Dean Burnett next to his book cover

Emotions: an essential part of science

Dr Dean Burnett – author of Emotional Ignorance: Lost and Found in the Science of Emotion – argues we would benefit from accepting the reality.

26 January 2023

Emotions and science don’t mix. That’s what countless people think, anyway. Consider the many media portrayals of scientists and similarly ‘intellectual’ types. Sheldon Cooper, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, Susan Calvin, Spock and his ilk; the portrayal of the committed scientist as an aloof genius who suppresses, dismisses, or ignores emotions (their own or other people’s) is a common one.

Science fiction is also awash with variations on the premise ‘our emotions hold us back, and anyone not beholden to them will always have an advantage’, whether they be ruthless cyborgs, intelligent technology, or advanced aliens. Overall, emotions get short shrift wherever science is concerned.

Real life often reinforces this impression, particularly in psychology, and related disciplines. Modern scientific methodology has many elements, like control groups, randomisation, blinding, and more, which essentially exist to prevent experiments from being influenced and manipulated by researchers’ own biases and desires, which generally stem from their more emotional leanings, not rational or logical objectives.

How effective these approaches are in achieving this goal, of preventing emotional drives from affecting research, is whole other discussion. But ultimately, regardless of how effective it may prove to be, a lot of time and effort is dedicated to keeping emotions out of science.

However, when you look closer at what the data says about the true nature of emotions, it could be argued that this approach is at best misguided, and in some cases actively counterproductive. For several reasons. Particularly where psychology is concerned.

Greater understanding of emotions can lead to better science

It’s actually wrong of me to say that emotions have no part to play in science. A great deal of science is about emotions. Affective neuroscience and emotional psychology are ever-expanding disciplines, shedding ever more light on the true nature of emotions.

However, one of the few things they’ve found thus far that everyone agrees on is that emotions are complicated. Often eye-wateringly so (literally, in the case of psycho-emotional tears). Indeed, despite them being a fundamental component of the human mind since such a thing has existed, there is still no accepted and robust scientific definition of emotion. And not for want of looking for one.

In fact, those involved in emotion research are currently debating whether we all have distinct, ‘basic’ emotions, or we construct all our emotions, essentially in the moment, from a more basic raw neurological substrate called ‘affect’.

The point is, our understanding of emotions is disconcertingly limited, especially when you consider that they affect literally everybody. And that includes people who take part in scientific research, particularly in psychological experiments.

Issues like participant bias, response bias, cultural biases, egocentric biases, and many other biases, these can all hinder psychological research, and all have their roots in subconscious, emotional drives.

Making efforts to actually understand and take emotions into account, rather than generally dismissing, excluding, ignoring, or otherwise handwaving their influence, may well improve scientific research overall.

Obviously, not every scientist does this. Far from it. But the ability to take emotions into account will always be constrained by how much we truly understand them. And at present, our scientific understanding of emotions remains frustratingly limited.

Given how influential and fundamental they are, and the impact they have on all of us, finally pinning down the scientific facts about emotions could do for mental health what germ theory did for physical health.

Or, you know, maybe not. But we’ll never find out if science continues to keep emotions at arm’s length.

Emotions are essential for motivation, and more

While scientific understanding of emotions may be more limited than many would think, it’s not completely absent. There are many things we do now about emotions.

For instance, for all that we’ve still not managed to properly define them, most now agree that emotions have three key properties. Valence (whether an emotional experience is positive or negative), arousal (the degree to which an emotion stimulates us), and motivational intensity (how much an emotion compels us to ‘do’ something).

Emotions and motivation are fundamental linked, even at the linguistic level; they’re both derived from the same Latin word, ‘movere’, meaning ‘to move’. And such is the fundamental nature of emotions and motivation that many of the decisions and actions we partake in, when you strip away all the more complex factors, stem from emotion, and their ability to motivate us. Because, for all their strengths and benefits, logic and rational thought struggle to motivate us like emotions do. That’s just how our brains work.

Take something like choosing a restaurant to eat at. You may believe that you arrived at the decision logically, by spending hours cross-referencing menus and online reviews, working out opening times and transport links, and so on.

But the underlying reason you go to all this cognitive effort is because you want to enjoy eating. You desire to avoid the discomfort of hunger, and experience the pleasure of quality food. And these drives operate in the emotional sphere. From a purely logical perspective, if food is just a biological necessity, we’d only ever eat the closest and cheapest foodstuffs that meet our needs. But few people actually do that.

Apply the same logic to science. There’s competitiveness, the constant scrabbling for grants and funding, relatively poor pay and job security in most cases, constantly having to move to where the work is, ‘publish or perish’, and the possibility of spending years on an experiment that ends up with disappointing results.

Take all that into account, why would any intelligent person become a scientist? With their brain power, they could have much easier, better paid lives in other areas.

But they don’t. People still become scientists. People still want to become scientists, and stay in the field despite all the strife it involves. And want means desire, and it’s hard to get desire without some form of emotion involved.

It can be a positive emotion, like the satisfying thought of how others, or society in general, will benefit from the knowledge you uncover. Or it can be a negative emotion, like the anxiety caused by the uncertainty around important subjects, like climate change or the fate of the universe.

Kierkegaard once noted that “Whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate”, astutely observing the power of negative emotions to get things done. And this applies to scientists as much as anyone. Moreso, if anything.

Indeed, there are those who argue that the only reason we think logically and rationally in the first place is because doing so is emotionally rewarding. So, far from being an impediment, emotions are crucial for logic and reason.

Some reading this may get angry about this notion. Which is ironic, if nothing else.

Scientists have emotions, and ignoring this is unhelpful

It’s undeniably true that emotions can, and do, cause a lot of problems. Even if they are an integral part of the process, they regularly disrupt rational thinking, by compelling us to think and act in ways that are counter to objective reason.

However, it doesn’t automatically follow that emotions should then be excluded at all costs from scientific endeavour. Put simply, emotions are just too fundamental, too deeply ingrained in the human brain, to exclude. Yes, we should rely more on executive functioning, particularly when dealing with complex, important matters. But some research suggests that emotions are what shapes the development of executive control. And executive control shapes our emotional reactions.

Point is, for all that many may insist otherwise, a complete separation between emotion and reason just isn’t feasible. Our brains simply don’t work that way. Presumably, this is why emotional suppression often ends up being so bad for us, in the end.

This can be applied to science as a whole. Simply assuming that scientists, who are human like everyone else, aren’t influenced by emotions, can, and has, led to some very grim outcomes. Like the assumption that women are inherently “inferior”, or that homosexuality is a mental disorder.

These are just two examples of conclusions that did, and are still doing, significant harm to countless innocent people. The overwhelming evidence now shows them to be completely wrong, and yet they were validated, and propagated, by the field of science, one dominated by privileged white men, who were unaware of (or didn’t care about) the damage their emotional leanings and biases were causing. Much like with any powerful homogenous group.

You still see it today, with people online insisting all their conclusions are based entirely on reason and logic, and anyone who displays emotion in their arguments can therefore be dismissed. In fact, what these people typically mean by ‘reason and logic’ is ‘views I thought about to some extent which I’m too emotionally invested in to change, but I don’t want to admit that, to myself or others’. In a very real sense, this is a much less credible approach than just showing some passion in your discourse. Because, again, that’s not how we work.

The ironic thing is, I (or the editor) will likely receive messages after this article is published, from disgruntled types insisting that I’m wrong, naïve or deluded. Probably with some very colourful language and accusations about my background thrown in. To which I’d say, ‘writing to a complete stranger to aggressively criticise them and their words because they upset you’ is a behaviour that can be described in many ways, but 100% logical and rational is not one of them.

I’m not saying that emotions don’t interfere with objectivity and rationality at all. Because they do. Constantly. But scientists are affected by them as much as anyone else, and ignoring or suppressing them isn’t going to make them go away. By accepting the reality of emotions, we can hopefully learn to understand, and incorporate and deal with them better, and make things a bit easier all round.

For scientists, and everyone else.