Emotion vs. Reason: And the winner is?

The capabilities of our adaptive unconscious are really quite amazing. In an earlier post, entitled Intuitive Thought, I covered the general relative strengths of this silent supercomputer running outside of our awareness. It has long been believed that rational thought, the application of logic and reason, over intuition, is the key to a successful life. One wonders, given the recent revelations about the importance of emotion and intuition, how reasoning capabilities would fair in a head to head (pun intended) competition with emotion?

 

Believe it or not, a research team from the University of Iowa devised a rather ingenious way of holding such a competition. In 1994 neuroscientists Antonio Damasio, Antoine Bechara, Daniel Tranel, and Steven Anderson developed the Iowa Gambling Task (IGT) to facilitate the identification of decision-making errors in individuals with prefrontal cortex damage. Both Malcolm Gladwell (Blink) and Jonah Lehrer (How We Decide) highlight this study in their powerful books on how we think. The IGT website describes the IGT as “a computerized experiment that is carried out in real time and resembles real-world contingencies. The task allows participants to select cards from four decks displayed on-screen. Participants are instructed that the selection of each card will result in winning or losing money. The objective is to attempt to win as much money as possible.” Sounds straight forward – although there is a catch. The participants are not aware that the decks are rigged in such a way that two decks consistently offer modest cash advances ($50) and rare penalties. These are the “good decks.” The two other decks, the “bad decks,” provide bigger advances ($100) but also devastating penalties ($1250). Playing the good decks is a slow but sure road to substantial winnings. The bad decks lead to disaster.

 

As participants began selecting cards, they tended to draw from all four decks (in a random fashion). However, as card selection proceeded and the consequences of their choices were realized, on average it took the typical participant about 50 cards before they started exclusively drawing from the “good decks.”  After drawing 50 cards, most participants developed a hunch that there were deck specific patterns in rewards and penalties and they began responding to those patterns. But It took on average about 80 cards before the typical subject could explain why they favored the good decks. That is 80 draws before most people concluded, rationally and logically, that there were good and bad decks.

 

In their original study, Damasio and his colleagues were interested in the emotional responses the subjects had to the task.  Participants were hooked up to a machine that specifically monitored their stress response (nervousness and anxiety) associated with each and every card selection.   What they discovered was that their subjects responded emotionally to the bad decks long before they changed their behavior or developed any rational understanding of the card distribution. On average most subjects exhibited a stress response to the bad decks after ten draws, a full 40 draws before their behavior changed and 70 draws before they could identify the reason for avoidance of the bad decks. Lehrer noted that “Although the subject still had little inkling of which card piles were the most lucrative, his emotions had developed an accurate sense of fear. The emotions knew which decks were dangerous. The subject’s feelings figured out the game first.”

 

On the IGT, neurotypical individuals almost always came out well ahead financially. Ultimately the emotions they experienced associated with draws from the various decks clued them into the correct responding pattern. However, individuals who were incapable of experiencing any emotional response – typically due to damaged orbito-frontal cotices – proved incapable of identifying the patterns and often went bankrupt. As it turns out, our emotional responses serve a very crucial role in good decision making – much more so than reason and logic. Again from Lehrer: “When the mind is denied the emotional sting of losing, it never figures out how to win.” The adaptive unconscious and the associated underlying emotional capacity of the brain serve an essential role in the decision making process. “Even when we think we know nothing, our brains know something. That’s what our feelings are trying to tell us.” (Lehrer, 2009).

 

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