Thinking with your heart: The interaction between rationality and emotions

A breathtaking volume by an Israeli academic on the mutual interaction between rationality and emotions is taking the world by storm.

An image of the human brain (photo credit: REUTERS)
An image of the human brain
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It has taken an Israeli – stereotypically thick-skinned, tough and rational on the outside, soft and emotional on the inside – to write a pioneering volume melding brain and soul, science and art, that has aroused the world’s attention.
Replete with original Israeli and Western academic studies and telling Jewish anecdotes, Hebrew University of Jerusalem behavioral economist and game theorist Prof. Eyal Winter’s Feeling Smart was published by Kinneret- Zmora Bitan as Regashot Ratzionalim and quickly became a local best-seller.
When Israelis recognized it as a gem of innovation, it was beautifully translated by Bar-Ilan University applied mathematician Dr. Ziv Hellman and praised by seven Nobel Prize laureates who said the book would establish a new multidisciplinary field around the world. Several of them, including HU-affiliated economists Prof. Robert (Yisrael) Aumann and Prof. Daniel Kahneman, are also cited in the book for their research. It also appears in Chinese, Japanese and German.
Emotions and rationality have often been regarded as opposite sides of the coin, with the first interfering with the second. Yet Winter has persuaded readers that emotions – even negative ones like anger and jealousy – can foster rational behavior and actually improve decision-making of individuals, couples, families, companies, organizations and governments.
His thoughts range breathtakingly from game theory and evolution to psychology and gender studies, and could be utilized for choosing a suitable mate, working together on a team, or helping Israelis and Palestinians understand each other better.
Winter heads HU’s Center for the Study of Rationality, chaired the university’s economics department and was the 2011 recipient of the Federal Republic of Germany’s Humboldt Prize. In great demand as a speaker, he has lectured at over 130 universities in 26 countries around the world.
He begins the first of his 23 chapters by asking why emotions survived in humans if they are believed to have led to bad decisions. “Of what benefit is it to become angry? In a world as competitive as the one we inhabit, why are we occasionally struck by a sense of humility? Why do we turn beet red, making ourselves more noticeable at precisely the moments in which we most want to bury ourselves underground out of profound shame?” Winter notes on the first page that Star Trek’s iconic Mr. Spock of the Planet Vulcan “acted solely out of emotionless considerations of reason and logic,” unlike humans.
“Is the sense of inferiority that we feel as we watch him act calmly and coolly in the face of the grave crises that he faced on Star Trek justified? The truth is that if the human race had developed along the lines of the emotion-free inhabitants of Vulcan, our lives would be considerably more difficult, and in all likelihood we would not have survived at all,” Winter declares.
Some 230 pages later, Winter’s epilogue notes: “Scientific understanding enables us to capture only a partial and somewhat faint picture of the totality of human emotion and cognition. The full picture is far from being entirely clear and may never be completely clarified. Spirit and soul represent that which is hidden away from what we can explain scientifically,” he writes.
WINTER ANALYZES a wide variety of topics – e.g., how unfair treatment makes us sick by provoking brain activity in areas associated with disgust and the vomit reflex; how collective emotions and group cohesion enable individuals to improve their material conditions and bolster their chances of survival; why men are more group-oriented and geared toward collective emotions than women; why blushing makes your mistakes and faults more socially acceptable; how to create emotional rules to guide your interactions with others, such as the desire for revenge or for punishment when someone has treated us unfairly; why ethnic diversity in a neighborhood leads to a drop in charitable giving; why we overestimate our abilities but why this overconfidence raises our “market value” in social situations; and how herd behavior can lead large numbers of individuals all to make the same irrational mistake.
Winter insists that “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.”
One of the many interesting game theory experiments that he and colleagues conducted involved Palestinian, Israeli and German students participating in a German-funded study of ethnocentrism – the judging of people in other societies based solely on one’s own cultural norms. In this variation of the “trust game,” two players – a sender and a receiver – can in turns give money voluntarily to the other and benefit themselves.
“We had players of each nationality play the trust game while facing off solely against players from the same nationality: at Bonn University, German players played against German players; at HU in Jerusalem, Israelis played Israelis; and at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, Palestinians played Palestinians.”
It turned out that Palestinians exhibited the greatest amount of trust, offering, on average, 66 percent of the money they had to other players, recalled Winter. Israelis were the least trusting, making on average offers of only 36%. The German group was in the middle of this ranking, with an average offer of 50%.
Winter and his colleagues explain the results of this and other experiments on the student groups as differences in the relative importance given to collectivism versus individualism in Palestinian culture.
“Individualism is still considered to be disgraceful in Palestinian society because individualism conflicts with traditional and religious values. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict may also make Palestinians wary of over-individualism,” he continues.
“Failure to reciprocate an act of generosity is considered much more contemptible in Palestinian society than in Western cultures.
This leads Palestinian proposers in the trust game to be more generous toward receivers.
Surprisingly, ethnocentrism causes Palestinian proposers to expect receivers from other cultures to respond in the same way as Palestinian receivers would, when in fact egoistic behavior is much more legitimate and prevalent in Western cultures.”
Negotiations between the two groups “break down often because of ethnocentrism rather than substantive differences between the parties. That is what has doomed many of the attempts to bring about a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. Getting to an agreement will require more than just getting negotiators to overcome their ethnocentrism and imagine themselves in the place of their interlocutors. Most of the populations of both nations will need to overcome their ethnocentrism as well. Without broad popular support among Israelis and Palestinians, no agreement will ever be implementable.”
Israelis, Winter continues, “placed a great deal of importance on their personal gains… Palestinians emphasize nonmonetary considerations, such as expectations of reciprocity, in their decision-making. Their behavior was influenced by what they expected others to do.”
The author describes lessons about emotions and rationality that he learned from his father’s experience as an elementary school pupil in a German school confronted by a devoted Nazi teacher who persecuted him; and watching as a child at a family meal how his uncle Ezra almost always won and his own father almost always lost, due to Ezra’s ability to identify the mental states of others while being able to hide his own.
To study the effects of ethnic origins on people, two Israeli colleagues pitted Tel Aviv University and University of Haifa students against one another via computer lines running between the two cities; their ethnic background – Ashkenazi or Sephardi – could easily be identified by their family names. Playing a “trust game,” each player was informed of the name of the player against whom he was playing. Players were paired in all the possible combinations: proposers of European background with receivers of Middle Eastern origin, proposers of Middle Eastern background with receivers of European origin, two European players, and two Middle Eastern players.
The surprising and socially disappointing conclusion was that receivers with Middle Eastern family names were given significantly less than receivers with European names, when proposers were called on to decide how much they were willing to give receivers.
This discrimination against players of Middle Eastern background was mainly due to the behavior of European players, but Middle Eastern players also exhibited a degree of discrimination against players who shared their ethnic origin.
Men tended to discriminate on this basis more than women. In other words, men systematically trusted players who had a European name more than they trusted players with a Middle Eastern name.
“Discrimination, it turns out, is alive and kicking,” Winter bemoans.
WINTER QUOTES research by TAU biologist Prof. Amotz Zahavi, who studied peacocks and first proposed the “handicap principle,” which suggests animals, especially males, will handicap themselves or place themselves in apparently dangerous situations to signal potential mates that they have genetic advantages, thus improving their prospects for mating successfully, being chosen by the female out of a group of rivals.
Why would the males’ beautiful but heavy tails survive evolution, as they seemed to offer no physical advantage? “Zehavi’s answer to this question was brilliant and original: the advantage of the peacock’s tail… is precisely that it is a handicap,” Winter notes. “Having such a long tail is not a luxury that every peacock can afford.
Only the strongest, healthiest, and smartest peacocks can have efficient and easy mobility despite the limitations incurred by carrying a heavy tail. A large tail is in fact a signal indicating strength, health, and intelligence, attracting peahens seeking strong, healthy, and intelligent mates who will pass those genes on to their offspring and thus increase their prospects for survival.”
Colleague Yair Tauman has made use of the handicap principle in his research to explain the tendency of founders of hi-tech start-ups such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg to drop out of college before completing their degrees, even when they are very close to the end of their studies. They found it “advantageous to drop out because this “handicaps” them in a way that sends a positive signal to potential investors. In effect, they are saying that they believe in themselves and their ideas to such an extent that they are willing to forgo the job market advantage conferred by an academic degree.”
Winter also explains how the Ten Commandments helped ensure the survival of the small number of Jews in the world. “At their heart, the Ten Commandments operate based on three mechanisms – ensuring the physical existence of the group, along with its social cohesion; incentivizing reproduction; and providing disincentives to leaving the group. The first three commandments are there to ensure the primacy of this ethical code above all others. Of course, populations that take their code more seriously are more likely to follow it, and thus to survive. The next seven create a social contract, enforcing prohibitions on theft, adultery, and murder, as well as creating mutually beneficial relationships between family members and neighbors.”
Observing Shabbat transforms the individual’s focus on himself to collectivism and group cohesion and also encourages economic relations within the group. Honoring one’s parents promises a reward of enjoying longevity, even though parents would “not pay you back,” but signals to your own children to honor you when you grow old.
Kosher food rules in Jewish law also limit opportunities of Jews and non-Jews to eat together, thus limiting social interactions between them and making intermarriage less likely.
WINTER’s SEXY chapters on oxytocin – a natural hormone that induces new mothers to care for their babies and them to bond with their mothers – also deal with attraction between males and females, who have different interests, namely, spreading their genes to further generations (men) and finding a reliable mate to stick by them (women) to help them raise offspring. The maximal number of children that a woman can bear in a lifetime is well below 100, while a man could theoretically father 100,000 children. “Similarly, while a woman can reach her maximal reproductive potential by mating with only one man throughout her life, a man would need about a thousand women to attain his maximal reproductive potential.”
He then presents 11 false arguments, such as those about sexual encounters without emotional commitments; background of homosexuality; men and women and their worries about health; and differences between males and females regarding talkativeness, jealousy, taking risks, competitiveness and cheating on their partners. The background for these issues contains combinations of emotions and rationality.
It’s impossible to touch on all the ideas among the more than 80,000 words in this thought-provoking book, all of which provide a strong basis for Winter’s thesis.
“I HOPE that the examples and the many research studies surveyed in this book convince you that 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,” the author concludes.