Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Your Reasoning Stinks

I don’t consider myself some kind of genius when it comes to life. I’m a practical person and I like practical ideas. I’m about to give you one.

Here’s my disclaimer: This isn’t scientific. It’s based on personal experience. It probably won’t sound profound. I haven’t mastered the art of sounding profound yet. And it won’t be right 100% of the time. Life is too complex and complicated for that. But I’m convinced that it is closer to true North than just about anything else I could tell you.

Here it is. Drum roll please…

When you need to make a decision, GO WITH YOUR GUT.

Now let me explain that little bit of advice.

Your gut is that tiny little voice in your head which manifests itself as intuition, conscience, instinct, etc. You need to listen to that voice. Do NOT listen to the loud, obnoxious voice in your head that is commonly called reasoning.

Your reasoning is usually wrong. It gets you into all kinds of trouble because it is always asking the wrong question. When it comes to self reflection, “Why?” is the wrong question. That’s the question that your reason likes to ask. It sounds quite reasonable doesn’t it? Well, it isn’t. It’s a stupid question, and you must break yourself from asking it.

The question of why is incredibly difficult to answer. In fact it’s practically impossible if you’re asking it of yourself in isolation to the input of others. The mind doesn’t have direct access to the gut. So when you ask the why question, the mind has to use your so called “reason” to come up with some kind of hypothesis that is, at best, an educated guess, and in most cases just a collection of complex self deceptions.

Here’s an example: Your mind says, “Why do I want to discredit my coworker Cindy? It must be because I’m concerned about her methods and afraid that she might lead others astray.” In reality, she’s been more successful than you and you’re jealous. Your gut knew that all along, but your mind doesn’t have access to that kind of information.

Why am I this way? Why do I want to do this? Wrong questions. Stop asking them. You’ve got a very slim chance of stumbling onto the right answer.

Your intuition is better at answering questions. The question of intuition is, “Is this good?” That’s the right question. That’s the question we want to come back to again and again. Let’s practice with a couple of examples:

“I want to punch Steve in the face. Why do I…”
Stop! Wrong question. Right question: Is it good?
Answer: No
Then don’t do it.

See how easy that is? Let’s try another:

Situation: You’re driving home and you pass a vender selling flowers on the side of the road, you have the sudden urge to stop and buy flowers for your wife.
“Why do I…”
Stop!! Wrong question. Right question: Is it good?
Answer: Yes
Then do it. Do it now.

What difference did it make? Well, your mind might have come up with some stupid theory that explained away your desire to buy your wife flowers. Add in the fact that you are lazy and cheap, and you almost certainly wouldn’t have bothered to stop. But your gut, being much wiser than your mind, remembered that it had heard a slightly stressed sound in your wife’s voice last night and knew flowers would cheer her up. That’s the difference that following your gut can make.

Some, upon reading this, will accuse me of advocating emotional decision making. Let me just nip that in the bud. I’m not. I’m advocating just the opposite. I’m not saying, “Just follow your heart,” or something equally ridiculous. I’m saying follow your intuition. Listen to your conscience. Don’t ignore your “spidey” sense. You need it. It’s there to help you.

If you are a counselor, minister, or anyone else whose life involves working one on one with people and their issues, then what I’m about to say will come as no shock. The truth is, the vast majority of what we call “reason” is actually emotion. That’s right, emotion. Emotion that sounds very logical (to ourselves) but is still, without a doubt, emotion.

In 2004 my wife and I spent a summer in Brazil with her aunt and uncle who have been missionaries there for over three decades. I remember several times her uncle coming in after a long day of work, plopping down onto his favorite chair, letting out a big sigh and saying, “Corey if you’re going to continue in ministry you have to understand something – people are NOT logical.” He must have told me that at least a half dozen times while we were there. At the time, I only half understood what he meant. Seven years later, I understand him perfectly.

If you are someone who sees yourself as intelligent, don’t think this doesn’t apply to you. It applies to everyone. Granted, a simpleton’s false reasoning may be easier to see through, but complex and convincing deceptions are still just deceptions. And there is a good likelihood that your thinking is full of them.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big advocate of logic. When I go to my doctor for a check up, he better be using it. When I take my car to a mechanic, he better be using it. But I’m making a distinction here between logic and reasoning. Not on philological grounds - I understand that a thesaurus would list these as synonyms - but just for the sake of clarifying the difference between actual logic and what people commonly call reasoning. I might trust my doctor’s logic, but I wouldn’t trust his reasoning.

I don’t want sound patronizing here, but I’ve met so many people that would swear up and down that every decision they make is based on logic that I’m not taking any chances. Let me just give you a few examples of very basic logic: There are tautologies (in the old rhetorical sense) such as “all bachelors are unmarried men." There’s deduction: All spiders have eight legs; a tarantula is a spider; therefore a tarantula has eight legs. And induction: We’ve observed a thousand different species of spiders; all of them have eight legs; therefore it’s probable that all spiders have eight legs. - All of this is logical. 

Now here’s how people think: “I want to leave my wife. Why do I want to do that? Well, it’s not because I really want to, but because she is forcing me to. She has repeatedly shown that she does not love me or respect me for who I’ve become.”

I hope the difference between these two modes of thinking is obvious. Logic is restricted to a very precise structure. People’s “reasoning,” on the other hand, is complex, hard to quantify, laced with all sorts of judgments (or lack thereof), and most of all, emotion.

Your reasoning stinks. It stinks bad. Trust me. Mine does too. That’s why I’m giving up on it.

Here’s a monologue where intuition is in the driver’s seat:
“I want to leave my wife.
Is that a good thing?
Then don’t do it.
What should I do then?
Maybe I should see a counselor.
Is that good?
Then do it. Do it now.”

And if this was a real life scenario I would say that is the one time when you should ask why - when you get in the counselor’s office. Then you can ask the why question all you want because you’ll have someone with you who’s professionally trained to help you smell your own b.s. - But other than that, don’t even bother.

So that’s it. Follow your gut. It isn’t always right, but it has a heck of lot better track record than your reasoning.


  1. What place should "reasoning" have in our lives? I like the gut over the reason idea; I'm going to practice it and see what happens. I do wonder, though, what part reasoning is to play.

  2. That's a good question. As my blog tag says, this is intended an experiment provocative thoughts, which means I'm just thinking "out loud," more or less. I don't have a complete theory developed around the reason/intuition divide. In this post, I'm talking primarily within the context of decision making. From my experience this is when our reason most often fails us. We are emotional creatures, and when making personal decisions those emotions often cloud our judgment. In such situations what we refer to as reason would be more accurately described as rationalized emotion. And that type of "reasoning" will usually lead us astray. However, that little voice in the back of your mind tends to be more consistent. It is not as easily confused by conflicting emotions, and therefore is a better guide in making decisions.

    I'm all for using reason as much as possible. I just don't think we do it very well. I think it is easiest to use true reasoning in situations where we are emotionally detached from the subject matter. But it takes a lot of practice to really be mindful enough of our feelings to know when that is the case. So the best advice I can come up with at this point is when in doubt, go with your gut.

  3. Tugboat, I posted a response a few days ago, but for some reason it does not appear to have posted. How aggravating. I'll try again.

    I'm really just thinking out loud on this post. I don't have a complete theory on the reason/intuition divide. I'm talking primarily in the context of decision making. I'm all for reasoning, I just don't think we do it very well. And this is especially true in the decision making process. That's when our reason seems to most often fail us.