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The complicated relationship between emotions and logic

At the press conference on Singapore Press Holding's plans to transfer its media business to a not-for-profit entity, a reporter  asked if "the company will now pivot to emphasise editorial integrity, for example, ahead of advertiser interests". 
 

This prompted an angry response from the CEO: "The fact that you dare to question the SPH title for, in your words, 'conceding to the advertisers', I take umbrage in that comment." You can check out the full response below. 
 

Immediately, social media was filled with reactions to the CEO's response, most negative. Many criticised him for an overly-emotional outburst to what they perceived to be a simple question.

The law minister later said that Ng’s reply was “most unfortunate”.
Ng himself also came out subsequently to apologise for his language (but not his response).

For a newspaper which had falling readership, CEO Ng Yat Chung certainly showed his team how to make the news and get people interested again.

Which all makes for a super interesting case-study on why we think and act the way we do. Why did CEO Ng reply in such strong terms? What were some influences? Did he not know that it might lead to backlash?

The intuitive answer is that the CEO lost his cool. He allowed emotions to overwhelm his rationality, and as a result gave an angry answer to his detriment. Surely this must be the case, right?

No. This (expected) false dichotomy between rationality and emotions is a useful place for us to start.

We tend to think of emotions as unthinking reaction, while rationality is the opposite, it’s thoughtful consideration. What we want then seems straightforward: more rationality, less emotions.

But consider what really happened. A question was directed to the chairman.

The CEO a) didn’t need to give an answer, the chairman had already addressed the question; and b) if CEO did want to add on (as he did in this case), he was not put on a spot. He had time to think about what to say. Finally, after giving his reply, he added something that isn’t necessary and is by definition detrimental to himself – “chairman is a gentleman, I’m not”.

Here, we introduce a few basic elements of neuroscience 101.
 

1) Generally, we categorise the frontal cortex in the brain as the area regulating rational thought, and the limbic system, in particular the amygdala, as the center for emotions. This is a simplification, but nonetheless it is a useful working model.

The final decision for most thoughts and actions we take has to be “approved” by the frontal cortex, the rational center of our brain (some exceptions, but broadly true). Notice that the CEO makes several deliberate (whether is conscious or not, well that's a far longer debate) decisions. He decides that he has to give a reply, even when he didn’t need to. He had time to decide what he wanted to say. And he makes an additional decision to justify his answer. All of these necessarily have to be done by the frontal cortex. Your emotional parts of the brain are not capable of making these decisions. Hold this thought.

2). How do we know what a brain region does specifically? One fundamental rule is what gives inputs to this brain region, and where its output goes. If a brain region has inputs from olfaction (our sense of smell) and outputs to the insula (disgust), it almost certainly has to do with processing inputs from smell.

In 1960s, a giant of neuroscience, MIT’s Walle Nauta, studied what brain regions sent connections to the frontal cortex, and what regions the frontal cortex projected out to. He realised that the frontal cortex projected out to the limbic system, in particular the amygdala. In fact, there is a region in our prefrontal cortex, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, that exists almost exclusively to interface with your emotions. 

Crucially, these projections are bidirectional. Your emotions can shape your thoughts. The intensity from emotions can cloud your thinking – we are familiar with this. When you are very angry, it’s hard to be completely rational. You view things in more negative light and say things you might regret.

But the converse is also true. You can try this right now. You can make yourself sad just by thinking about all the regrets that you will have when you die, or the loved ones whom will inevitably leave you. You can make yourself angry just thinking about someone you dislike. Just your thoughts alone can trigger your emotions, even if nothing is happening in reality.

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These 2 points bring us to the crux of emotions and rationality. Studying each on its own, they seem to be opposites. They certainly feel this way. Like oil and water, emotions and logic don’t mix; additionally, one feels a lot more inaccurate than the other.
 

But let’s consider the question that Ng replied to again: "the company will now pivot to emphasise editorial integrity, for example, ahead of advertiser interests":

- Does this question not suggest that SPH currently prioritises advertisers’ needs over editorial integrity? Hence, is this an attack?
 

- Do you think this is the first time the CEO is answering questions on editorial integrity? How many times have you questioned if the Straits Times, for example, is biased?
 

-Do you think that the CEO had formed a prior impression of other Singaporean media companies, and how they maintain editorial independence in the face of advertising dollar? What impressions do you think he has of these competitors?
 

Do you think he had formulated a very strong opinion to these (sort of) question in his head before the press conference? Or put more simply, was it the prior thought and opinion that he carried that made him angry, or did his anger cause him to have angry thoughts and opinion?

By now, we should be able to appreciate that emotions and rationality are at times very difficult to differentiate. In some cases, they might even be complementary.

Even if the anger was to come first, and the rationality comes later, for him to decide to reply in the manner he did necessarily means that his rationality had justified his anger. The anger alone doesn't shape the decision to reply and the content of the reply. It is the rationality.

The rationality then, is the nail in the coffin. Again, remember what the CEO said at the end of his response. “Chairman is a gentleman, I’m not”. It is an indication that the CEO isn’t just feeling angry, he is rationally convinced that he should be angry, because of the perceived insinuation. If there was no rational approval, he could simply have just been angry, without replying.

Emotions and rationality are thus not like and oil and water, never mixing. More appropriately, they are like egg and flour.

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Examined on their own, egg and flour seem like very different entities. But imagine the CEO’s response to be a cake. A cake contains both egg and flour, but they are no longer distinguishable as individual entities. When we eat cake, we can't taste just flour or egg. We taste only the whole.

Similarly, the CEO's reply cannot be broken down into emotions vs rationality. It only exists as the combination.

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