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The Irrationality of Rational Theory

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As children most of us learn to bide our time when asking approval or permission.  We take note of the temperature of the emotions in our home and pay attention to the little signals to ensure that we ask at the time when the probability of getting what we want is the highest.  In addition, we might have even learned to use our very best manners, which in the south include “yes ma’am” and “no ma’am,” “please” and possible even “pretty please” if the request is large.  While the question asked might be the same, I have found that the response rate varies based on the presentation and timing of the question.

As a mother, I have recently noticed this same skill being used with me by my children.  I have noticed that my gratitude for their use of good manners actually does sway me towards saying yes a bit more often.  But is this rational?

“Let’s be rational,” we have all heard or said before.  Rational, according to Webster’s on-line dictionary, is “having reason or understanding.”  We expect people to be able to sift through emotions and facts and make decisions based on those facts rather than emotions.  But a study shows that, just possibly, we are giving too much credence to our brain and too little understanding to our emotions.

In their study, “Blinded by Anger or Feeling the Love,” Francesca Gino and Maurice Schweitzer “demonstrate that emotional states influence how receptive people are to advice.”  Even when the advice and advisors are identical, the findings note that, “people who feel incidental gratitude are more trusting and more receptive to advice than are people who feel incidental anger.”

The authors cite prior research that reinforces the importance and reliance on “known experts,” as well as the advice being received in a complicated area.  These are both examples of rational reliance on advice.  If advice is received from an “expert” or if the area of the decision is very complicated, it makes “rational” sense that the advice would be heeded.  This study moves from rational to emotional influence.

Specifically tested is the influence of incidental emotions, i.e., emotions that are not part of the decision at hand, but incidental to it.  Two experiments were conducted.  The first included 109 Carnegie Mellon University undergraduate students, about half of them male and half female. They were each shown one of three video clips -- an angry video clip (from My Bodyguard), a clip of a scene of gratitude (from Awakening), and a neutral clip (from a National Geographic special).  After viewing the clip, they were asked to estimate the weight of a person in a picture and provided with advice on the answer from a supposed prior participant. 

The results?  People experiencing incidental gratitude weighed advice more heavily than did people who were in a neutral state.  People experiencing incidental anger weighed advice less than did those in the neutral state.  The better the subject felt, the more the subject was receptive to advice.

In what may surprise those who believe women rely on emotion more than men, this study found no differences in outcome based on gender or occupational status.

The second experiment measured the impact of trust in 107 participants.  After viewing the video clip, they were asked to rate how much they trusted the person providing advice regarding the weight estimate.  Those who experienced incidental gratitude were more trusting and receptive to advice than were those in the neutral state, and those who experienced incidental anger were less trusting and receptive than participants in the neutral state.  

In the conclusion, the authors expect that those who make us angry, or trigger anger to be “less trusted and less influential.” The authors expect that those “who are able to generate gratitude (e.g., by causing targets to reflect on their good fortune),” are able to create “more trust and to be more influential."

What does this mean to us?  The theory of rational behavior might be just that, a theory that is not borne out in real life.  As humans with emotions, incidentally or directly caused by the activity and the decision at hand, we might be influenced much more than we think by emotions. 

This might be fine when gratitude for my child’s good manners allows for 5 minutes more playtime outside, but we might want to rethink the irrationality of rational theory. 

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