Emotion, Rationality and Human Potential

by John T. Cacioppo

n but a brief span, human civilization has achieved the engineering of the great pyramids, the elegance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the refinement of Dom Perignon, the efficiency of mass production, the triumph of modern medicine, the wisdom of heterotic string theory, and the wonder of photographing galaxies millions of light-years away.

Perhaps we can be excused for tending to see our distant past "through a reverse telescope that compresses it: a short time as hunter-gatherers, a long time as 'civilized' people" (Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses, 1990, p.129). As Diane Ackerman goes on to note, humans have walked the surface of the earth for about 2 million years, and for all but the last 2,000 or 3,000 years humans have been hunter-gatherers.

Despite the constraints of civilization, humans are also the source of less rarefied achievements: the relentless exploitation of fossil fuels and rain forests, the apocalyptic peril of biological and nuclear warfare, and the savage horror of torture and genocide, to name but a few. We may sing in choirs and bridle our rages behind a placid countenance, but we patrol the world under the auspice of an affect system sculpted over millennia of evolutionary forces.

Individuals are often revered for cultivated tastes and seemingly dispassionate responses to life's challenges, but emotions, archaic in origins, saturate human existence throughout the life span. Emotions guide, enrich and ennoble life; they provide meaning to everyday existence; they render the valuation placed on life and property. Emotions promote behaviors that protect life, form the basis for the continuity of life and compel the termination of life. They can be an essential ingredient for and an overwhelming obstacle to optimizing human potential. Given their evolutionary heritage and daily currency, there is little wonder that emotions have preoccupied humankind throughout recorded history, and there is little doubt that emotions are both biologically rooted and culturally molded.

Emotions represent in part a primitive past, the bubbling influences of a reptilian heritage. An assumption by rationalists, dating back to the ancient Greeks, has been that higher forms of human existence--mentation, rationality, foresight and decision-making--can be hijacked by the pirates of emotion. Indeed, the classic assumption is that emotion wreaks havoc on human rationality, that dispassionate analysis optimizes decision-making. Accordingly, the emphasis in our society has been on cognition and rationality and on ways of diminishing the influence of subjectivity and emotion in decision-making and behavior. Studies with chimpanzees support the notion that symbolic representations (e.g., Arabic numerals) evolved in part to lessen the primal grip of emotional events on decision-making and behavior.

The notion that an individual's emotions were a disruptive force in rational thought, adaptive action and a fulfilling life also has been shown to be a gross oversimplification. Emotions are much more than reptilian reflexes. Although the obstacles of a civilized world still occasionally call forth blind rages, emotions are increasingly recognized for the critical role they play in higher forms of human experience. Higher education should not lead to a casting off of one's emotions but, rather, to a disciplining of the emotions through self-knowledge and self-control.

Consider the neurological case of Elliot, reported by Antonio Damasio in Descartes' Error (1994). Elliot was a businessman who developed a brain tumor that damaged his prefrontal cortex. He began behaving irrationally following the damage to the prefrontal cortex by the brain tumor and the subsequent surgery.

Testing of Elliot revealed that his intelligence, attention and memory were unaffected. Elliot, however, had lost the ability to experience emotion; and without emotion, rationality was lost and decision-making was a dangerous game of chance. Elliot had no emotional guidance based on a lifetime of accumulated experiences to help him select among alternatives in his life. He had no emotional response to good decisions or to bad ones with which to foster learning or decision-making. The case of Elliot suggests that emotions are more than reptilian reflexes; they are fundamental building blocks out of which an intelligent and fulfilling life can be constructed.

Standing at the threshold of the third millennium, the reflection from our recent past points to technological advances as the doorway to the future. Institutions of higher education have made these technological advances possible, and they should and will continue to promote technological developments in the future. However, one also might keep in mind the less rarefied achievements that have been made possible by technology. Where does the intelligence and humanity to develop and use technology well come from?

As we enter the third millennium, institutions of higher education might consider that facts and technology alone cannot elevate humanity, that emotion is not the antithesis of rationality, that emotions are an essential ingredient for and an overwhelming obstacle to optimizing human potential. Graduates of institutions of higher education should leave not only with an ability to think and build, but also with a heightened ability to monitor one's own and others' emotions, to discriminate among them and to use the information to guide one's thinking and action to the benefit of all.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR | John T. Cacioppo

John T. Cacioppo is the Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago, the director of the Social Psychology Program and the co-director of the Institute for Mind and Biology. His research focuses on attitudes, affect and emotion. He has published seven books and more than 240 articles. Cacioppo is the past editor of Psychophysiology, and a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research (SPR), the Society for Consumer Psychology and the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. Among his awards are the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the Society for Psychophysiological Research and the Troland Research Award from the National Academy of Sciences.

Cacioppo is also a fellow of the American Psychological Association (APA), American Psychological Society, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Academy of Behavioral Medicine Research, Health Psychology Division of APA, International Organization of Psychophysiology, and APA Divisions 1 (General), 6 (Behavioral Neuroscience), 8 (Social Psychology), 23 (Consumer Psychology) and 38 (Health Psychology).

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