Can We Trust our Feelings?
yes, we can but under some certain condition.
One reason critical thinking books advise their readers to suppress feelings is the assumption that we cannot trust our feelings. Indeed, we sometimes spontaneously trust others only to find out later that we were foxed; we buy too much food when we are hungry; we book a holiday based on pleasant anticipation and later regret it.
Although there may be some truth to the claim that we cannot trust our feelings, suppressing them comes at a cost. As outlined in an earlier blog post, suppression has negative effects on self-control and on stress.
So the question for every critical feeler becomes: Are there instances where we can trust our feelings? If yes, can we develop rules of thumb for when we can trust our feelings and when we cannot? Here are three.
One rule of thumb is that we should take feelings seriously and not suppress them because they might be important signals. A bad conscience might indicate wrongdoing, and fear might signal danger. However, this is not a sufficient reason to trust feelings unconditionally.
A second rule of thumb is, “know thyself.” Feelings provide us with signals for what is going on in the world. When these signals are accurate, we can trust our feelings; when feelings are not proper signals, we cannot trust them. For example, we should have scruples when we do something wrong. That is, a bad conscience should reliably tell us that we made a mistake.
However, a hardened youth might lack such a conscience while a hypersensitive person may be too conscientious and experience scruples where most people do not. An impostor may even feel pride when he succeeded in deceiving a victim.
The hardened youth has to cultivate feelings that signal wrongness in the right situations and should in any case take scruples seriously.
Hypersensitive people, by contrast, may ask each time they have the feeling whether it corresponds to the severity of the wrongdoing, or whether a deed is wrong at all. It is decent to have a fine moral compass but we should still be able to live on even if we make minor mistakes.
Pride is often a trustworthy signal that we have done something well. Sometimes, however, pride comes up for the wrong reason, for example, when we succeeded in cheating another person or when we boast how much heavy drinking we tolerate. In these cases, we should “reprogram” our feelings such that successful cheating elicits a bad conscience instead of the “cheater’s high,” and the tolerance of heavy drinking is seen as a problem, not as an achievement.
“Know thyself” applies to fear as well. We should know whether we tend to fear too much or too little. Some individuals might fear too much in one situation (for example dangers related to their children) but too little in other situations (for example dangers related their work). Again, people have to adjust their fear-level to what is appropriate in a given domain or situation such that they can trust their feelings in the future.
A third rule of thumb consists of a combination of factors. You can trust feelings more when you get immediate and accurate feedback in a stable environment.
Let us look at each factor separately. It is well-known that learning effects are best when feedback is immediate. Experienced educators know that.
Only when feedback is immediate will it be connected back to the event it pertains to. Let us say you play the violin. Playing an instrument and listening to your performance provides you with feedback here and now on whether you play well. You can connect the immediate outcome (that sounded fine) with your feeling while playing.
This is different from an essay exam where you may feel that all has gone well but three weeks later get feedback that you wrote a horrible essay. Here, you cannot connect the outcome with the feeling during the test, and you might not trust your positive feeling next time.
There are many situations where feedback is delayed and people cannot trust their feelings based on what they experience on the spot.
A good example is psychotherapy where practitioners often get feedback only after months. As there may be positive signs in the beginning that fade after some time, therapists may be overly optimistic. On the other hand, a therapist may notice no progress in the beginning only to find out much later that there were hidden signs of positive change. Other examples include exam situations, professors teaching a course, authors writing a book, or individuals buying a house or a car whose (lack of) quality only shows after some time.
Feedback has to be accurate if feelings were to be trusted. When feedback is wrong, people may develop feelings that send the wrong signals. A physical education teacher might give positive feedback to motivate a clumsy boy. Despite its motivating force, overly positive feedback may result in the boy having a biased view of his aptitude. He connects a too positive outcome to his feelings while exercising.
On the other hand, an art teacher who is overcritical may give a girl the impression that she can never succeed because even a drawing that looks great for a child of her age may have some faults that could be criticized. Instead of getting an accurate impression of her drawing ability, she may get an overly negative feeling regarding her performance.
While there are many situations where we get immediate and accurate feedback, such as riding a bicycle, hammering a nail into the wall, or playing an instrument, there are other situations where feedback is not accurate. Most people are friendly, such that we often do not get accurate feedback on our behavior, clothing, or body odor.
Finally, we need feedback in a stable environment. Everyone who has moved abroad noticed that they could not always trust their instincts and feelings when judging situations or deciding what to do. They had to learn anew what the behaviors of others signal and what actions are appropriate .
Farmers who have grown up and live in a rural community that has not changed much may have an advantage to management graduates who have grown up in a thriving city, changed jobs and places, and travel a lot. People can trust feelings more when they can deal with the same people in the same environment over a long period.
Why can we trust feelings in stable environments? An explanation comes from the somatic marker hypothesis examined by Antonio Damasio and colleagues.
This hypothesis states that when a person makes a decision, for example to eat chocolate of a certain brand, a positive or negative feedback follows. This feedback leaves a trace in the brain and the body (therefore “somatic marker”). Even if the consumer forgets about the chocolate, a later encounter will retrieve the neural marker, which is experienced as a feeling. If the chocolate tasted well, this feeling will be positive; if not, the feeling will be negative.
The same applies when we live with other people in a stable environment. These interactions will leave traces, and we can trust our feelings when we deal with a person we know well. When an environment steadily changes, there is no opportunity to build up the library of neural traces that can be readily retrieved when a familiar situation comes up. When we move from one community to another, many of the neural traces we have built up become useless; we have to live some time in the new community until we have collected enough new markers to render our feelings reliable.
While some environments are stable, others are not. Entering times of war and turmoil may render feelings stemming from a stable environment useless. Many markets are so volatile that feelings cannot replace thorough analysis. Change is the enemy of trust in feelings.
Against this background, it is understandable that Karl Popper warned to belittle the significance of tradition. He ascribed traditions a rational value because they tell us how to act in a world where we else would have no clue what to do. Traditions provide us with orientation, which means that they enable us to trust our feelings.
The take-home message of this blog post is that you should take feelings seriously as signals, but not uncritically. Get to know yourself so that you can adjust your feelings to the outcomes to make them more trustworthy. Finally, you can trust your feelings in stable environments that provide you with immediate, accurate feedback. You might therefore select traditional environments and actively search for immediate feedback. Then you can trust your feelings.
This blog post is built on a discussion in: