Skip navigation
Margin Notes

Emotion should not rule over reason in politics

It is fundamentally unsustainable and detrimental to society.


Do you follow emotion over reason – your heart over your head? Behavioural scientists recognize these as dual cognitive processes and the reality is that we use both in our everyday lives to cope with the world around us.

However, in politics specifically, in the past 30 years or so, there is no question that emotion has been favoured over reason, and that’s not a good thing, according to Joseph Heath, director of the Centre for Ethics at the University of Toronto and a professor in both the school of public policy and governance, and the department of philosophy. His argument takes a bit of explaining – bear with me.

Dr. Heath was speaking to parliamentarians and others on Feb. 11 as part of the Big Thinking lecture series on Parliament Hill organized by the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences. Dr. Health, who was named a 2012 Trudeau Fellow, began his presentation with an anecdote about former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (the morning talk was co-sponsored by the Trudeau Foundation).

When Mr. Trudeau entered politics in the 1960s, said Dr. Heath, he adopted as his personal slogan “Reason over Passion.” His motivation for doing so was his desire to defend the concept of federalism. Dr. Heath explained that, when it comes to the struggle between Canadian federalism and “sub-federal” nationalism (in Quebec), Mr. Trudeau felt that nationalism has the advantage, particularly when it is oriented around ethnic or group solidarity. This gives it a strong emotional appeal, while federalism – which, in essence, is about pragmatic compromise – simply doesn’t have the same emotional resonance.

What Mr. Trudeau was implying was that “in a very emotionally charged debate, certain kinds of policy positions are going to be at an intrinsic disadvantage because those policy positions are fundamentally not motivated by emotion, they’re motivated by rational insight. The debate is not neutral,” said Dr. Heath. In these instances, emotion trumps reason, while Mr. Trudeau “wanted reason to be privileged over emotion.”

Fast forward 50 years and the debate is more relevant now than ever. “I think there is absolutely no question that there is currently a dynamic at work in our democracy which is increasingly crowding out these kinds of appeals to reason … and it is important to recognize that that situation is fundamentally not sustainable,” said Dr. Heath.

Insights from cognitive science

Recent developments in cognitive science offer insights into this dilemma, he said. The vocabulary also is slightly altered – researchers now draw the contrast between reason and intuition, rather than emotion. The core idea, known as dual-process theory, “is that we have within our minds two very different styles of cognition, two different ways of approaching and solving problems.” Intuition is referred to by academics as system one, while reason is system two.

Reason is often what academics, not surprisingly, engage in. It has four essential characteristics: it is linguistically based; it is linear, where one thought follows another; it is conscious, meaning every step of the argument is explicit and available; and it is “effortful,” i.e., it requires our full attention and concentration. All of this is a rather slow process, said Dr. Heath.

Intuition, on the other hand, is a set of cognitive systems that are characterized primarily by not having the above characteristics, Dr. Heath explained. First, it’s extremely rapid. A classic example of this is facial recognition. “You pass somebody in the hall and you only have seconds to decide, do I know this person? Do I greet him? And your brain magically just kind of tells you. This is a very complicated process, but your brain does it quickly.” As well, the process is unconscious, in the sense that we have little idea how our brains solved the problem. Intuition also requires low effort.

All of this combines to generate a psychological disposition towards cognitive laziness. “Whenever we encounter a problem, we try to solve the problem in the least effortful way possible. We deploy system-one resources first … these heuristic rapid problem-solving techniques,” said Dr. Health. Then, only if we suspect the answer is wrong, do we “sit down and think about the problem.”

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book about the amazing powers of tuition, Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking. Many other authors have since jumped on the bandwagon. “What we’ve found about intuition is that it’s underestimated; it is actually more powerful than we think it is,” said Dr. Heath.

That realization came partly from artificial intelligence research. To us, learning a mother tongue, or recognizing a face, appears easy because our brains are evolutionary adapted to do these things. However, for computers, it has proven to be anything but. “We experience it as being low effort, because it is unconscious, but it is unbelievably difficult.”

Reason ‘a formula for losing elections’

This is all fine, but it can be pernicious when applied unthinkingly to the political realm. “A lot of the received wisdom in politics is that fundamentally it is about intuition, the classic commitment of heart over head,” said Dr. Heath. This has been translated into the idea that pitching policies to people at the rational level “is basically a formula for losing elections.” To paraphrase political consultant and Republican Party strategist Frank Lutz, it’s not what you say, but how you make people feel. This has contributed to a political environment of “truthiness,” as characterized by satirist Stephen Colbert. It doesn’t matter if it’s false, because it might have a deeper emotional truth.

Not so fast, countered Dr. Heath: “I want to register an objection.” Intuition, it seems, has a bit of a problem: it is, to use a computer term, “full of bugs … it just makes mistakes.” In terms of evolutionary adaption, speed is important, but the trade-off can be accuracy. And, because intuition is unconscious, it’s hard to reprogram.

Humans have developed a number of psychological adaptations for social interactions, Dr. Heath continued. But, these adaptations were developed at a time when we lived in very small-scale societies, where we rarely interacted with strangers. These adaptations, therefore, have a few bugs that have become apparent as our societies became more complex and the scale of our social interactions increased.

Here are three concrete examples: 1) we treat harm to identifiable individuals as more important than harm to unidentified individuals; 2) we treat harm which is diffused over many people as being less important than harm imposed on a single person; and 3) we have systems of punishment that reinforce cooperation, but when we see someone breaking the rules and getting away with it – “free riding,” said Dr. Heath – people respond by withdrawing that cooperation.

“In a small group, it’s often the case that nobody will ‘free ride.’ But, in larger groups, as you add more people, the chances that somebody will be free riding increases, and the greater the chances people will withdraw their cooperation.” The result is that “systems of cooperation tend to unravel in a very characteristic way.”

Trudeau was right

We now, obviously, live in large-scale, complex societies. How do we do that? The answer is, “we override these bugs, in ways small and large. We identify the situations in which our intuition gets it wrong, and we either personally override it, or better yet we create institutions that have as their function to override these maladaptive dispositions that we have from our evolutionary prehistory.” Dr. Heath concluded that Pierre Trudeau was fundamentally right in the insight he was presenting: that certain institutional arrangements like federalism, which have as their function to promote cooperation in a large-scale society, do depend upon reason.

“I think it is a terrible mistake to treat this heart or head stuff as though it were just a fact of nature, like that’s just how it is. … It is a situation that we have allowed to develop and that we are allowing to continue.” What’s more, he said, “it is important to recognize that that situation is fundamentally not sustainable. A democracy in which it is just all demagoguery all that time is not a stable political system. And a situation in which heart wins over head consistently is not compatible with maintaining a large-scale civilization, or it’s not compatible with maintaining a democracy.”

How do we fix the situation? Here, I’ll have to disappoint. Remember how Dr. Heath said that this reason stuff is slow? Well, he was out of time. But, he addresses all that and more in a forthcoming book, due for release on April 15, Enlightenment 2.0, by HarperCollins. A hint: he argues for a new “slow politics” which he calls a program for a “second Enlightenment.”

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Click to fill out a quick survey