Feelings Are Not Facts: A Dangerous Confusion

A gunman kills four people at a Planned Parenthood clinic, and many are sure he is a pro-life zealot propelled by conservative attacks on the organization - even before we know his name, mental health status, or motive. Some things you just know in your gut. But feelings are not facts, and when we confuse them, we get sloppy thinking at best and dangerous action at worst. Simply put, our judgments are not justified.

A fact is a piece of data subject to objective, independent, and sometimes scientific verification. A feeling doesn't have to meet any of these tests. We're all entitled to our feelings, but facts exist outside of us. As Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan put in years ago, "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts."

When we treat feelings as facts, we eliminate the need to test our conclusions. Governors of over half the states don't want Syrian refugees. Syrian refugees are a way for Islamic jihadists to sneak into the country past a screening process that doesn't work, QED. The understandable feeling of fear after the Paris attacks gets translated into a set of "facts." Yet no governor tested these assumptions by searching for actual facts. How many of the thousands of Syrian refugees in this country already have been implicated in a terrorist plot? What is the rigor of the screening process?

When we treat feelings as facts, we use those feelings to selectively look for facts to back us up. Tune into almost any political talk-radio show and you will find masters of the technique of cherry-picking facts to support a predetermined outcome. In a decades-old experiment, ROTC cadets and peace activists were given the same report on nuclear missile testing mishaps and were then asked if our nuclear arsenal was safer or more dangerous than they previously thought. Guess what? The cadets became more confident of our nuclear safeguards and the peace activists became less confident. They all read the same report, but their feelings led them to focus on the facts they wanted to find.

Perhaps even worse, sometimes our feelings make us unwilling to even gather facts. For years, federal legislators banned research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the causes and effects of gun violence. After the Newtown school shootings, the president requested funding to end this ban. Congress turned him down. Without adequate research, which needs funding, we are left with only competing feelings to guide the debate on gun violence.

Why does this happen? Are we just lazy thinkers? In a series of experiments, Harvard neuroscientist Joshua Greene described what he calls a "dual-process brain." He uses the analogy of a digital camera, which has an automatic mode and a manual mode. The automatic mode in our brains is driven by emotions. It is fast and efficient. The manual mode requires reasoning to do its work. It is slower, just like changing manual settings on your camera is slower. Problems come, Greene argues, when we use the automatic mode in situations that call for manual-mode thinking.

From an evolutionary standpoint, the limbic system, buried deeper in the brain, came first. It controls emotions. The prefrontal cortex, where reason gets applied to emotion, is on the brain's outer layer. It came later. As his experiments bear out, our first reaction is often an emotional one, and then the rational processing part may get engaged. The difference in time is infinitesimal, but it is not irrelevant. The implication for everyday thinking is that we often make a decision based on our feelings and then use our reason to rationalize the decisions our emotions have already arrived at. Feelings call forth the facts they need.

When we treat feelings as facts, we are also prone to treat those who see the world differently as stupid, mean-spirited, or the enemy. When they disagree, they threaten our sense of self. We treat that as a putdown. Neuroscientists have discovered that threats to our social status activate the same parts of the brain as does physical pain. Simply put, when our status is threatened, it hurts. When something hurts, we come out swinging.

For all these reasons, feelings can gain greater ascendancy over facts as time goes on, making us more extreme and more certain in our views. Our society and our politics become more polarized, and we forget that there are facts we ignore. We literally cannot see them.

Feelings are not bad things. Our emotions are central to our humanity. When we get our facts correct and integrate them appropriately with our feelings, our actions can help wonderful things happen in our personal, professional, and civic lives. But when we act on feelings alone, as if they are facts, we have only half of what we need to build good lives and strong societies.