Emotion and the inability to think critically

We believe what we want to believe and not what is true. We harbour beliefs and biases that reject change and it can be a good thing. The social conditioning we received growing up taught us to be wary of new or different information. In the modern world where facts are at our fingertips it’s this conditioning that limits our ability to differentiate between whether something is true or false.

We don’t want to accept new information and we don’t want to change our opinions. In some studies1 people who held strong political opinions had their brains scanned via fMRI while asked to read evidence that disproved one of the beliefs they currently held. The fMRI showed increased activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for emotions such as fear, anxiety, aggression and disgust. The participants were rejecting the information before they even had time to process it. They were also asked afterwards whether they changed their mind, still held the belief or held it with increased strength. Mostly they still held the belief but in some cases stubbornly increased the strength of it. This is interesting because when people have increased emotional activity they become worse at reasoning and problem solving2. It follows that if someone has a belief and gets presented with evidence that disproves that belief and this causes increased feelings of disgust, anxiety and aggression then they will also be worse at judging whether the evidence is good or not.

If emotion makes us bad at reasoning and emotion is elicited when we are presented with evidence that disproves a currently held belief then we are unable to accept it because emotion is inhibiting our ability to be rational. It’s scary because we don’t know that we are doing it. We will hear facts that prove us wrong but we won’t hear them as facts. We might think the person telling us is rude as a way to write off what they are saying or we might not know what they are telling us is evidence and leave it at that.
We should actually listen to what people are saying so that we may judge the validity of their statements. If you observe your own conversations you can see how often you and other people are not actively listening. Most of the time people are already thinking of what they want to say while the other is still speaking. Are we replying with integrity to the person we are talking to if we have been thinking of what we want to say while they are still talking? And how does this help us be receptive to new evidence if we are not truly listening in the first place?

If you value truth then you need to be able to recognise when you are wrong and be open to changing your beliefs when there is better evidence. What if changing your current beliefs is actually better for you and your well-being yet you still cling to the beliefs that you currently hold? And if being emotional inhibits your ability to think rationally, and being presented with evidence that proves your beliefs wrong increases negative emotion then how confident can you be that the beliefs you currently hold are true?



  1. https://www.nature.com/articles/srep39589
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4050437/

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