On Challenging Rationality

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BLUF

Whether rational, rationalized, emotional, irrational, or intuitive, our behaviours are signals to others about where we are operating from. Taking time to clarify your understanding of your internal mechanisms at play will significantly improve your messaging to the external world. Messaging as revealed by your behaviours and decisions.

Background

We make hundreds of decisions a day. And we believe they are rational, logical decisions.

Much as we identify ourselves as logical creatures, evolution has given us an emotional infrastructure on our limbic systems to help facilitate survival. Whilst the dangers aren’t the same as they were during early civilization, the same mechanisms still exist in each of us, often overlooked or mistaken for something else. We learn to develop rational thought and interpretations of the world and our experiences in it, but emotional underpinnings are ever present as authentic response drivers we seldom acknowledge.

These emotions may be in conflict with rational thought, which is not bad. But there is evidence – Antonio Damasio’s work for instance – that rationality requires emotional input, although that happens unconsciously. In other words emotion is not antithetical but integral to rationality or reasoning. Tied to sensory triggers for physical responses, emotion is processed separate from cognition. Though both are given credence in creating and interpreting messages, the messages found from each may differ significantly.

Which brings us to our actual decision making.

Rationality or rationalization? Interpretation of events, conversations, ideas are all met with bias – both conscious and unconscious – facilitating basic functions of gaining pleasure or avoiding pain. These biases are ever present, though we can often construct our reasoning logically enough to evade detection of such biases. Biases such as confirmation, superiority, appearance or blame mislead us into rationalisation: thinking our views are correct or better than others – secretly granting the pleasure of perceived power whilst avoiding harsh realities. If we do the required reflection that challenges our views – especially if emotion or energy is found in their defence – we can recognise biases at work. Of course we must not think for a moment we will correct those biases, since they are integral parts of our internal infrastructure and considered a part of our interpretations.

In practice, this raises the question: are our decisions rational – an ex ante process – or are they rationalised ex post? Untangling that for every decision has surprises in store about our actual decision making process versus our own – biased – view of how we make decisions.

Rationality or emotion? As biases and emotions are ever present, the degree to which they manifest can reflect a spectrum of sources – from normal facets of our internal makeup at one end to extreme response to external circumstances at the other. The relative reactivity to life’s shock and volatility determines how much of our time and attention is focused on external matters: despite our lack of control in most cases, we have a plethora of targeted energy and focus.

Strong emotional reactions are often seen the same as irrational. Which may not always be accurate.

The question here is: what does the presence of a strong emotional response tell us? It may be a flag for reflection not about the event or circumstances, but the reasoning, impact, and control we have regarding it. Understanding the relative effect an event or some circumstances have on our mental state is the first step to determining its acceptability.

Rationality or intuition/ gut feel? In some situations we do not stop to think. We just act. Is it our bias at work? Is it emotions? It sure isn’t rational – as in a detailed ex ante process of thinking about the action.

It is our gut feel at work. It is not rational but we can rationalize it. It is a rule of thumb based on our past experiences, our biases, our preferences, even our primal antennae for danger all in one. Our gut feel is not always right – some research suggests if it is utilized and tested and confirmed often it gets more accurate – but it is not always wrong either.

The question here is: do we correctly recognise the situations where we respond without thinking, with our gut feel, our intuition?

Whether rational, rationalized, emotional, irrational, or intuitive, our behaviours are signals to others about where we are operating from. After all everything is messaging. In both verbal and non-verbal messaging, rational, reflective thought translates differently than irrational or emotional responses. From an authenticity perspective, intuitive and emotional thoughts are baser and very authentic, though it may also reveal clear misalignment of priorities in some contexts especially in the workplace.

Taking time to clarify your understanding of your internal mechanisms at play will significantly improve your messaging to the external world. Messaging as revealed by your behaviours and decisions.

-scl

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