Skip to content

The Gordian Knot: Why action often ‘Trumps’ logic.

Emotions and Rationality

Conventionally, emotion has been seen as a threat to rationality - where an emotional choice is treated as if it is the opposite of a rational choice. When Descartes split the mind from the body - emotion was linked with the body - not with the mind. Emotions tended to be seen as vestiges of a more primitive brain that had been superseded by the more rational/logical neocortex. To be rational, meant to suppress the emotional urges in favor of more deliberative logic.

However, researchers such as Antonio Damasio are discovering  that emotions may be integral to effective decision making and problem solving. In essence the emotions help to ground rationality with respect to the practical value of decisions. Emotions tend to "mark" choices that have high negative or positive value. In this way, the emotions are integral to the process of learning from past mistakes and past successes.

Emotions may also be important in terms of the persistence needed to overcome obstacles to success - particularly when it comes to innovation. Feyerabend suggests that without passion, many innovations in science would have been overwhelmed by the logic of the conventional ways of thinking. The weight of evidence/logic always favors the conventional paradigms -- and it takes time for enough evidence to accumulate to drive a paradigm shift.  Thus, success of the new paradigm often depends on the passion to persist against the weight of the conventional perspective.

Also, emotions may help to set 'stopping rules' for analytical thinking.  For example, Damasio found that patients with damage impacting the coupling of emotional to logical brain centers can be subject to a paralysis of analysis, where they get caught in analytical deliberations that seem to go on without end - there is always another angle to consider or another piece of data to collect.  Thus, emotions may play an important role in triggering actions, particularly in complex situations, where certainty is not possible. In complex environments (e.g., military command and control, medicine), it is rarely possible to reach certainty. At some point, a commander or physician must act before they are overtaken by events or before windows of opportunity close.  In these situations, decisive action may be more important that having a perfect plan.

Carl Weick illustrates this with his story about the squad lost in the Alps, who are saved when they discover that they have a map. It later turns out that it was the wrong map. The key is that having the map helped to trigger actions - and that the actions eventually led to successful adaptations. One of the positive aspects of decision heuristics such as those suggested by Gigerenzer is that they tend to be recipes for action. In contrast to normative logic or economic models of rationality, the trigger for action (stopping rule) is often integral to the heuristics.

The point is that decisive action may be critical to success. Rather than waiting to make the right decision, success often depends on acting to make the decision right. Emotional intelligence, rather than logic may be critical in triggering the necessary actions.

The Gordian Knot

The story of Alexander the Great and the Gordian Knot may be an illustration of the idea of acting to make the decision right.  While others debated how best to untie the knot, Alexander acted decisively to solve the problem.

Perhaps, this is one facet of the attractiveness of Trump and his ultimate success in the 2016 election. While the conventional Democrats and Republicans debated over the best way to untie the complex knots that our country was facing, Trump drew his sword and promised action. Thus, Trump's logic was seen as more grounded in terms of action. Whereas, the logic of the conventional political establishment seemed to be caught in a paralysis of analysis - debating how to untie the knot, rather than acting to make things right. 

Perhaps many in America were fed up with the logical analysis provided by the media and the conventional politicians. They were looking for action (high energy). They were less interested in whether the logic guiding the action was sound, they were simply tired of analysis and were impatient for action.

Now the ultimate question is not whether Trump's solutions make sense (are they logical)? The only question is will they work? Will Trump's sword cut? If it cuts, no one will be concerned with the logic of how to untie the knots. The ultimate test of a leader is not logical, but pragmatic. Do they get the job done?

Perhaps, the failure of conventional politics is not in the logic of right wing versus left wing. Progress does not depend on who is more logical. It depends on who has the courage to act. Perhaps, the failure of conventional politics today is too much analysis and too little action.

The point is not to to encourage rash action, but to realize that in a complex world there is no certainty without action. No matter how carefully you aim, no target can be hit unless you pull the trigger. And if it's a moving target, you can't take too much time aiming or you miss the opportunity.

Perhaps, in the end it is not about making the right choice, but rather it is about acting to making the choice right.

Leave a Reply

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