Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: On Logic and Emotion

One of the most common illusions by which I have lived most of my life is that if people are properly informed they will conduct themselves accordingly. This illusion brings one to the logical conclusion that all that needs to be done in order to solve any problem is to get the facts and inform everybody. We generally assume that human beings are rational creatures who live in a world that is governed by rational behavior. Therefore, our personal and public problems are the result of ignorance, the solution to which is the discovery and dissemination of correct information. I DO wish that were true!! It would certainly simplify the effort to resolve individual and world problems. Here is some evidence that it is not true.

Traffic accidents are the leading cause of death for people between the ages of 5 and 34. Last year some 40,000 people died in traffic accidents, most of which were preventable. This is the equivalent of a fully loaded mid-sized passenger plane crashing with no survivors every day. If all these people had been wearing seat belts more than half of them would still be alive. Chances are you have heard all of this before. In the light and logic of that information, do you buckle up every time you get in an automobile?

I do not know the exact statistics, but I would guess that at least half of these automobile accidents are caused by driver distraction and/or impairment. It is a well- known and well- established fact that it is both dangerous and illegal to drive while under the influence of alcohol or other drugs. Common sense should inform any rational person that texting while driving is insane. Perhaps to a lesser degree talking on a cell phone, eating, smoking, changing radio stations or CDs, checking your makeup or hairdo in the rearview mirror and a dozen other equally unnecessary distractions are also dangerous. What does it take to motivate people to be safe drivers? It appears that simple, sensible information has a very low persuasive value.

We are far more likely to be motivated by some emotion than by information. Observing an accident on the roadside where someone was killed, or spotting a police car in our rearview mirror will likely get our attention far more quickly than a billboard or a radio ad on safe driving. Fear is a powerful motivating factor, but fear is also a short-lived emotion, which requires frequent reinforcement in order to maintain its salutary effect.

The dynamic is basically the same regarding the use of tobacco, alcohol, drugs---and the list goes on. Why are we not motivated to change dangerous behaviors based on clear, accurate and persuasive information? It is obvious that there are many factors, known and unknown, that override logic in human behavior. There are many emotional drives (feelings) which cause us to ignore what we clearly know to be true, including (but not limited to) the lure of chance and the superhuman feeling that "it won't ever happen to me".

In his book, "TOO SOON OLD, TOO LATE SMART" , Psychiatrist, Gordon Livingston, has a poignant five-page chapter titled "It is difficult to remove by logic an idea not placed there by logic in the first place". In his professional effort to help people bring some order, sense and meaning to important relationships in their lives by giving up behaviors that are destructive, he observes that "Confronting deeply held habitual feelings and attitudes with logic seldom works". It would seem logical that people would alter certain behaviors in response to painful consequences. Anyone who works in the business of helping people get their lives in manageable units knows by experience that this seldom happens unless the consequences become extremely painful. People tend to keep on doing the same destructive things over and over expecting to eventually get a different result. Livingston points out that motivations and habit patterns that underlie most of our behavior are seldom logical. "We are much more driven by impulse, preconceptions and emotions of which we are only dimly aware. One is often confronted by the fact that some ignorance is invincible." People can become so wedded to their particular view of reality that they ignore all evidence to the contrary.

There are obviously some intangibles (which are not so obvious) by which life is governed more than most of us imagine. There are deep emotional and spiritual needs which, when thwarted by whatever means and for whatever reasons, cause us to live in ways that do not make sense, and that are not in anyone's best interest, including our own. It is important to find and stay in touch with people and places that probe and speak creatively to those needs. We also need to be more intentional about staying in touch with and listening to our Creator so we will be able to understand how to fuel, service and use the body and spirit of this complex vehicle we have been given.

Information and logic are important, but it is inspiration and emotion that motivate us to creative change.