Skip to main content

Address

ICC 650
Box 571014

37th & O St, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20057

maps & directions
Contact

Phone: (202) 687.6400

Email: provost@georgetown.edu

 

Emotion and Rationality

One of the interesting differences among academic disciplines is the relative role of emotion versus rationality in the culture of the field.

The power of poetry lies in its compact generation of emotions — so too, the words and movements of a play, the text-based creation of a character in literature, the brushstrokes of a painting, and the movements of dance. But mathematics, philosophy, physics, and many of the empirically based fields have a structure that values a very rigid protocol of evidence. Indeed, the presentation of scientific findings in many fields is limited to strictly factual description. There aren’t too many adjectives and adverbs in scientific papers relative to writing in other fields.

On the other hand, it is not unusual for mathematicians to talk of the beauty of a proof or for physicists, of the elegance of a theoretical result. Further, scientists can be deeply passionate about their work, which is a source of inspiration to the students they mentor. Emotion is often part of doing science but rarely part of its product.

While different disciplines value differently the role of emotion and the role of rational thought and logic, it seems increasingly clear that many day-to-day decisions are complicated mixes of emotion and rationality. For example, several scientists have noted the weakness of arguing policy changes consistent with scientific findings without appealing to emotions connected to the policy change. More and more, narrative construction (and who captures the narrative first) seems to predominate the news cycles more powerfully than the facts connected to them.

It’s interesting in this regard to note the increasing attention of scientists to the power of storytelling. Stories often have their power because of the emotions they generate. This also makes them more memorable, as the cognitive psychologists have taught us. Hence, when stories that pack emotional punch can exemplify a scientific finding, the memory of the scientific finding can be enhanced. Memory of the findings is key to any chance that the findings might shape opinions about any issue relevant to the findings.

Of course, the weakness of stories is that they often don’t capture all the subtleties of complicated scientific findings. They are powerful partly because they are simple and accessible, so as scientists embrace this new communication genre, they grapple with critiques of oversimplification.

The stories that may be most powerful are those that relate directly to a person’s welfare, where the emotions generated within the listener are ones of fear, joy, or sadness via empathy. In communicating research findings, such stories are much more easily generated for biomedical research than for basic research. Biomedical research findings often translate directly into saved lives. Basic research often lacks such direct input into the human day-to-day. So emotion-filled narratives on basic research are more difficult to construct. In that regard, emotion-generating stories for basic research seem to have two lines: a) a story about the original discovery, retelling the hundreds of failed attempts at a finding, the resilience of the researcher in bouncing back from repeated failures, the suffering of a career stalled, and then the eventual glory of the findings (e.g., Thomas Edison creating a sustainable electric light), b) the joy of a labor-saving device (e.g., a smart phone), the thrill of a collective accomplishment (e.g., human space flight), or the solution of a long-lasting problem. The story starts at the end – the wonderful new state of the world – and traces that state back to the original basic research findings.

However, both of these ways to pack emotional memory cues into basic science require more of the listener – the first, the trials of the researcher, requires some understanding of how research works; the second, the source of a wonderful new state launched by basic research, requires the patience of the listener and understanding of the causal chain.

I applaud real attempts at researchers communicating their work to lay audiences through stories that evoke emotional reactions. We’re all relatively new at this, but public support of research requires their connecting their lives to the work of researchers. We can’t stop trying.

4 thoughts on “Emotion and Rationality

  1. Very interesting BLOG! The GUMC Partners in Research process through which basic and clinical researchers present their research proposals to potential lay partners as part of the funding competition is taking this story process + science approach. It is a very successful program as explained by Dr. Robert Clarke in the recent GUMC video.

  2. Emotion and/or rationality ? The chief nerve center of the two fields I have practiced for five decades : foreign languages and theater.
    In both disciplines, the experiential dimension is paramount, which, given that we human beings draw on the two titular qualities highlighted in the current post throughout our lived experiences, leads pedagogy in both to find the appropriate balance between the labors of reason and the insights due to emotion. A foreign language learner, for example, cannot rely uniquely on rational mastery of grammar and syntax to master a target language, since socio-cultural context and mimetic empathy are also required to acquire genuine fluency. By the same token, a good actor, while drawing powerfully on emotional and unconscious resources to perform a complex role, must also bring keen rationality to the full understanding of what he or she needs to present ( and represent ) on stage.

  3. Echoing Jane, the blog article very much resonates with what we are doing in the fundraising offices for Lombardi and the rest of GUMC.

    Since our stories seek to combine scientific content and emotional content in order to drive the reader/hearer to a decision (supporting our research), I recommend using models of decision making when relating stories. For example, relate the stories in a way that connects with one or more of Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development: (1) punishment-and-obedience orientation, (2) instrumental relativist orientation, (3) interpersonal concordance orientation, (4) law-and-order orientation, (5) social contract orientation and/or (6) universally ethical love orientation. Using this model, the emotional content would seek to “light a fire” under the audience’s penchant for viewing the scientific content within the context of a relevant moral framework. Science says such-and-such; so, (1) take action in order to avoid personally punishing effects, (2) take action in order to gain some personal benefit, (3) take action in order to be a respected part of the team, (4) take action in order to meet authorities’ expectations/requirements, (5) take action in order to fulfill community obligations, and/or (6) take action in order to altruistically bless others.

    In addition to using the emotional content and the scientific content of the stories to stimulate action from moral motivations, the emotion and science should be incorporated into all four aspect of the comprehensive policy analysis that constitutes the appealing story: (1) descriptive analysis, (2) predictive analysis, (3) normative analysis, and (4) prescriptive analysis should be factually and emotionally relevant to the moral stage of the targeted audience. Normative analysis (i.e. consideration of the values of the relevant actors/players/patrons/clients) is the aspect most amenable to the inclusion of emotional content.

    Often, along with the scientific bias against presenting emotional content mentioned in the blog, there is a bias against presenting normative and prescriptive analysis because that wouldn’t fit with being objectively neutral. However, even the choice of a research topic goes beyond being objectively neutral — scientists study what they perceive to be important! Rather than adopt a pretense of objective neutrality, just be objective while presenting the respective values of the relevant policy actors and prescribing the policy options predicted to lead to outcomes fitting with those values. “Just tell me what to do” is often the plea of policymakers to policy advisors — those policy advisors can help “light the fire” of the policymakers for sustained action by including emotional content along with the rational content. “That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!”

  4. Thank you for a stimulating post. If I pull it apart a bit, it is only to complicate the matter further and hopefully contribute to a fuller understanding. A critique of texts is what we do reasonably well in the humanities, adjectives and adverbs or not.

    Let me begin with the first sentence. “One of the interesting differences among academic disciplines is the relative role of emotion versus rationality in the culture of the field.” There is a shift from plural to singular here that is unexplained and I assume that the relative role of emotions and rationality in the culture of the fieldS (which are similar or the same as disciplines?) is what is meant. Well, may be. In any case, this sets up an argument that is governed to some extent by the generic expectations and rules of the compare-and-contrast genre – and we shall see if this will unwittingly keep its grip on the text.

    Let me go on to the following paragraph.

    “The power of poetry lies in its compact generation of emotions — so too, the words and movements of a play, the text-based creation of a character in literature, the brushstrokes of a painting, and the movements of dance. But mathematics, philosophy, physics, and many of the empirically based fields have a structure that values a very rigid protocol of evidence. Indeed, the presentation of scientific findings in many fields is limited to strictly factual description. There aren’t too many adjectives and adverbs in scientific papers relative to writing in other fields.”

    I believe this is very imprecise. It sets out to characterize some of the fine and creative arts (surely not disciplines in an academic sense) and contrasts them with some of the hard sciences and, seemingly as an odd add-on, philosophy. It might very well be that poetry and painting deal with emotions. But that could also be said of the object of psychology and certainly philosophy if it were to be understood as more than the somewhat bloodless enterprise it has become in particular branches of analytical philosophy (which are the parts, I believe, that prompted its inclusion in the list above). [Here, I would like to point out that I used the adjective “bloodless” as an evaluative term, not as an emotional term. I do believe that the humanities deal in values and therefore evaluative statements that need adjectives and adverbs. But that has little to do with emotions or lack of rationality.]

    Let’s go on. “On the other hand, it is not unusual for mathematicians to talk of the beauty of a proof or for physicists, of the elegance of a theoretical result. Further, scientists can be deeply passionate about their work, which is a source of inspiration to the students they mentor. Emotion is often part of doing science but rarely part of its product.”

    This is a nice example of the generic moves of the compare-and-contrast genre. It allows for an element of the compared aspects to become part of the other, but insists that this is really just an amplification of the difference. — The generic force is strong, but the logic of the paragraph is not. It leaves us hanging with the suggestion that the scientists experience strong emotions, and that these have no effect on their findings and analyses. Well, may be. The force of the generic rules of the compare-and-contrast genre is clear, but have left this one without a discernible argument why that should be any different from persons in the academic disciplines usually thought of as the humanities. Any of the excellent scholars in the humanities I know are not great because they rile up our emotions. Instead, they convince, engage, inspire, and stimulate because of the breadth of their knowledge, the clarity in articulation of their thoughts, and their brilliance of interpretation. I’m not sure how emotion plays into that. It is the construction of an argument convincingly articulated and, importantly, soundly supported by textual evidence that is the gold standard in the humanities. There is little difference between this standard and that of the sciences in this regard – except if you are pulled that way when choosing to use the compare-and-contrast genre to tell your story.

    I do not want to exemplify another trait of the humanities – and that is their long-windedness. Suffice it to say that the turn towards what the basic and the medical sciences have to do with storytelling is beyond the scope of what I wanted to contribute to this conversation.

    Thanks again for the post and I really do enjoy thinking about those issues that you highlight regularly in them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Office of the ProvostBox 571014 650 ICC37th and O Streets, N.W., Washington D.C. 20057Phone: (202) 687.6400Fax: (202) 687.5103provost@georgetown.edu

Connect with us via: