Feeling Smart: A book review by Bob Morris

Feeling SmartFeeling Smart: Why Our Emotions Are More Rational Than We Think
Eyal Winter
PublicAffairs (2015)

How and why “it is the feeling and thinking person who has the advantage, not the person who relies on thought alone”

This book’s subtitle suggests that “our emotions are more rational than we think.” Major research studies agree that emotions have greater influence on decision making than we once thought. That is not to say, however, that emotional decisions are sounder than are rational decisions. We need both reason and emotion to make the best decisions. (Also, a human/computer partnership will almost always out-perform a human or computer but that is an issue to be addressed another time.) Eyal Winter observes, “Our emotional and intellectual mechanisms work together and sustain each other. Sometimes they cannot be separated at all.”

So, why did Winter write this book? His purpose is to “point out how emotions serve us and further our interests, including our most material and immediate interests.” He makes use of game theory and the theory of evolution to enable his readers “who may not necessarily be up-to-date with the latest social science research to join in the fascinating discussion that is taking place on the relationship between emotions and rational behavior. These are among the questions to which he responds:

o What is intellectual rationality?
o What is emotional rationality?
o Most of the time, which is more influential? Why?
o Why do we love those who hurt us?
o What are the defining characteristics of an “emotional impostor”?
o What is the “Prisoner’s Dilemma” and why can it be significant?
o Does the threat of physical force increase cooperation in the world?
o Why is mistrust a self-fulfilling prophecy?
o Which mechanisms attempt to ensure physical survival?

For many years, I have been among those who make a distinction between enlightened and unenlightened intuition. With rare exception, people never have complete information when having to make an especially important decision. Consider physicians in an ER or officers in combat. Those who have prior training and experience are much better to make a decision than those who don’t. There must be a rigorous analysis of the given circumstances, to be sure, but what Eyal Winter characterizes as rational emotions must also be taken into full account.

I think this is what he has in mind when concluding his brilliant book: these emotions “are not a vestigial leftover of the evolutionary process from a long ago primitive past, but rather an effective and sophisticated tool for balancing and complementing our rational side. In the end, it is the feeling and thinking person who has the advantage, not the person who relies on thought alone.”

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