How Logical Are We, Really?

In a mea culpa Op-Ed, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently took himself and the press to task for allowing Donald Trump to use the media to his advantage. "We were lap dogs, not watchdogs" he admitted. Among the charges he leveled at his profession was not fact-checking Trump's assertions. He did credit NBC's Tom Brokaw with "outstanding work" in doing so and then noted Brokaw's conclusion that it didn't matter: "His followers find fault with the questions, not with his often incomplete, erroneous or feeble answers."

The easy conclusion is that Trump's devotees could care less about facts. But what if they believe that what Trump puts out are facts? Trump is not alone among candidates whose followers both accept their statements as factual, "telling it like it is," and then question the motives of those who disagree. Indeed, the tendency to accept "facts" at face value and use them to support our positions and preferences is entirely human.

"So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do," Benjamin Franklin said in his Autobiography, explaining why logic is often used to support rather than question how we feel. Modern neuroscience bears him out. Research using brain scans suggests that the emotional parts of the brain often fire before those of the rational neocortex. In short, our logical brain helps our emotional brain justify itself.

The implications are sobering. First, we should pause when convinced we have solid logic behind our positions. Humility should temper our certitude. Our reasons will almost always involve a mix of logic and emotion, often in reverse order. Engaged in a heated argument, we are not looking to be reasonable; we are looking for "facts" to win our case.

Second, those who disagree with us are subject to the same mental errors, so they will be as convinced as we are that they are right. The reasons we marshal will always be met with the reasons they marshal. Indeed, the firmer our stand, the firmer theirs may become.

Third, we will be prone to surround ourselves - physically and virtually - with like-thinking people. We like people who agree with us. This leads to group polarization, in which initially moderate or tentative views give way to increasingly extreme and rigid ones. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr warned about this when he said that "groups are more immoral than individuals." It is at the heart of terrorist cells. Like it or not, extreme groups in democracies differ from them more in degree than in kind.

Fourth, when feelings lead us to find "facts" to back us up, we may not be aware of this. Our "logic" may thus be faulty, even dangerous. In The Hidden Brain, science writer Shankar Vedantam illustrates how such unconscious mental processes lead us astray. Researchers found, for example, that stock prices of companies with easy-to-pronounce names outperformed companies with hard-to-pronounce names, through the entire first year of trading (but not after that), simply because easy-to-say names make us feel comfortable. Researchers also found that very young children consistently associated white faces with positive adjectives and black faces with negative adjectives not because their parents or teachers made them bigots but simply because most of the people they saw in their daily lives were white. This was before the age at which children could logically think about their thinking - but such stereotypical thinking lasted into later years.

Fifth, to change minds, logic will not be enough. If "facts" and reasons exist in part to support feelings, we need to change the latter to change the former. Advocates of gun control, for example, will find support among gun owners only when they find a common emotion that moves them to joint action. Logic alone did not create widespread acceptance of gay marriage. Putting its denial in human terms by showing the impact on loving couples, some of whom we knew and loved, did.

George Washington understood this. Writing to David Humphreys a few months before the Federal Convention in 1787 and grappling with the dissension that marked life under the Articles of Confederation, he said that "It is one of the evils, perhaps not the smallest, of democratical governments that the People must feel before they will see or act." Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton misses this point at her peril. In announcing her approach to a general election, her aides said she will rely on her strength - policy positions. Absent the ability to connect on the playing field of emotions, she may find that logic fails to move the undecided voters she needs.

All that said, we must resist the conclusion that feelings are the enemy distorting thoughtful action. Feelings and logic are two sides of the same mental coin. Neuroscience also demonstrates that effective decisions require both. People whose brain damage makes it hard to integrate reason with emotion make poor decisions, if they can make them at all. In politics, as in all of life, we need full human beings. That fullness requires that we understand how our facts and feelings interact - and how to use them both to reach toward each other and a fuller humanity.