Theories of Rational Thinking

29 Mar 2018

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Are we rational?

Evolutionist known as Aristotle held the belief that human being is a rational animal. According to his view on rationality, rational thinking distinguishes human beings from other animals. He also expressed rationality as the power of reason and ownership. Based on the finding of many previous studies humankind has paid much respect to holding beliefs of their own and having individual points of view about the world they are surrounded by. However, one can argue that having a point of view can simply signify a direction of thought, but as long as the thought are produced by a reasonable explanation and leaves open possibilities in favour of other evidence, then it can be said that the person is holding a rational point of view. In its simplest form, human beings unlike other species have the authority to think, reason and reflect this provides humans with the advantages for survival. Based on the evolutionary perspective human has the ability to choose a rational behaviour as they have the capacity to use language, interact with one another and share inter-subjective views. While evolutionary researchers provide little evidence about how rational thinking arose in humans, they suggests that perhaps humans have always held some rational thinking to some degree. Although, humans are or at least have the potential for rationality and logic, they can be subjected to irrational rages, panic, anxiety and other states; which are produced by the brain. (REF) also believe that humans often tend to overrule their potential for rationality and logic with their out-of-control egotism. On the other side, researchers (REF) argue that as humans we have irrational underlying nature, but we tend to develop a more rational behaviour through socialising and communication. A study conducted by Martino, Kumaran, Seymour and Dolan (2006) suggest that rational people are more able to override their emotional responses.

The human mind consists of three essential components: emotion, cognition and volition (Tallon, 1997;). Cognition refers to the mental actions linked with the process of thinking; it is generally associated with analysing, questioning, evaluating and etc. The emotional function is the internal monitor of the mind, which states how we are doing or feeling in any given situation; it is refers to human interpretation of perceptions, information, or knowledge. (REF) believe that humans tend to be emotionally complicated, as they tend to experience a wide range of emotions from sorrow to happiness, from excitement to depression, and so on. Although, the mind innate from these three components, these functions can be under the power of two different tendencies; the tendency to lean toward egocentrism, or the tendency to consider a more comprehensive, and more rational interpretation.

The concept of egocentrism is derived from Piaget (1952) theory of cognitive development, he states that when humans enters the world from an early age they are led to believe that the whole world shares their thinking, feelings and desires. Also, human tend to have initial motivation to naturally see the world not only created for them, but also designed to serve their needs and desires. According to Piaget (1952) this fact is observable in children’s behaviour, when the child tend to attribute the perspective of others to her own perspective or their inability to understand what another person is feelings, seeing or thinking. However, while egocentrism is regarded as an issue of early cognitive development, Piaget (1952) suggests that such self-indulgent thought may not entirely disappear even in later periods of development.

Throughout lifespan, human tend to discover a less blatant approaches to get their way. These approaches may be quite advanced, but human are often still inherently self-absorbed or egocentric. However, (REF) reveals that no matter how egocentric human may in fact become, they always seem to have the tendency to go beyond it. For instance, human are consistently sensitive about their intrinsic rights or need when they are violated by the egocentric decisions other made to pursue their selfish goals. Human can therefore, to some extent, be thoughtful, considerate and rational beings. This however, creates two states of mind in human: with one having selfish, egocentric side, and other one having the capacity to identify the thought and needs of others. Both sides are naturally poised to have an influence on humans’ thought, emotions and desires. However, because humans tend to deceive or mislead themselves to accept that certain things about them are true, it is often not so clear if they are behaving in an egocentric way. Therefore, this can lead humans to behave in irrational manner. For instance, a husband who continually shows an abusive, controlling behaviour through physical and emotional force in order to gain and maintain control over their wife, may deceive themselves into believing that such behaviour is ‘for her own good’. Or, students who deceive themselves into believing that getting the highest grade is more essential than learning. Both of these cases result from the egocentric irrational thinking process, which primarily, emerge from our egocentric desires. On the other side of the spectrum, (REF) if a person stops their thought process, irrationality emerge, at least temporarily. (REF) implies that a fully rational person can successfully determine whether they need to apply emotional responses or sound judgment, wise conduct and affective reasoning to situations.

A wide range of well-documented research has stated that maladaptive thought or behaviours such as, anger, arrogance, defensiveness and irritability evolves from egocentric emotions (REF). Based on Golemans’ (REF) theory of brain activities, he emphasises that as humans have two different minds, i.e. rational and emotional. As limited humans, the rational mind tends to be much slower and inefficient compare to the emotional mind. This suggests that people who use emotion tend to dismiss rationality; on the other hand, people who are attached to concepts and ideas are more likely to despise emotions. (REF) suggests that if the emotions are very powerful and intense, the emotional mind becomes more dominant and the rational mind turns out to be less effective. For instance, when the situation is outside of the person’s usual circumstances, in which a person recognise or experiences a sense of fear or stress, thus consider using the notion of fight or flight. However, certain emotions such as fear, stress, anger and the notion of fight or flight can be linked back to evolutionary problems and opportunities, as they tend to have evolutionary roots (REF). In addition, according to the neurological brain research, most emotions either stem from the limbic part of the brain (REF) or evolve as a result of bodily changes and evolutionary advantages. It is often thought that these bodily activations allow us to be ready to protect ourselves from dangers, or seek pleasurable opportunities. The evolutionary approaches employ that human had to react to threatening stimuli in order to protect themselves. Often, these emotions arouse without pausing a second to consider what is happening.

Some theoretical researches assume that human take important decisions entirely based on rational thinking. However, as mentioned earlier, these decisions can be influenced by various factors such as bias influences, leading them to act irrationally. Brain imaging research discovered that people with rational behaviour showed higher brain activity in the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain known for decision-making, proposing that people with rational behaviour have higher tendency to make a more reasonable balanced decision based on both their emotions and thinking brain (Martino, Kumaran, Seymour & Dolan, 2006). Based on a different experiment performed in the same study, they have also suggested that people’s choices are influenced by the way a question is framed. For instance, informing a patient who is going through surgery that there’s only 80% chance of survival could trigger a different reaction compared to saying that the surgery has a 20% chance of dying from it, people seem to not realise that in both cases, there is a same level of risk.

In addition, the irrational thought or behaviour occurs as a result of emotional response aroused while faced with tough decisions or in unknown situations, this is called emotional hijacking. (REF) suggests that when a person is experiencing an excessive level of emotional arousal, the body responses by releasing a high amount of stress hormones. Eventually, these hormones provoke the body for emergency action. The symptoms can greatly affect the ability to think clearly and rationally. As a result of this all the sensory information will be handled by the limbic system and the emotional mind takes charge, therefore, the person is more likely to respond emotionally to almost everything. This will lead the persons’ thinking process to be hijacked and therefore, be emotionally overwhelmed, until the level of stress reduces. For instance, a person is likely to experience an emotional hijacking reaction with extreme cases such as post-traumatic stress, a phobia or an emotional outburst.

When individuals are faced with high level of stress and anxiety, there are significant changes that occur in the brain and body. Based on Goleman’s (REF) hypothesis, sensory signals receive information from the environment and then travels to the thalamus. Then the information passes two signals equally across the synapse to the amygdala (limbic system) to be considered for threat, and into the rational and thinking brain (the neocortex). This process allows the emotional centre of the brain to receive the information quicker than the thinking brain. This is because the limbic system generates the notion of fight or flight response, which are essential for survival. Therefore, when a person is faced with life and death situation in which they experience a sense of danger, they have to respond quickly without thinking about it, so the emotional brain takes charge of the emergency. This is mainly because when someone experiences danger they are required to respond instinctively, rather than using strategic thinking or taking time to evaluate the situation, as the situation can be life frightening, therefore, the body tend to disable the ability to think intellectually. One great example of emotional hijacking is act of heroism, such as, going back to a burning building to save a loved one, or rescuing a child from drowning. Research suggests that the majority of human behaviour is driven by unconscious emotional impulse (REF), meaning that the actions mentioned above would’ve been unlikely using strategic thinking.

Research has also shed a light on the influence of reasoning and logic in human rationality. It is often difficult for most people to recognise the irrationality of their thought, which lead them to believe that their behaviour is completely rational. (REF) believe that this could be due to flaw in their logical thinking and reasoning ability. In order to be able to communicate and behave in a rational manner some form of logical structure is required. This is because rational thinking involves logical propositions; therefore, it should be considered whether emotions or feelings have anything to do with logic.

In order to resolve the debate between whether we are rational or not, an evidence-based theory of cognitive and physiological theory on emotion is required. The cognitive component of the brain refers to emotions to be instrumental in accomplishing goals, on the other hand, emotions are linked to physiological changes occur in the body. As research have proposed that the cognitive appraisal view tend to evaluate the falsity of judgments and have the capacity to take a more rational approach of emotion. However, the physiological view considers emotions to be on the irrational side, as bodily changes are not vulnerable to logical reasoning. Nevertheless, the mind is fully accomplished of instantaneously interconnecting the cognitive and physiological components of the brain together, and as an outcome an emotional consciousness is formed. If this combination is true, then it can be explained how emotional arousal could be both rational and irrational, based on wise sound judgment of how well a situation is. For evolutionary purposes, in order to make appropriate decisions in life some emotions are beneficial, whereas other emotions can have underlying irrationality, such as attachment to abusive partners. Research argue that without having emotional attachment, making decisions and life choice would be almost impossible, therefore as humans we require both thinking and feelings. However, minimum requirements are required to be met in order to consider a person to be rational. For instance, any thinking process, which may be considered as rational, requires to be highly unbiased and logical. In turn, if the person is influenced by personal emotions or instincts, then the thinking may be classified as irrational, due to biases influences. On the other side, mentioned studies on the role of emotion in the cognitive function have hinted that to this point humans have not satisfied these standards, except a patient who is unable to show any affective feelings. For instance, a patient who has a lesion between their limbic system and their neo-cortex or someone with damaged amygdala. Therefore, the overemphasised form of rationality can only be shown in computers rather than humans, as it is believed that a good rational thinking should be independent of any emotions. However, in the study conducted by Martino et al, (2006) they noticed that regardless of the participants rational or irrational behaviour, the amygdala was active in all participants, this shows that all human experience emotion when faced with certain situations. Although, research suggests that human tend to view the world through their irrational, egocentric tendencies, to some extent, they are capable of developing a non-egocentric perception of the world both intellectually and morally. After all, science developed due to humans’ ability to think in a non-egocentric way. Based on this, we cannot completely remove doubt about our conclusion of whether we are rational human being or not, further studies need to be performed.

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