Your feelings, your fallacies

Updated: Jun 19, 2019

What the affective fallacy is and how we shake it

One of the most intuitive things we hold onto is the belief that we have our own feelings and that our feelings are our true self. Over a century of discussing Freud's unconscious has taught us this deepest truth: we are a mass of neuroticism. No one else understands our deepest feelings. This may be partly true: most of us act like emotional dogs with rational tails. Most of us provide reasons for what we do after the impulsive fact.

Our lives are ruled by fast, automatic thinking, rather than slow, more rational assessments of risks and probabilities as Daniel Kahneman among other psychologists have compellingly demonstrated. Research suggests that we are under the grip of semi-unconscious prejudices and biases at any given moment, and tests have uncovered these biases in millions of people. None of this means that we are simply the victims of feelings, or that feelings are not somehow also part of our cognitive process. What if the way we perceived our own feelings was itself a rationalisation? And a false one?

This post may start to get a bit uncomfortable for many readers. What I am about to write may offend your feelings. But this is not about you.

You may still feel judged. That's OK. Your feelings are valid. No one has the right to criticise you. Or tell you how to feel. Follow your heart. Just feel. Particularly shame and outrage. And tell me about them.

The paragraph above is what I might say to someone feeling extremely defensive, in order to calm them down. Well, all except the last two lines.

I mean no offence when I point out that everything I just wrote in that paragraph was based on falsehoods. This is an example of a fallacy. A surprisingly common one.

It is called the affective fallacy.

What is the affective fallacy?

Let's get to grips with the affective fallacy. It's based on a bundle of assumptions that are fast becoming anachronistic. That doesn't stop people believing these assumptions passionately.

The fallacy suggests the following, that our feelings are:

  • Innate in us.

  • Self-validating or the basis of our authenticity: feelings make us what we are and we need to be true to them.

  • Autonomous: they have their own life and can be completely hidden from others.

  • Above any human intent or act of will, so you are always free to have your own feelings.

  • Spontaneous, involuntary, and immune to challenge or critique.

This is all just common sense, right? Yes, but that doesn't stop this common sense from being false. The literature critic Lionel Trilling would have named our false relationship to feelings authenticity. He even diagnosed the symptoms of the authentic unconscious, which he contrasted to an earlier moral commitment to sincerity in his great book Sincerity and Authenticity. Modern neuroscience is starting to suggest that Trilling, who favoured sincerity, was right about our feelings.

What does neuroscience suggest? In 2017, neuroscience researchers published a paper that threatens to upend the reasoning that supports the affective fallacy.

They argued that the best theory for emotions in neuroscience is that they are cognitive, and not innate.

Feelings are just a particular way of processing information. We may not be able to completely control the way we emotionally process this information, but it is a form of consciousness. If indeed emotions are cognitive, this has some revolutionary consequences, none more related to the way we rationalise our own expressions of feelings.

Avoiding the feeling argument If feelings are cognitive, we need to understand that the way we think and practice rationalising can have an impact on our feelings and may be part and parcel of our feelings. We need to politicise and rationalise affect in much the way philosophers like Spinoza did in his Ethics. It means that using unconscious desire to continue to excuse behaviour is suspect. It means that no form of thinking is completely objective in the sense that is often given to it: free of emotional response or bias.

It means that animals no longer need to prove that their feelings are signs of consciousness: their behaviourally observable feelings are not programmed, involuntarily bodily responses, but acts of cognition.

It means, and importantly for the claims of the affective fallacy, that feelings as we discuss them are a form of reasoning, an argument that has certain effects and patterns of rationalisation. The reason that certain ways of arguing are deemed fallacies, is because they make a fair argument impossible and make false appeals. The affective fallacy is a way of guarding against ever being wrong. It is a static in a conversation. Perhaps strong emotions are these moments of static in thinking, but that doesn't make them any less important to good thinking.

False reasoning can quickly lead to excusing feelings that are prejudiced, sexist, bigoted, homophobic or racist. It can lead to men claiming that they just had to 'follow their dick', when what they also mean is follow their heart.

The above are obviously some more malign forms of the affective fallacy, but other forms are often just as dangerous. They can confuse a respectful response and reasoned argument with hostility, personal rejection and disrespect.

The affective fallacy may also encourage us to have empathy, to put ourselves in other people's shoes. Of course, this is a certain reasoning about feelings. "Put yourself in other people's shoes," my mother once said to me. "Because when you criticise them at least you have their shoes and you are a long way away."

There's a certain rationalisation in empathy that is perhaps best uncovered in a good joke or in a meme. So here's a meme I made earlier out of it.

So how do we shake the affective fallacy?

We are now back where we started, with a twist.

Let's think better about emotions, and feel better about thinking. Thinking and emotions are not enemies. In fact, emotions may just be the way we think.

If we can think better by feeling better, and feel better by thinking better, we can also think well before we read and write.

"There is an art of reading, an art of thinking, and an art of writing." ~Isaac D'Israeli, The Literary Character, 1839
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