Why facts are not enough

In life, in public speaking and in writing, we decide more on emotion than on fact.

Western thought has long nurtured the idea that humans are at their best when fully rational.

To make the right choices, we must leave our feelings behind and put our brain to work. All it takes is discipline.

It’s the assumption behind classic economics where everyone acts on their rational preferences. It’s also the assumption behind communications with never-ending facts and bullet points. They could come with a warning sign:

Dry information ahead!

Please move into rational mode so you can absorb the information and act on it.

But does it work that way?

We’ve all sat through boring presentations. We know it doesn’t.

And Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio knows why. He works with patients who, by accident, disease or stroke, suffer damage in the part of the brain that, more than anything else, sets us apart from all other creatures: the frontal cortex. It’s our centre for logic and reasoning. But it is not isolated. It’s connected to the deeper, emotional areas of our brain.

And it’s at these places — where the frontal cortex connects with emotions — that Damasio’s patients have suffered. The effect is always the same: the patients lose touch with their emotions.

Rational agents?

It’s an interesting constellation. You could assume these people to become perfectly rational: with no emotions to interfere, they are finally free to analyse the objective facts. And, yes, they do well on logical puzzles. But do they make good use of facts? Do they make better choices than the rest of us?

They don’t. In fact, they have a hard time deciding anything at all. In his book Descartes Error, Damasio describes how he tried to fix an appointment with a patient, let’s call him Frank:

For the better part of a half-hour, the patient enumerated reasons for and against each of the two dates: previous engagements, proximity to other engagements, possible meteorological conditions, virtually anything that one could reasonably think about concerning a simple date…

But despite all that reasoning, Frank couldn’t decide.

It took enormous discipline to listen to all this without pounding on the table and telling him to stop.

Much recent brain research supports Damasio’s observations: emotions play a surprisingly big role in all we do, starting with which information we will remember — that is which information we FEEL is useful to us.

Facts still have a place

This is not news to everybody. Savvy advertisers have always held that emotions come first. It’s not that they don’t use facts. They do, but only to support decisions that our gut has already taken.

Buying a Mercedes is their classic example. It’s an emotional decision. Part of that decision is probably the status that the car reflects on its owner. But will the buyer admit that to his wife, his friends or even to himself? Maybe not and that’s why the sales person (and the brochure) is happy to give him all the facts he needs to justify his decision: technical innovations, practical considerations and, of course, the safety features.

I am not sure whether the sequence, first the decision then the fact, is always so clear cut. A fact, after all, can trigger emotions too. But what I like about the approach is that it leaves the fact in a supporting role. It is not the main actor, just a helper.

Seen this way, every fact serves a purpose. And it’s not the fact that does the magic. It’s our motivation.

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash


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2 thoughts on “Why facts are not enough

  1. Carsten, there’s no better example of where facts aren’t allowed to get in the way of an opinion or point of view than politics. A classic case in point are “politically correct” positions–based, as they are, on socio-political dogma, wishful thinking or “not offending” certain protected groups.

  2. I hadn’t thought about politics when I wrote this. How I wish politicians listened to facts but you are so right: politics is the ultimate, everyday proof that people don’t change opinion just because of facts. Sad but true.

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