Emotional Reasoning

In most cognitive distortions, we feel bad because of automatic thoughts. If we can recognize the automatic thought and think about it rationally, we are usually on the way to overcoming it. But emotional reasoning turns this process on its head. In emotional reasoning, I continue to take for granted the automatic thought that causes my negative feeling and try to reason on the basis of my feelings. Thus emotional reasoning amplifies the effects of other cognitive distortions.

The basic assumption behind emotional reasoning is "Where there's smoke, there's fire." Let's say you're preparing for a big test. It's natural that you'll be a little "nervous" about a challenging event. And if you're overgeneralizing on the basis of your last test and fortune telling that you will fail on this one, you'll be more anxious and nervous than you need to be. In this state of mind, it's easy to fall into emotional reasoning and think along these lines: "Hey, I'm nervous. I'm afraid. I must not understand the material. If I did, why would I be afraid?" Where there's smoke, there's fire.

The trouble with emotional reasoning is that smoke is not firm evidence of fire. If you're scared about your upcoming test, it's probably because you're rubbing two automatic thoughts together and scaring yourself. People who allow themselves to get caught up in emotional reasoning can become completely blinded to the difference between feelings and facts.

I once helped a friend study for an important exam in graduate school. She was well prepared but very nervous. We would go over a chapter or portion of a chapter, and she would conclude the review by rocking back and forth in her chair, head sunk in her hands, and moaning, "Oh, I don't understand this stuff. I just don't understand it!"

Since I couldn't tell what she wasn't understanding, I decided to ask her questions to find out where the problem lay. We went through a series of exchanges very much like this one as I thumbed through the book almost at random:

ME: O.K. According to the World Bank, what are the four dimensions of appropriateness in a prospective technology?

SHE: Oh, God, I don't understand that stuff at all. I'm so confused about it.

ME: Well, all right. But what if this were the test and you had to come up with an answer? What would you put down?

SHE: I don't know! I just don't know it! I don't understand this stuff!

ME: OK. So guess.

SHE: Oh, gosh, I think it's something like appropriateness to goal, appropriateness of product, appropriateness of process, and cultural appropriateness...or environmental...appropriateness to the environment.

And that, as it happened, was exactly the right answer. We went through a dozen or so exchanges like this in which I would ask a question, she would moan and whine and complain about how stupid she was and how she didn't understand anything at all, and then, after being pushed to give some sort of an answer, she would give the right one. But in spite of the fact that she always seemed to "guess" right, she became more and more insistent that she was totally ignorant of the material. She said, and seemed to mean it, that she was thinking about not showing up for the test and taking an "F" in the course.

At that point I said, with a certain amount of irritation, "OK, you win. You're as dumb as a rock, and you don't have a clue about this stuff. But what difference does it make? I mean, who cares whether you 'understand' the stuff or not if you get all the right answers? Why not just go in and write down the first thing that pops into your head? If justice prevails and you get the 'F' you so richly deserve, you'll at least have come by it honestly. And who knows? Maybe you'll get lucky and save your GPA."

She grudgingly agreed to take the test, did so, and received a "B." This woman actually knew the material fairly well. But because of some automatic thoughts triggered by this particular course and instructor, she didn't feel confident. By the time she was actually studying for the test, she had given herself over entirely to emotional reasoning. When she said she didn't understand the material, what she meant was that she didn't feel secure about the material. To her, that amounted to the same thing. But she was wrong. Her feelings lied and misled her. We can't reason well on the basis of emotions, and if we try we almost always make our problems worse.

Two specific types of emotional reasoning are especially important, so we'll discuss them separately. Those are

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1996 John Tagg

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