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Emotional Reasoning

In Therapy

Emotional Reasoning occurs when a child assumes that negative emotions reflect or are necessarily caused by a negative reality. It generally takes the form of “I feel X, therefore X must be true.”

Emotional reasoning is perhaps one of the most common Thinking Errors. It shows up any time that emotion is substituted for evidence when judging interpersonal interactions.

  • A child feels miserable when he thinks about his girlfriend, so he assumes that something must be wrong with her.
  • A child feels abandoned by adults around him and so cannot see when they reach out and try to help; his feelings of abandonment make him think that everyone is abandoning him.
  • A child is afraid to try hard for fear of failing, and that fear is used as justification for a belief that she will certainly fail anyway.
  • A child reasons that her feelings of hopelessness mean that the world is empty and pointless.

In Critical Thinking

Emotional reasoning is essentially the logical fallacy known as the appeal to emotion. An appeal to emotion occurs when an argument is held to be true because of the emotion it the listener rather than good reasoning or solid evidence. Reasoning and evidence are actually often left out entirely and the person making a claim relies solely on the emotions the claim evokes as “proof” of its truth.

As easy as it is to see that the gut reaction an idea evokes doesn’t speak for its truth either way, the appeal to emotion is a widely-used (and often very effective) tactic because we humans are very passionate creatures. Because we have so many emotions, so many different ways of feeling, there are many ways in which the appeal to emotion can be used.

  • Appealing to fear: a hawkish politician might appeal to the populace’s fear of the enemy, whoever he is, to get them to side with a military action; just because people fear something doesn’t mean it is actually a threat.
  • Appealing to disgust: a racist might point to different cultural practices that his audience may find disgusting or off-putting to justify his bigoted position; just because some people find something subjectively disgusting doesn’t mean it’s wrong or should be stopped.
  • Appealing to pity: a person about to lose his job because of chronic misconduct might tell his soon-to-be former employer about his three kids in an attempt to keep his job; just because he cuts a pathetic figure doesn’t mean he deserves to keep his job.
  • Appealing to flattery: a child might tell his mother how pretty she is right before he asks for a new TV, or a subordinate might compliment her boss’s intellect before making a proposal; just because the child and the subordinate are being nice doesn’t mean their positions are the right ones.
  • Appealing to wishful thinking: a battered spouse might hold to the belief that her husband really loves her and someday he’ll stop the abuse because the thought helps take away the pain; just because it makes her feel better doesn’t mean he’ll ever become a better person.
  • Appealing to future happiness: an ad for a new family minivan might attempt to convince consumers that the van will make them happier than they are and therefore it is a good van to purchase; happiness is hardly the only consideration to weight when making such a major purchase.

Bridging the Gap

When a child engages in emotional reasoning, she is making a very specific appeal to emotion: an appeal to her own emotions. When used in rhetoric, the appeal is generally to somebody else’s emotions, claiming that because something is scary, disgusting, fantastic etc. that it must be true. The Thinking Error of emotional reasoning is the exact same process directed inward:

I feel so alone all the time [the emotion being experienced]. It must be because nobody likes me [projecting the emotion onto the external world].

When a child makes a very personal appeal to emotion to form beliefs about his self-image or the people around him, he engages in the Thinking Error of emotional reasoning. It happens to often to adolescents (and adults, for that matter!) that it’s trivial to find personal examples in any group of kids. Once they understand that a negative emotion about themselves doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the reality about themselves, that idea can be universalized: emotions in general, how one feels about reality–positive, negative, or ambivalent–does not necessarily have anything to do with what’s actually out there in reality.

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