisions where we do want to minimise emotions - whether to invest a large sum of money on a company, deciding which medical insurance plan to buy, or an army general deciding whether to attack or not.


But equally, there are many decisions in real-life that do not have simple answers. Should you work at a place where you will get great financial success and a clear path to the top, or should you pick a lower-paying job which you really enjoy? Should you join a successful sports team with the best players but the worst relationships, or a mediocre one where the teammates are your best friends? 

As an aside, as someone who read economies for my bachelor's, I often giggled to myself listening to the lectures. The prevalent economic assumption is that people are rational in maximising their utility. Yet this is obviously not the case in reality, and believing so is completely irrational. So we have a bunch of folks preaching about rationality in an irrational way, an ironic example of how the world really works. 


Sometimes, emotions are the key to better decisions


Say you are a restaurant owner. And the customer orders duck for their main course. And as the owner, you give the recommendation above - the duck isn't very good today, but the chicken is better and cheaper. 

Now, this is completely irrational. As a restaurant owner, you want to make a profit. And the customer is helping you by willingly ordering something you want to sell as soon as possible. In contrast, imagine if there is a genuinely kind restaurant owner who recommends to the customer a cheaper option, lessening his own profit. 

But have another think about this. What would the customer's impression of this restaurant be after such advice? And will he recommend the restaurant to others?

On the topic of food, have you ever tried the Chilean Sea Bass? If not, you probably have seen it on menus or in pictures. But have you actually seen the fish itself,  and not just the dish? What if I told you that the Chilean Sea Bass is not even a sea bass and was originally called the Patagonian Toothfish? No one wanted to eat a fish with a name like that and which looked like this. Until someone figured out an irrational solution - changing its name. You might also be interested in why Germans accepted potatoes after rejecting them for so long.


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Next, and an even more important example: the trust game.

2 players who will never meet each other. 
Player 1 is given $10 and has a choice of either a) keeping it, or b) giving it to Player 2.
If Player 1 gives the money to Player 2, the money quadruples - it now becomes $40.
Player 2 also has 2 options, a) keep the $40, or b) splitting the bounty between the 2 players, each getting $20.

If we play this game by complete rationality, the game will end with Player 1 keeping the $10. This is because rationally, if Player 1 gave the $10 to Player 2, Player will surely keep the $40, because the 2 players will never meet.

Based on complete rationality, the outcome will be that Player 1 walks away with $10 and Player 2 with $0. 
But because we are not completely rational, and we trust the other player to be decent even though we have not and will never meet, both players usually end up with $20, a better outcome for everyone.

Amazingly, when players go through this game in a brain scanner, Player 2s who share the bounty ($20 each with Player 1) trigger higher dopamine levels than if they had kept the $40 for themselves. In other words, we actually get more satisfaction from sharing the money than from pocketing a larger amount. Again, the rational choice is the sub-optimal one. 


So the emotional, irrational approach could, in fact, yield better outcomes for the individual than the rational approach.

But this is also the case at a societal or global level. And it is crucial that it happens this way.


Take voting at political elections for example. Think about this, there is a minuscule chance that your vote actually matters. How many elections do you know was decided by 1 vote? So whether you vote or not makes no difference. Moreover, voting takes up travel time and costs. So the rational thing to do is not to vote, since your vote doesn't matter. 

Except if everyone thought this way, democracy will surely fail, because no one will vote. 


If everyone sought the rational approach to pick careers with a higher chance of success, we wouldn't have inventors and entrepreneurs. 

And a much more important example. If you have no kids, why should you bother with climate change? It's not likely to adversely affect you in this lifetime, especially for those who are now above 60. Hence, rationally, seniors with no kids should seek maximum convenience and cost savings, since they won't be affected.  This is especially as going green can be very inconvenient (carrying and washing reusables) and costly (green products tend to be more expensive at this current moment). 

Again, it would be disastrous if everyone thought rationally. Because then, the optimal answer based on rationality would be to maximise utility, which likely leads to more pollution. 

We often lament that we cannot be fully rational. Indeed we biologically cannot remove our emotions. But as the examples show, emotions are not completely bad. While they might hinder decision making and analysis, emotions also create meaning, attention, and in certain situation, lead to better deicsion. 

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