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Emotion Is Not the Enemy of Reason

This is a post about emotion, so — fair warning — I’m going to begin with an emotional story.

On April 9, 1994, in the middle of the night, 19-year-old Jennifer Collins went into labor. She was in her bedroom in an apartment shared with several roommates. She moved into her bathroom and stayed there until morning. At some point she sat down on the toilet, and at some point, she delivered. Around 9 a.m. she started screaming in pain, waking up her roommates. She asked them for a pair of scissors, which they passed her through a crack in the door. Some minutes later, Collins opened the door and collapsed. The roommates—who had no idea Collins had been pregnant, let alone what happened in that bloody bathroom—called 911. Paramedics came, and after some questioning, Collins told them about the pregnancy. They lifted the toilet lid, expecting to see the tiny remains of a miscarried fetus. Instead they saw a 7-pound baby girl, floating face down.

The State of Tennessee charged Collins with second-degree murder (which means that death was intentional but not premeditated). At trial, the defense claimed that Collins had passed out on the toilet during labor and not realized that the baby had drowned.

The prosecutors wanted to show the jury photos of the victim — bruised and bloody, with part of her umbilical cord still attached — that had been taken at the morgue. With the jury out of the courtroom, the judge heard arguments from both sides about the admissibility of the photos. At issue was number 403 of the Federal Rules of Evidence, which says that evidence may be excluded if it is unfairly prejudicial. Unfair prejudice, the rule states, means “an undue tendency to suggest decision on an improper basis, commonly, though not necessarily, an emotional one.” In other words, evidence is not supposed to turn up the jury’s emotional thermostat. The rule takes as a given that emotions interfere with rational decision-making.

This neat-and-tidy distinction between reason and emotion comes up all the time. (I even used it on this blog last week, it in my post about juries and stress.) But it’s a false dichotomy. A large body of research in neuroscience and psychology has shown that emotions are not the enemy of reason, but rather are a crucial part of it. This more nuanced understanding of reason and emotion is underscored in a riveting (no, really) legal study that was published earlier this year in the Arizona State Law Journal.

In the paper, legal scholars Susan Bandes and Jessica Salerno acknowledge that certain emotions — such as anger — can lead to prejudiced decisions and a feeling of certainty about them. But that’s not the case for all emotions. Sadness, for example, has been linked to more careful decision-making and less confidence about them. “The current broad-brush attitude toward emotion ought to shift to a more nuanced set of questions designed to determine which emotions, under which circumstances, enhance legal decision-making,” Bandes and Salerno write.

The idea that emotion impedes logic is pervasive and wrong. (Actually, it’s not even wrong.) Consider neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s famous patient “Elliot,” a businessman who lost part of his brain’s frontal lobe while having surgery to remove a tumor. After the surgery Elliot still had a very high IQ, but he was incapable of making decisions and was totally disengaged with the world. “I never saw a tinge of emotion in my many hours of conversation with him: no sadness, no impatience, no frustration,” Damasio wrote in Descartes’ Error. Elliot’s brain could no longer connect reason and emotion, leaving his marriage and professional life in ruin.

Damasio met Elliot in the 1980s. Since then many brain-imaging studies have revealed neural links between emotion and reason. It’s true, as I wrote about last week, that emotions can bias our thinking. What’s not true is that the best thinking comes from a lack of emotion. “Emotion helps us screen, organize and prioritize the information that bombards us,” Bandes and Salerno write. “It influences what information we find salient, relevant, convincing or memorable.”

So does it really make sense, then, to minimize all emotion in the courtroom? The question doesn’t have easy answers.

Consider those gruesome baby photos from the Collins case. Several years ago psychology researchers in Australia set up a mock trial experiment in which study volunteers were jury members. The fictional case was a man on trial for murdering his wife. Some mock jurors heard gruesome verbal descriptions of the murder, while others saw gruesome photographs. Jurors who heard the gruesome descriptions generally came to the same decision about the man’s guilt as those who heard non-greusome descriptions. Not so for the photos. Jurors who saw gruesome pictures were more likely to feel angry toward the accused, more likely to rate the prosecution’s evidence as strong, and more likely to find the man guilty than were jurors who saw neutral photos or no photos.

In that study, photos were emotionally powerful and seemed to bias the jurors’ decisions in a certain direction. But is that necessarily a bad thing?

In a similar experiment, another research group tried to make some mock jurors feel sadness by telling them about trauma experienced by both the victim and the defendant. The jurors who felt sad were more likely than others to accurately spot inconsistencies in witness testimony, suggesting more careful decision-making.

These are just two studies, poking at just a couple of the many, many open questions regarding “emotional” evidence in court, Bandes and Salerno point out. For example, is a color photo more influential than black and white? What’s the difference between seeing one or two gory photos verses a series of many? What about the framing of the image’s content? And what about videos? Do three-dimensional animations of the crime scene (now somewhat common in trials) lead to bias by allowing jurors to picture themselves as the victim? “The legal system too often approaches these questions armed only with instinct and folk knowledge,” Bandes and Salerno write. What we need is more data.

In the meantime, though, let’s all ditch that vague notion that “emotion” is the enemy of reason. And let’s also remember that the level of emotion needed in a courtroom often depends on the legal question at hand. In death penalty cases, for example, juries often must decide whether a crime was “heinous” enough to warrant punishment by death. Heinous is a somewhat subjective term, and one that arguably could be — must be? — informed by feeling emotions.

Returning to the Collins case, at first the trial judge didn’t think the gruesome baby photos would add much to what the jury had heard in verbal testimony. There was no question that Collins had had a baby, that she knew it, and that the baby had died of drowning. The judge asked the medical examiner whether he thought the photos would add anything to his testimony. He replied that the only extra thing the pictures would depict was what the baby looked like, including her size. The judge decided that was an important addition: “I don’t have any concept what seven pounds and six ounces is as opposed to eight pounds and three ounces, I can’t picture that in my mind,” he said, “but when I look at these photographs and I see this is a seven pound, six ounce baby, I can tell more what a seven pound, six ounce baby … is.”

So the jury saw two of the autopsy photos, and ultimately found Collins guilty of murder. Several years later, however, an appeals court reversed her conviction because of the prejudicial autopsy photos.

“Murder is an absolutely reprehensible crime,” reads the opinion of the appeals court. “Yet our criminal justice system is designed to establish a forum for unimpaired reason, not emotional reaction. Evidence which only appeals to sympathies, conveys a sense of horror, or engenders an instinct to punish should be excluded.”

17 thoughts on “Emotion Is Not the Enemy of Reason

  1. “’The legal system too often approaches these questions armed only with instinct and folk knowledge,’ Bandes and Salerno write. What we need is more data.

    “In the meantime, though, let’s all ditch that vague notion that ’emotion’ is the enemy of reason.”

    Those two sentences, back to back, show how tricky this balance is to describe.

  2. Anthropologically emotions came first, reasoning rode/rides that wave with mixed successes. Imagine pure cognition without emotion — such a pure form of elemental reality only works in a sterile field; like choosing to save the lives of one boatload of people over another sinking ship due to one having an extra passenger. What is a relative or friend was in the boat with fewer folks? How can we ever navigate successfully around conscious or unconscious bias? Could we ever thread that thread?

  3. Anthropologically emotions came first, reasoning rode/rides that wave with mixed successes. Imagine pure cognition without emotion — such a pure form of elemental reality only works in a sterile field; like choosing to save the lives of one boatload of people over another sinking ship due to one having an extra passenger. What if a relative or friend was in the boat with fewer folks? How can we ever navigate successfully around conscious or unconscious bias? Could we ever thread that thread?

  4. Once upon a time we humans were able to create our own visuals using our minds as info was presented to us orally or written. Now, with current technology, social media, memes, user-generated content, real-time imagery bombards us instantly and non-stop. I wonder if we are slowly starting to lose our ability to use our imagination to form what we “see”.

  5. Chris L – My generation grew up practically glued to the TV – nothing but real-time imagery. This generation, while still watching a fair amount of TV and newer online video, also reads & writes blogs, follows Twitter, has Wikipedia, communicates with text messaging, and a whole host of other technological forms of text. Heck, just look at this exchange we’re having. This is pure conjecture on my part with no data to back it up, but if I had to guess which generation was better at creating mental imagery based on written text, I don’t think my generation would come out on top.

  6. “In that study, photos were emotionally powerful and seemed to bias the jurors’ decisions in a certain direction. But is that necessarily a bad thing?”

    I agree it’s not necessarily a bad thing, however if the pictures aren’t informing, I think that’s an issue – especially if it is likely to cause anger. Additionally, if there are other ways to convey that information which are less like to prejudice the trial, that route should be traveled (i.e. a mannequin newborn, in this case.) When one of the questions being decided is whether she was conscious on the toilet when she actually had the baby, showing horrific images to the jury would seem likely to cause prejudice through anger. Better to save those images for the sentencing phase, if at all.

  7. Perfect timing. The Ray Rice debacle demonstrated the impact of the video on the public perception. What had been some complaining about the light sentence became a full roar for justice after the video surfaced.

  8. “Jurors who saw gruesome pictures were more likely to feel angry toward the accused, more likely to rate the prosecution’s evidence as strong, and more likely to find the man guilty than were jurors who saw neutral photos or no photos.”

    Photos of a gory murder scene are equally gory regardless of whether the accused was actually the one who committed the murder. They inform about the violence of the crime, but not about the guilt of the defendant . . . and the jury is mainly there to decide the latter, not the former. If gruesome photos increase guilty verdicts for both guilty and innocent defendants, that’s ABSOLUTELY a bad thing.

  9. Emotions are valuable, and I can see the point to them in all of this.

    I don’t think they override logic. But they are often getting employed in a way that either leaves the person to find new logic reasoning, or they are so conflicted with logic from emotional responses they can’t evaluate what’s at hand.

    Let me see if I can illustrate this… You have one argument, there’s strong feelings about it. That’s fine, and people may or may not conclude your wish for the outcome. However if you then begin to mix and through in a dozen other “related” topics that you know are more predominately agreed on by the audience in a way that also aligns with you, you’ve created a new circumstance. When someone challenges your point of view, everyone that aligns with you will reject them because of the logic deployed in “related” concerns.

    I see this every day, nearly all day. I think it’s unprofessional and hurting a lot of honest concerns that are political/social items to be addressed.

    If I had to guess this article is meant to help people not be opposed to emotion that may be strong leading in cases related to gender/sex and the like. While I’m in agreement, the consistency of what I’ve described is also ever-present with those topics. It would be nice to see people put in the work to stay focused and not attempt to gain legitimacy by creating muddy waters filled with logic. So again, yes, I think you’re right, but emotions are being used to gather logic in such a way that it will conflict with logic. Logic vs. logic, with a vehicle of emotion for the attachment….

  10. Actually, emotions should not be clusterd together as one-piece. In real life we do find that when the brain is flooded with good emotions like glee or cheer; we don’t react with reason at these moments. An arab proverb says:” don’t promise others when you are happy, and don’t react when you angry” because person at this state can give invalid dissision and loose reason. In real life I do found out that people and nations who make a strict dechotomy between emotion and reason, do make the write decisions, and people who act out of emotions do not get anywhere.

  11. What would have been the evidentiary value of the pictures? Would they have proved or disproved her claim she passed out and was unaware of the death? The emotional reaction of jurors would be the same either way … horror at seeing a dead baby. They would still need to engage reason as to the woman’s culpability. No information, no matter how emotionally charged it may be, should be excluded from any court on any basis other than evidentiary value.

  12. Its all about expectations. Let me expalin about what I found out about my motivation: My motivation moves in cycles. First I want to study to get a good grade, I expect the best grade. I study hard and ultimatively don’t get the best grade but still a pretty good grade. Then I am frustrated because I haven’t got the best grade and lose the motivation to study for the next test, because whats the point if I can’t achieve the best grade with my best effort? Thats whats my subconscious is saying, while my consciousness is wondering why I can’t get my self motivated to study. Then 1 day before the exam I panic that I won’t pass and start learning. Ultimatively I get a better grade than that what I expect and I am again motivated. The problem is the time I am wasting at home beeing frustrated and not able to study, while I could have spent it partying or being productive. But no the frustration circle drives me to watch even the most boring youtube videos to distract myself from the coming exam. Being so unproductive is frustrating, and even now I should study for tomorrow but typing this is more entertaining. What magical force is so powerful that it keeps me from something that easy as writing and reading some specific topic for couple of hours? If some brilliant psychiatrist would find a cheap and easy solution for this studying problem, the productivity of the world would rise enormously!! I’m sure I’m not alone with this problem but F*** this is annoying .

  13. Great article that carries important information about the process of decision making in connection with the emotions. I did not know that photos change our decision making, while written text does not. Why is that? Is our brain more apt to accept visual information? Does it have to do with the right and left hemisphere?

    From my point of view, it is absolutely correct to state that without emotions, our intelligence would be useless. I would even go further in believing that emotions are more important that the IQ itself. I have met many brilliant and smart people who were unable to control themselves, which restricted their career progress and made them ostracized by society.

    However, many situations of potential risk exist when emotion is incorporated into materialistic thinking of individuals. One of them would be testaments or divorces and the immense difficulty many of us confront when dealing with them. This is where I would be more sceptical about the impact of emotions on the decisions made by actors. Independent mediators should be a good solution to this problem.

  14. We all feel more than we think- if we didn’t feel, we wouldn’t have anything to think about, as is implied by the anecdote about the man who lost his emotions through brain surgery. Reasoning, and critical thinking, are learned skills- and far, far too few people learn them. The problem is not even that most people can’t tell the difference between reason and emotion- the problem is that most people don’t even know that there IS a difference.

  15. Nancy Brownlee, your comments here are the most important of the set: that reasoning and critical thinking are learned skills, and highly important for jurors, investigators — and far too few people learn them. It is too unrealistic for me to hope that the general populace could one day be taught en masse to have these skills .. but think of how society would improve and evolve if it was the case?

  16. This questioning of emotions and reason is so captivating. Easier to read about than to imagine oneself in positions of having to decide where the right attitude should be. I tend o think along with those who feel that both emotions (and I include anger) and reason are necessary in human life dealings.Without anger at injustice would there not be less motivation to find a just way by reason? We may get angry at having fallen and hurt ourselves but reason dictates that we have to do something perhaps even to save our life! Thanks for the article.

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