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Blog Short #118 – How Emotions Can Lead You Astray (or Not!)

Photo by Kamonwan Wankaew, Courtesy of iStock Photo

It’s probably not news that your emotions can lead you astray. I think we all know that, but some of us put a lot more stock in our feelings than others. This can lead to something called “emotional reasoning,” which we’ll begin with today.

What is it?

“Emotional reasoning” is a cognitive distortion in which you base your conclusions on how you feel.

Despite being a good employee and excelling in your job performance, you feel like you’re not as talented as everyone else and conclude that this is true.

You’re plagued by feelings of guilt, even though there’s no evidence that you’ve done anything wrong. Even if others assure you otherwise, you still have visions that you’ll get in trouble for something.

Your friends frequently ask you to do things with them, but you feel like no one really likes you.

These are all negative examples. Here are some positive examples of using emotional reasoning.

You buy numerous tickets for the upcoming lotto because you’re absolutely convinced you’ll win it, even though the odds are heavily against you.

Someone you meet is attractive and charismatic, and you assume they’re perfect for you! You know very little about them.

You start a business and are so sure it will be successful that you go into great debt to get it off the ground without doing your homework to back up your predictions.

People who engage in emotional reasoning hang on to their conclusions, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.

That may sound extreme to you. It does to me too, but it raises the question, “Are feelings never to be trusted?”

What about gut feelings?

The term “gut feeling” comes from the science-based idea that our gut is like a second brain. The gut functions as an autonomous nervous system like the brain and communicates back and forth with the brain and other parts of the peripheral nervous system in the body.

You’ve heard people say, “I have a feeling in my gut that . . .” or “I’m feeling uneasy in my gut about . . .”

You may have experienced that yourself. I have on many occasions, and I think it’s a fairly common experience, especially for those tuned into their bodies.

There’s some validity to the experience of gut feelings. Sometimes they’re very helpful and lead you in the right direction. However, that’s not always true.

If you’re particularly anxious about something, you can have all the sensations of a gut feeling but what’s really happening is that you’re reacting to fear or anxiety that you’ve created in your mind without any foundation. This is emotional reasoning.

And then there’s intuition.

Where does that fit in? Merriam-Webster defines intuition as:

The power or faculty of attaining to direct knowledge or cognition without evident rational thought and inference; immediate apprehension or cognition; quick and ready insight.

Intuition arises from unconscious or subconscious “pattern-matching,” in which the mind sifts through your long-term memory banks for similar situations, stored information, and past experiences.

It makes connections between all the pertinent information and formulates insights or feelings that pop up in your mind. Sometimes you feel this in your gut, and that’s partially where the term gut feeling comes from.

Here’s how Melody Wilding, who wrote an intriguing article about intuition, describes the process:

When we subconsciously spot patterns, the body starts firing neurochemicals in both the brain and gut. These “somatic markers” are what give us that instant sense that something is right … or that it’s off. Not only are these automatic processes faster than rational thought, but your intuition draws from decades of diverse qualitative experience (sights, sounds, interactions, etc.)

It’s not some kind of woo-woo but is a systematic cognitive process, even though we’re not aware of it as it happens.

However, as another author points out (Hooton, 2021), intuition can be wrong. She uses the example of meeting a new co-worker and not liking him at all, only to like him a lot three months later.

The difficulty is discerning when your feelings have validity and when you’re engaged in cognitive distortion.

So how do we know?

Conclusions made using emotional reasoning don’t appear to come from subconscious or unconscious pattern-matching based on previous experiences and information logged into our memory banks.

More accurately, they come from current issues we struggle with, often as an expression of anxiety when they’re negative or magical thinking when they’re positive. They’re like impulsive leaps over a pile of information we could use to challenge them but instead dismiss or deny.

Intuition and “gut feelings” are more likely to be valid.

Intuitive insights or gut feelings don’t generally arise from wishful thinking (positive emotional reasoning), anxiety, fear, or personal bashing (negative emotional reasoning). They can pop up as solutions to problems, inspirations, new insights, or cautionary feelings.

More importantly, they incorporate years of experience, knowledge, and information that’s packed away on your brain’s hard drive.

They usually appear unbidden and often when you’re quiet or in a mindful state. They aren’t driven by more primal emotions like fear, anxiety, aggression, or lust.

Yet, not all intuition is to be trusted.

Although intuitive thoughts and insights can be beneficial and sometimes even life-changing, there are times when they’re wrong. Just because they’re based on pattern-matching from our memory banks doesn’t mean our memory banks are accurate.

When we store memories, we prioritize those experiences that have the most impact on us, particularly the most emotional impact. This is why trauma has a front-row seat in long-term memory banks.

Even unconscious memories are often those that have the most emotional impact, even though we’re unaware of it.

On top of that, when we store a memory, we make it fit in with our previous memories. In other words, we may tweak it to support our current memory bank. And over time, as we store new memories, we re-work our older memories to fit in with our new ones.

When you understand how memory works, it makes you wonder exactly how accurate your memories are!

So if our intuition comes from putting together various pieces of information and patterns stored in our memory, how accurate is it? Apparently accurate enough that many intuitive thoughts come true or are proven valid – just not in every case.

The advice I found in reading through information about intuitive accuracy is this:

  1. Don’t use your intuition for situations where you have little experience or expertise. In other words, having a previous knowledge base lends to accurate intuitive insights.
  2. Intuitions are also unreliable for “low-probability” events, like being afraid your plane will crash if you get on it.
  3. Last, don’t apply the same insights across different environments. In other words, what seemed to work in one setting, might not apply in a similar situation in another environment – like a highly successful business that works in one city but flops in another.

The Bottom Line

Do your homework when you feel that something is true, whether negative or positive. Investigate and test it out before making decisions or arriving at conclusions. This process is essential when it comes to feelings. If you feel a certain way but all the evidence points in the other direction, then note the discrepancy and reconsider. Weigh the evidence!

Just because you feel it doesn’t make it true. But sometimes when you feel it, it’s very true.

That’s all for today.

Have a great week!

All my best,


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