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Don't Let Rationality Sabotage Your Success

The journey to reason is a wonderful one comprising countless moments of understanding fueled by passion.  As we embrace the scientific method and increase our scientific knowledge, we learn more about our natural world and rely less on superstition and the myths of our ancestors.  This knowledge allows us to make better causal attributions and predictions, leading us to better professional decisions and life choices.  Human behavior, although less predictable and arguably more difficult to understand than the "hard sciences," can also be better understood through science.  With the advantage of having a better understanding of the feelings, thoughts, and behaviors of our fellow humans, we are able to cultivate mutually beneficial relationships that can lead to great achievements. There is a side effect to this clarity, however: we tend to under appreciate the role that feelings and emotions play in both decisions and the formation of beliefs.  This can be a big problem for leaders and communicators—but it doesn't have to be.

Not Speaking the Same Language

In his book Brainfluence, Dooley cites Harvard marketing professor Gerald Zaltman who writes that 95% of our thoughts, emotion, and learning occur without conscious awareness—a fact that is backed up by neuroscience (Dooley, 2011).  Rationality or the use of reason is a conscious process; therefore, if we believe people to act rationally, we don't actually understand people.  This is perhaps the biggest mistake in the non-theist community: just because we tend to value reason more than emotion, we assume others do as well.  We incorrectly assume that decisions and beliefs can be easily influenced by strong, logically sound arguments.  These assumptions are evident in our reason-heavy books, speeches, blog posts, and arguments.  We can write a 700 page tome filled with articulate, well-reasoned, and fallacy-free arguments as to why we don't believe in God, only to receive the response "That's okay.  He believes in you!"  Like it or not, emotion is a far more powerful and effective tool to influence and persuade.

A Key Understanding To Effective Leadership and Communication

This problem extends beyond trying to help people understand our non-theistic world view.  Influence and persuasion play a significant role in achievement, and if we ignore feelings and emotions because of some rational ideal and fear of committing the appeal to emotion fallacy, we will simply fail to be influential and persuasive—skills that are vital to strong leaders and communicators.  It took cognitive scientists to get economists to realize that their economic theories involving human behavior were seriously flawed.  Kahneman, Knetsch, and Thale (1986) conducted experiments where one participant was given $10 to share with another participant.  The participant with the $10 could share as little or as much as he or she desired, but the other participant could either accept his or her share, or reject it, in which case neither participant would get to keep any money.  A purely rational person would accept anything—even one cent—since one cent is more than nothing.  However, this is not what happened.  The average amount accepted was about $2.25, below this, the average person felt they were being treated unfairly and would rather see the other person lose his or her share than accept what they felt to be a less than "fair" offer.  People are far more emotional than they are rational.

The Best of Both: Avoiding Fallacies and Embracing Emotion

If you are like me, you roll your eyes and shake your head when you hear a blatant appeal to emotion.  But the fact is appeals to emotion work—extremely well.  As critical thinkers and rationalists, we can still use appeals to emotion as long as they are supported by facts.  For example, if we are trying to raise money for children living in poverty, we can create an ad that simply reads, "In 2012, about 22% of children in the United States live in poverty, so please donate" (“Child Hunger in U.S.,” n.d.).  However, this ad would be ineffective (i.e., it would suck big time).  First of all, there is nothing emotional about a statistic—it is what the statistic represents that connects with emotion.  In this case, it would be far more effective to include the actual number and help the prospective contributor visualize what poverty means (see image to the right).  Are we being factual?  Yes.  Are we appealing to emotion?  You bet your ass we are.  This is not fallacious because the emotion is supporting a factual claim, not substituting for it.

An important aspect of social intelligence is the ability to see things from another person's perspective.  You may value reason and facts over feeling and emotion, but that doesn't mean that others do.  In fact, we know that what we consciously value only accounts for about 5% of what we think, feel, and learn.  The other 95% can be accounted for by what intelligence researcher Daniel Goleman refers to as low-road processing, or unconscious processing influenced by our senses and feelings (Goleman, 2007).  To be a more effective leader, communicator, and achiever, embrace emotion, but not at the expense of facts and rationality.

Action Items

1) Think about the top three arguments you have in support of your world view.  How can you make those arguments more effective by adding emotion?  2) When you are attempting to persuade someone, think about your emotional appeal.  Is there one?  Does the emotional appeal support the facts?

Child Hunger in U.S.: Childhood Hunger Facts. (n.d.). Feeding America. Retrieved May 17, 2014, from http://feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america/hunger-facts/child-hunger-facts.aspx
Dooley, R. (2011). Brainfluence: 100 Ways to Persuade and Convince Consumers with Neuromarketing. John Wiley & Sons.
Goleman, D. (2007). Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships (Reprint edition.). New York, N.Y.: Bantam.
Kahneman, D., Knetsch, J. L., & Thaler, R. H. (1986). Fairness and the Assumptions of Economics. The Journal of Business, 59(4), S285–300.

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Positive humanism is an applied secular humanistic philosophy based on the scientific findings of positive psychology that focuses on personal, professional, and societal flourishing. As an applied philosophy its focus is on ideas that lead to increased well-being. As a secular humanistic philosophy, there are no appeals to the supernatural, the magical, or the mystical.

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