Once More, With Feeling

Man cannot do without feelings, but the moment they are considered values in themselves, criteria of truth, justifications for kinds of behavior, they become frightening. The noblest of national sentiments stand ready to justify the greatest of horrors, and man, his breast swelling with lyric fervor, commits atrocities in the sacred name of love.

When feelings supplant rational thought, they become the basis for an absence of understanding, for intolerance; they become, as Carl Jung has put it, ”the superstructure of brutality.”

Milan Kundera, “An Introduction to a Variation,” January 6, 1985

As I wind down a course in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, I have been thinking a great deal lately about the connection between thinking errors, those pesky thoughts that control us if we grant them that power, and intuition and how both are tied to or held hostage to feelings.

It would be helpful to first define some terms. In his book “Thinking Fast and Slow,” Daniel Kahneman does an excellent job to setting the framework for a discussion of intuition and how the heuristics one develops over time are very useful in a range of decisions, but can lead to major errors when overapplied. Kahneman states:

Expert intuition strikes us as magical, but it is not. Indeed, each of us performs feats of intuitive expertise many times each day. Most of us are pitch-perfect in detecting anger in the first word of a telephone call, recognize as we enter a room that we were the subject of conversation, and quickly react to subtle signs that the driver of the car in the next lane is dangerous. Our everyday intuitive abilities are no less marvelous than the striking insights of an experienced firefighter or physician — only more common.

This quote made me think that I had discussed the Kahneman book in my original Montaigne project, but I went back and checked and found that this was not the case. “Thinking Fast and Slow” came out a year after I had completed my project. In fact, I only discussed intuition once in my project and it came up in a curious manner, in reference to why I supported one candidate for political office over another. This line of thought started with this quote from Montaigne:

When Plutarch (leaving aside the many examples which he alleges from Antiquity) says that he himself knows quite definitely that, at the time of Domitian, news of the battle lost by Antony several days’ journey away in Germany was publicly announced in Rome and spread through all the world on the very day that it was lost; and when Caesar maintains that it was often the case that news of an event actually anticipated the event itself: are we supposed to say that they were simple people who merely followed the mob and who let themselves be deceived because they saw things less clearly than we do!

I then extrapolated this to my experience and found that I concluded a candidate for Mayor of Chicago was a better choice in the area of education policy mostly by the impatience he displayed in a debate while others were giving the standard lines about education reform. I picked up on his body language and felt comfortable with his approach.

Something similar happened in the early days of the 2020 election cycle when, seemingly out of nowhere, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg suddenly surged from the back of the pack towards frontrunner status based on little more than shared impressions about a CNN Town Hall meeting few voters actually watched. The stories of Buttigieg learning to speak Norweigian just so he could read an untranslated novel began to spread and an entire subsection of the Democratic primary electorate was enthralled for reasons they could not fully articulate.

Loathe as I am to quote myself, this is what I wrote in 2011 about this mysterious process: While I don’t believe that there’s something supernatural at play, neither can I fully explain how and why political candidates appeal to certain people. I work in the field of political communications, yet I find this area to be a great mystery, one that is never explained by polls or issue analysis.

Which returns me to the Kundera quote, because maybe this feelings-based politics is part of the problem we face today. It seems ironic that a pack of Democrats who wanted to support the most data-driven, pragmatic candidate reached the conclusion that Buttigieg was the best choice largely based on zeitgeist and feeling, when a more systematic thought process might have eventually pushed that pack towards Elizabeth Warren, Julian Castro or Corey Booker. And I feel comfortable criticizing this pack because I was part of it, from beginning to end. Looking back now, it all seems far more mystical than well thought out.

I don’t know if I’ve landed anywhere important in this essay and haven’t really addressed the matter of thinking errors. Perhaps I can take that up in a part two tomorrow.

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