„Thinking fast“ makes understanding each other more difficult  

As someone used to the tame, sluggish feel of German politics I’ve been following the US presidential election race with morbid fascination. It is amazing to me how emotional and worked up everyone gets. In order for a German to get passionate about a political issue, something truly horrendous has to be on the agenda – like introducing a „veggie day“ to state canteens or, maybe even worse, thinking aloud about setting a speed limit on the autobahn. Both topics – eating meat and risking everyone’s life by speeding until your tunnel vision shrinks to the size of a pinhead – are basic human rights to ze Dschörmens and not to be discounted light-mindedly /*sarcasmoff*.

But in all seriousness, the emotionally charged, heated atmosphere in debates about certain topics in the US is indeed rather unusual to me, which is why I would like to ask you to bear in mind this… cultural difference?… when reading further.

What bothers me about the sort of discourse we’re having is that many people seem to „think fast“ in the sense of Daniel Kahneman, i.e., they use so-called heuristics to judge a piece of information or claim and form an opinion on it. I’d like to discuss one particular heuristic, because I think it makes debating any topic, complex and personal topics in particular, next to impossible: „emotional thinking“. Emotional thinking means that you use whatever emotion you’re experiencing to inform you about what’s true and false or right and wrong without taking into account the possibility that this emotion might be the result of a faulty / unreasonable cognitive assessment of the situation. You experience an emotion and make a „snap judgement“ that it adequatly informs you about what’s actually going on around you.

For instance:

I feel scared, therefore I am truly in danger.

I feel guilty, therefore I have actually done something wrong.

I feel angry, therefore someone else willfully did me harm or tried to.

I feel disgusted, therefore someone else did something morally wrong.

Well. It’s possible you’re wrong about all of that. But in order to determine that, you’ll have to use “slow thinking” instead. And you feeling that way still has no bearing on whether whatever offended you is false. It also doesn’t automatically make your own standpoint correct. You being offended isn’t an argument for anything. It’s a feeling. Nothing more, nothing less.

It’s like Christopher Hitchens said: “If someone tells me that I’ve hurt their feelings I’m still waiting to hear what your point is.”

That is not to say that you shouldn’t care whether you hurt someone’s feelings. I think one should try to avoid that. But the thing is, sometimes, you just can’t. You hurt someone’s feelings without wanting to, because that someone interprets what you’re saying as intentionally hurtful. But you’re not responsible for what SHe understands. Only for what you say.

I encountered emotional reasoning often when people get worked up about gender or social justice issues. You feeling disgusted by two people of the same sex kissing each other doesn’t automatically give you any moral highground. You feeling offended by someone else’s opinion doesn’t automatically mean they had the intention to hurt you, were being willfully ignorant or that their argument has no merit.

Other people do not actively „make you“ feel X. Others don’t create your emotions. Others are not responsible for them. You are.

It’s not: trigger/activating event —> emotional consequence.  (A—>C)

It’s: trigger/activating event —> subjective appraisal of trigger / belief —> emotional consequence (A—>B—>C).

Slow thinking would be to stop for a moment and assess your belief. For instance, you could ask yourself:

What proof do I have that my belief is correct?

What arguments speak against my belief?

What other interpretations are possible besides my initial one?

Is my appraisal helpful to me?

Are the emotional consequences of my appraisal healthy?

An example by the often-cited Paul Watzlawik: A guy wants to put up a picture in his living room. He has the picture and the nail but lacks a hammer.  He remembers that his neighbour has one. So he decides to go over to him and ask for it. But before he even reaches his door, he remembers his last encounter with him: yesterday, when he was downstairs to check for mail, he saw the neighbour coming home, greeted him – but he didn’t greet back. „How unfriendly to ignore me like that.“, our man thinks. „I have always been nice to him. What does he have against me? I’m a nice person, can’t he see that? Pretty disrespectful now that I think about it. He probably thinks he’s better than me, the arrogant idiot. And now he even thinks I am dependent of him just because he has a hammer and I don’t! This is outrageous!“ And so, brimming with righteous fury, our man walks up the the neighbours door, knocks, and before the other one can even get a word of greeting out, shouts him in the face:“Keep your fucking hammer, you prick!“

It’s not the fact the neighbour didn’t greet that made the man so angry (A—>C). It’s his assumption (A—>B—>C) that he willfully ignored and disrespected him – a belief he has no proof of. The neighbour could have been lost in thought, he might not have heard him. And even if the neighbor had acted willfully – the emotional response and subsequent behavioral reaction of our guy is not very helpful to his own goal. He wants a hammer but in the end doesn’t get it. But our guy doesn’t think of that. Instead, he makes his own misery. Still no hammer. Frustrated the picture still doesn’t hang he blames the neighbour for his predicament.

Anger and emotional reasoning can make us impervious to other arguments and cloud our judgement. So in order to have a calm conversation about an emotional topic, I think it is important to check one’s own beliefs about and interpretations of what your counterpart is saying. The easiest way to make sure you understand each other correctly is paraphrasing what you understood and having your opponent confirm your perception or clarify what they meant. Until you both feel understood correctly there’s no need to advance the conversation because it will only lead to misunderstanding, chasing strawmen and maybe even altercation. In the end, we fail to understand each other – and isn’t that what all of us want? To feel understood. In understanding, there is human connection. And in human connection, there’s a chance for peaceful coexistence.

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