Reason vs. Emotion

“You’re so irrational!”

“You’re so unfeeling!”

Of course, we are all guided by both reason and emotion, and both play important parts. However rationality is overvalued in our culture, and emotion undervalued, probably largely as a function of patriarchy and its extension through technology. Think about describing a person as “rational” versus describing them as “emotional” and it should be clear which has the more favorable connotation.

The argument about whether one or the other is more fundamental, or whether one leads the other, goes back centuries if not millennia. In the 19th and 20th centuries there were famous debates between William James (the “father of American psychology”) and Walter Cannon about which comes first between physiological arousal and neurological processing. Current deliberations about IQ vs. EQ tap a similar vein. The IQ, or Intelligence Quotient, has been a standardized representation of intelligence developed over the course of the 20th century, and is used widely in institutional settings, starting especially with the military in WWII. EQ, or Emotional Quotient, is a relatively new distinction hatched in the late 80’s to early 90’s, and is much less standardized. EQ (or EI, for emotional intelligence) emphasizes abilities to apprehend and make use of emotion both intra- and inter-personally. There is significant evidence that emotional intelligence can be a stronger predictor of many dimensions of life-success than IQ, but these are complex topics and there is still much work to be done in mapping the territory.

As with many things, I believe that it’s not an either/or. I take a systems view, which is that reason and emotion interact, often in reciprocal ways, and that both are important. Emotions can be influenced by thought (the emphasis of Cognitive psychotherapies), and thoughts are influenced by emotion (an emphasis of Emotionally Focused therapies). A third element is behavior — which I believe also interplays similarly with thought and emotion. But here I’m going to focus primarily on reason and emotion.

Emotion and reason each have somewhat different, but complementary and interlaced roles. They both provide information and guide behavior.

The structure of thought and reason are more familiar to many people. They help us order our world conceptually. Among other things they allow us to analyze, synthesize, organize, plan, problem-solve, spatialize, and to model scenarios.

On the other hand, emotions move us. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the words “emotion,” “move,” and “motivate” all come from the same roots. They tell us what to seek and what to avoid. They are the reward and punishment system. And when connected to thoughts in the form of values, they tell us what matters to us, what’s important. They also are what bind us to each other or split us apart, which is what I help couples with every day.

For the person who sees him or herself as more rational, the “emotional” person can seem jerky and chaotic. For the person who sees him or herself as more feeling, the other can seem unresponsive, cold or uncaring. Understanding each other’s types and achieving some degree of balance between the two are the keys. Complicating matters is a cycle that can develop where each blames the other for their ways (and this starts inside, even if not expressed) which tends to polarize the two positions even more.

For understanding the emotional person, John Gottman coined a phrase that I love, and I encourage couples and parents to embrace:

Negative emotions are opportunities for learning and closeness.

This applies to all emotions of course, but I like this phrasing since negative emotions can be the more difficult ones to engage with, especially for the “rational” person who may be somewhat fearful of them. Another way to think of it is that any expression of negative emotion — even anger that comes out in a blaming or accusing form, or anxiety that comes out in a controlling form — is a sign of suffering. If you can tune in to that suffering, or at least know that it’s there and maybe inquire about it, that can shift things.

People sometimes think of emotions as chaotic in the sense that they can be unpredictable, and for people who have poor emotional regulation they certainly can be. However, like reason, emotions are also organizing, but in a different way.

Each emotion conveys its own message.

For example, anger is telling us that we need to protect ourselves, or that something is in the way of what we want. Disappointment tells us that we have lost something we were expecting. Wonder opens us up to possibilities and discovery. Emotions are the language of relationship: of connection and hurt and loss and empathy and joy.

In understanding the person who considers themselves more rational it’s important to remember that they are usually problem-solvers. They get satisfaction from a sense of intellectual coherence and resolution. Emotions and stress can be overwhelming for them and they often need time and space on their own to process. While those who are oriented more towards emotions often process their experience by talking about it with other people, those oriented towards reasoning process their experience more internally and more slowly. Especially when they are overwhelmed they may need less interaction rather than more in order to sort things out.

In the common pairing I mentioned of the more expressive and the more quiet persons, this can be challenging when both are stressed. The expressive one may want more interaction to feel better at the very same time that the quiet one is wanting less interaction.

Again, what helps here is understanding that you each have different styles, that neither is right or wrong, and you can find ways to bridge a little bit.

For example if the quieter person can take some time to settle themselves then they might be able to re-enter interaction with the more expressive person. And if the more expressive person can talk about his or her needs for connection in gentle and friendly ways, those are more likely to keep the quieter person functional and engaged.

Like all good relationships, neither emotion or reason are very effective all by themselves (if that were even possible!). They work best together, with emotion providing the drive and direction, and reason organizing the path.


Thanks for reading! If you found this helpful or interesting please ❤ below.

(I’m a psychologist with a private practice in Noe Valley, San Francisco)

Image Credits: Two of Arts, Ooh!, Fixer