In his book Descartes’ Error, the neuroscientist Antonio Damosio wrote about a patient, Elliot, who had a major operation to remove a brain tumour. The operation damaged Elliot’s frontal lobe, but he appeared to make a good recovery and he tried to resume normal life. It quickly emerged, however, that Elliot had become virtually unable to make everyday decisions.
Damosio was called in to work with Elliot, and he set about running a series of cognitive tests to see where the problem lay. However, Elliot passed them all with flying colours – his logical reasoning appeared to be completely normal.
But then Damosio started to notice something about Elliott – he had lost much of his ability to experience emotions. And Damosio began to wonder: Could it be that it is emotion, not logical reasoning, that is necessary for making decisions? That we somehow need to gauge our emotional response in order to weigh up different options?
In Damosio’s words, “I began to think that the cold-bloodedness of Elliot’s reasoning prevented him from assigning different values to different options, and made his decision-making landscape hopelessly flat.”
Answering an easier question
This chimes with a theory expressed by Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, which he calls “answering an easier question”. When we’re asked to make a logical decision, Kahneman suggests that we instead ask ourselves a substitute question to measure our emotional reaction.
An example he gives is, when asked “How much would you contribute to save an endangered species?”, we instead ask ourselves “How much emotion do I feel when I think of dying dolphins?”.
But do we really do this? Well, the story of a girl called Rokia suggests that we do.
A girl called Rokia
In a 2005 study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania, participants were divided into two groups. One group was given statistical information about a large number of victims of starvation in Africa. The other group was told the story of one seven-year-old African girl called Rokia who was facing starvation.
After being given the information, all participants were asked to make a charitable donation. Average donations were more than twice as high from the group who were told about Rokia.
Despite it being about the same problem – starvation in Africa – the story of Rokia evoked a stronger emotional response than the statistical information, and therefore gave greater weight to the decision to donate money.
The point of logic
Of course, all of this leads us to two questions.
First, if our decision-making ability relies on our ability to feel emotions, then where does this leave Jacob Rees Mogg? There’s a simple answer to this: Nanny does it for him.
Second, if we use our emotions to make decisions, then what are we doing with our logical reasoning? Daniel Kahneman explains this in terms of the two systems of mind – the quick, instinctive, emotional mind (System 1) and the slow, deliberative, logical mind (System 2). He says:
“System 2 is more of an apologist for the emotions of System 1 than a critic of those emotions – an endorser rather than an enforcer. Its search for information and arguments is mostly constrained to information that is consistent with existing beliefs, not with an intention to examine them.”
So we only use our logical reasoning to come up with explanations for decisions we’ve already made? Why do we need to do that?
Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber suggest in their book The Enigma of Reason that its main function is social. We use logical reasoning to provide justification for our decisions and actions because this is a necessary part of being a social animal. In order to flourish and succeed with other human beings, we need to justify our behaviours and explain our actions to others.
The use of emotion
Okay, so this is all very mind-blowing, but what’s it got to do with exercise?
Sticking to exercise is about making the same decision over and over again, to go out there and do it.
But we often try to motivate ourselves using logical reasons – to improve our health or to lose weight, for example. We now know that this won’t work, because we don’t make decisions based on logic.
We therefore need to find emotional reasons to exercise.
On the whole, there are two ways to do this.
First, we can look for the emotional reasons that already exist. To do this, we start by asking ourselves why we want to exercise, and more than likely we will come up with logical reasons. But these are the reasons we have used to justify the emotional reasons, so we need to dig deeper. We can do this by repeatedly asking ourselves “why?”, until we find the underlying emotional reasons.
Second, we can create emotional reasons. For example, we can make a public commitment to our exercise regime so that we’ll be embarrassed if we don’t stick to it. Or we can set ourselves an emotionally resonant reward. Or we can use a tool like stickK, pledging to give money to a cause we hate if we don’t stick to our commitment.
Emotions get a bad press. We’re told that they make us weak, that we should take a rational approach in order to succeed. But this is a denial of reality. We need to embrace our emotions, and work with them.
Either that, or get a first-rate nanny.