top of page

Can Emotions Lead Us to be Rational?

There was a time when I struggled to figure out why I was so drawn to the study of Behavioral Economics. It's not a natural attraction, if you look at my academic history. I studied creative writing, English, and French literature. I was so woefully literary back then; I was just shy of keeping ravens as pets and wearing a cloak that perpetually billowed in non-existent wind.

Okay, that’s an exaggeration. But I did manage four years of only writing papers based on my interpretation of literature. Even in my history and science classes. And yet, the study of why we make stupid money decisions is fascinating to me, to the point where I have actually considered returning to school to get a degree in Economics. (My 21-year-old self would be horrified, but there you have it). After much reflection, I've managed to put my finger on what it is that interests me in Behavioral Economics: rational decision making. I am passionately interested in rationality and I strive to make the most rational decisions possible in my own life.

Why Is Emotion a Weakness? Again, this doesn't make much sense if you subscribe to our culture's understanding of another facet of my personality: emotion. In addition to striving for rationality, I also happen to be an extremely emotional person. I weep at Pixar films, can be elated (and singing) for hours by good news in an email, and I can have my heart broken by tragedies in other parts of the world. Not only do I feel these highs and lows, I also allow myself to express all of these emotions.

If you listen to some of the louder voices in our culture, the fact that I express my emotions freely makes me weak and irrational. In fact, emotion is often conflated with irrationality, and both “emotion” and “irrationality” have been used as a justification for sexist attitudes, reactions, beliefs, and acts.

That sense that I was just an irrational girl in some people’s eyes meant I tried to hide my emotional tendencies for years. I hated my emotional side, because I felt like it detracted from my intelligence in some undefined way.

Honoring Your Emotions is a Rational Choice

But here’s something we need to remember: emotion and irrationality are far from the same thing.

I’ve come to realize that my emotional side is why I tend to be a rational person. I give my emotions the respect and space and time that they deserve. I feel what I feel.

Many people will put away their emotions in the hopes of being both “rational” and “strong” instead of letting themselves feel things. But scientific research has proven that we are not always aware of our irrational and emotional impulses (and they are not the same thing)—but that does not change the fact that they have sway over our decisions. What's incredible is that human beings manage to come up with rational-sounding reasons for these irrational decisions. And we come up with these cover stories over and over again. This does not lead to the best outcomes.

The Weight of Our Feelings

Human beings are never going to stop making irrational choices that feel perfectly reasonable in the moment. (I can point to a countless unnecessary Ben & Jerry’s purchases, as well as a regrettable tattoo, as just two examples from my own life). But I think shifting our understanding of emotions could do a lot to help us make better decisions.

We need to let ourselves feel emotions other than happiness and anger—the only two socially appropriate emotions to express. We need to do this partially because I truly believe that it will help us to clear away our irrationality. When we allow ourselves to truly feel what we're feeling, we no longer need to provide a balm or band-aid to those emotions through irrational decisions. But we also need to be okay with emotion and recognize that it is neither weakness nor irrationality because it’s the truth. That will be the first step we can take in destigmatizing the fact that we’re all human beings.

We in America—and other parts of the Western world—seem to think that strength is all about a stiff upper lip and handling things alone. But why on earth would that be admirable? We are all frail creatures that are only here for a limited time. We feel things intensely, and we need each other. There needs to be no shame in any of that.

COVID, Loss, and the Path Forward We’re coming up on the first anniversary of when our lives and world completely changed because of COVID. Rather than just sweep the trauma of the past year under the rug, we need to feel the grief and be emotional.

Only then we can answer the important questions: What lessons can we take from this past year? How can we ensure that all of us are better taken care of and less isolated in the future? How can we honor the emotional weight of what we’ve been through? What do we need going forward?

Ignoring our emotions means we can’t even consider these questions, as we will be stuck in irrational loops of blame and poor decisions.

Making the Rational-Emotional Decisions

When we give ourselves room to feel our emotions, and honor those feelings, maybe then we can begin the difficult and rational discussions of where to go from here. Understanding that it will likely be an emotional place.

But wherever we go from here, might I suggest we all do it wearing perpetually billowing cloaks.


bottom of page