Incongruent dichotomies: Logical vs. emotional

Teal Deer


One should always, in my opinion, be suspicious of incongruent dichotomies. I show how the false dichotomy of logic vs. emotion (thinking vs. feeling) is used to discredit groups of people and justify laziness.

What is the logical vs. emotional dichotomy?

The logical end of this dichotomy is synonymous with adjectives like: unemotional, rational, objective, detached, unbiased, impartial, blunt, cool-headed, unsocial or antisocial, and intelligent. It is associated with the head. Just imagine Spock saying, “That’s highly illogical, Captain,” and you’ve got what I’m talking about.

Spock from Star Trek: I find that highly / ...illogical

The emotional end of this dichotomy can take different forms:

(1) As a counter to being blunt and unsocial, emotional might look like socially aware, sweet, friendly, warm, and diplomatic.
(2) As a counter to detachment and lack of bias, emotional might look like passionate, outspoken, quick to anger, and emotive.
(3) As a counter to rational and logical, the emotional end might look like clouded, incoherent, confused, and unreasonable.

Emotion is often associated with the heart, although occasionally can be associated with the stomach/gut.

Note that only the third type of “emotional” is the opposite of logical (illogical). The other two types of “emotional” are (a) not the opposite of logical/rational, and (b) completely consistent with being logical/rational. I think it’s important to realize the way people set up logical and emotional as dichotomous — and falsely so. They then use this false dichotomy to paint “people who are emotional” as “people who are irrational” and thus discredit them.

Kernel of truth

As far as I can tell, the main kernel of truth to the notion that emotion is the opposite of rationality is that reasoning is hard to do when one’s emotions are running high. “Reasoning calmly” is an activity people do, and this activity is often seen as the ideal condition in which to make important decisions or plans. As such, most people are aware of instances in their life when the presence of strong emotions shut out or impaired their ability to reason calmly (and well). Making impulsive, rash decisions at a moment of heightened emotion is something people might have experience with.

Another thing feeding the notion that emotion is the opposite of rationality is the associations people have with autism. Autistic people are often associated with savant abilities and also impaired social skills. This suggests a trade-off between intelligence (kind of related to logic) and emotional-1. Autism is not well-understood, certainly not by me, so for the purposes of this post, I will focus on how the logical vs. emotional dichotomy is applied to the wider population — not just the autistic population — while acknowledging that views of autism partially inform that wider application.

Why is the use of emotional as the opposite (absence) of logical messed up?

The main issue with this dichotomy is that it renders impossible the state of being both logical and emotional. When logical is contrasted with emotional-1 (socially aware, sweet, friendly, warm, and diplomatic), what you get is that being an asshole is a sign of being a super-smart super-logical genius. You can see this with media portrayals of asshole geniuses, which are very common in media and the bane of my existence (some examples: Dr. Gregory House (House), Tony Stark (Iron Man), some iterations of the Doctor (Doctor Who), modern takes on Sherlock Holmes, fictional takes on real people like Mark Zuckerberg (The Social Network) and Alan Turing (The Imitation Game)). As such, the benefits of logicality are used to justify a lack of need to cultivate people skills. In this view, to be good at social situations is to take a hit on one’s logicality.

When logical is contrasted with emotional-2 (passionate, outspoken, quick to anger, and emotive), what you get is that not having emotional investment in an issue is a sign of being able to see the issue with a “neutral” “objective” “disinterested” “impartial” lens, which means you’re right and the person being emotional is wrong and blinded by their own bias and emotional investment. As such, emotional displays become a grounds for dismissal of people’s arguments.

However, I think this dichotomy is just wrong, and both of these uses are obviously self-serving and biased.

Morpheus from The Matrix: What if I told you / you can be logical and emotional at the same time

Let me walk through why…

Emotions are a rational process

While I can’t say for sure that emotions ALWAYS have a rational dimension to them, emotions in my experience are generally a form of cognition. As I talked about in my non-violent communication post, you can think of emotions as being a logical consequence of wants or needs being met or unmet. Stress comes from having too many things on one’s plate; disappointment comes from having expectations of other people’s behavior that they fell short of; indignation comes from having a sense of justice or fairness that has been violated; impatience with a person often comes from a lack of respect for that person, sometimes generated over a long period of time; jealousy can come from one’s lack of accomplishments or a fear of being abandoned or replaced; and so on.

As a result, understanding people’s emotional states is an exercise in logical reasoning, rather than something that conflicts with logical reasoning. As a result, the mindset that “I have no patience for dealing with people’s emotions because I am too logical for such nonsense” is not an exercise in logicality over all else, but declining to see the reason and logic in people’s emotional states. It is a backing off of the logical for the purpose of portraying people’s emotional states as illogical, inscrutable, and beyond reason and understanding.

An inability to explain the rational process behind emotions does not mean that process doesn’t exist

Not only are emotions in my experience a form of cognition, but they are an extremely fast form of cognition. As a result, it is often the case I experience an emotion without knowing why I am experiencing that emotion until later reflection. An example of this is recalling an embarrassing memory, or being obliquely reminded of something I was supposed to do for someone months ago. This memory flash lasts half a second, too short for me to even register recalling it. But I will notice that a happy mood has suddenly switched to one of being “bummed out” or stressed. It usually takes me a moment of replaying the last few minutes before I realize that I remembered something embarrassing or stressful.

The fact that someone cannot coherently explain the reasons behind their emotions does not mean such reasons do not exist. The process of forming an emotional reaction to something happens much more quickly than understanding the logical chain that created the emotion. To assume someone is unreasonable because they can’t explain their emotion is again to walk away from reason and logic.

People can be heavy on both logic and emotion

Existence proof: me. I am a mathy person who loves proofs and systematizing stuff in long blog posts. I also cry a LOT (emotional-2). These two things have never seemed to be in tension with each other. I am not a very warm or sociable person (not emotional-1), but I’ve never thought this is because of “suffering” too much logic and reason. I am just an awkward human being.

So in short, I think it is not only incorrect to think of emotions as trading off with logic, but also anti-logical. In addition, in criticizing this false dichotomy, I think it’s also important to understand who serves to benefit from people buying into the dichotomy and who loses.

A logic vs. emotion dichotomy boosts the ego of assholes (esp. ones with poor logic skills)

The opposite of rationality should be irrationality. But when people view the opposite of rationality as emotional sensitivity, then to be abrasive and utterly lacking in social skills is seen to be an unfortunate but inevitable side effect of being smart and logical. Like I mentioned, popular media reinforces this way of thinking.

However, when you realize that logical skill and emotional skill are things you can invest time and effort in separate of each other (or my even stronger claim that logic aids in understanding emotion), the only thing an abrasive and jerkish personality actually indicates is a tendency toward abrasive and jerkish behavior, and having made peace with (or rationalizations of) this trait in oneself.

Let’s not humor this mindset. Of course, not everyone has the support or ability to perform well in social situations. We shouldn’t tear people apart for failing to be socially skillful. But neither should we soothe their ego by saying it’s “compensated” elsewhere by some other skill which does not, in fact, trade off with the presence of social skills. This is kind but not honest. And we certainly shouldn’t imply that their logicality is at threat if they put effort into developing empathy.

A logic vs. emotion dichotomy cuts against the oppressed/marginalized

At the heart of oppression and fights for justice is the existence of injustice. To talk about one’s firsthand experience of injustice is frequently an emotional experience. When you talk about losing a family member who didn’t do anything wrong, or going months without clean water, or struggling to pay for housing or food, it will often not come out calm and collected. For those who care about justice, to see injustice happening inspires emotions like rage, frustration, helplessness, bitterness, etc.

In response to high-profile issues of injustice, I see emerge a cult of the reasonable, wherein the ability to remain calm, unemotional, and dispassionate is a mark of reason or reasonableness. The person who loses their temper also loses the argument. The person who has “no emotional investment”1 in the issue is seen as the person whose opinions should be trusted most.

When people view logical as the opposite of emotional-2, they justify ignoring the opinions of the oppressed (because they’re too emotionally invested), in favor of believing people who can talk about issues dispassionately — something that frequently happens because this person isn’t on the receiving end of injustice.

A logic vs. emotion dichotomy especially cuts against women

Because of the association between women and being warm, social, empathetic, and moody, the idea of a trade-off between logic and emotion means that women will be interpreted as illogical by virtue of being (assumed) good at something else (having social skills) or being (assumed) hyper-emotional.

Under the view of logical skill and social skill being independent skills, to be good at one should not be accompanied by the assumption of being bad at the other. Such assumptions are patronizing and condescending. Under the view that people can be simultaneously highly emotive and good at logic, an assumption of illogicality due to strong emotions is a mistake.

There is a hierarchy between logic and emotion

While I’m here, let me rant about something related: sometimes people will frame the trade-off between logic and emotion such that the emotional side is portrayed positively, as if it were the better end of the deal, like, “Oh, but women are good at social situations — as a bumbling man I’m constantly putting my foot in my mouth, ho ho ho.”

This kind of usage of the dichotomy gives emotional intelligence or social skills to the class of women as a kind of consolation prize to make up for the accusation of irrationality that comes with it (under a view of logic and emotion as dichotomous). And it is a consolation prize, because when comparing rationality and emotional skills, rationality is obviously much much more critical and necessary for making decisions and occupying places of power and responsibility than people skills are. No matter how good your people skills or emotional intelligence is, if you are not rational, no one will entrust authority or decision-making power to you, as good decisions are seen as a result of clear thinking and rationality. A lack of people skills is just not as much of a dealbreaker than a lack of rationality.

In other words, there is a power hierarchy between logic and emotion, and emotion is at the bottom. Viewing the two as dichotomous has the effect of shutting women out of decision-making arenas.

Instead of / when you encounter the logical vs. emotional (thinking vs. feeling) dichotomy, you should:

Acknowledge the rational processes central to emotion and feeling. Recognize you can BOTH be good at logic AND be emotionally mature, or can lack skills in both areas (illogical and assholish). Recognize how logic vs. emotion trade-offs can be used to rationalize laziness and feel smug about mediocrity; to trust defenders of an unjust status quo over people suffering from an unjust status quo; and to disqualify women from decision-making positions.

1 I should also note that there is two different senses of “emotional investment” that are being conflated here. One is the state of not being on the receiving side of injustice. This is when the lack of emotional stakes due to being unlikely to be a victim of injustice allows people to talk about an issue dispassionately. The second is the state of not having any stake in the issue itself. This is a notion that however way the issue is resolved, the person does not have anything to lose or gain and thus they are a neutral, impartial bystander.

The lack of emotional reaction (due to the first thing) is used to argue for an unbiased perspective (the second thing), but these two things are not the same. One can be not negatively affected by the status quo (not have the first kind of “stakes”) and be UNEMOTIONAL, but also stand to lose/gain depending on the resolution of an issue (do have the second kind of “stakes”), and thus be BIASED.

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