Is It Ever Acceptable to Put Your Feelings Before the Facts?

Combining facts and feelings in a thoughtful way is essential in any important decision.

What's more real to you, your feelings or facts? originally appeared on Quora, the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.

In a TV interview, Whoopi Goldberg explained why everyone should oppose nuclear power. Top on her list was the danger of the nuclear plant exploding in a Hiroshima-like way. The reporter pointed out to her that doing that is physically impossible, since the uranium enrichment in power plants is only 4%, and a bomb needs 80% or higher. Whoopi got angry. “This is not about facts,” she said. “It is about feelings.”

There is an important lesson there for those of us who try to base our opinions on facts. It’s not just Whoopi Goldberg; most people don’t. Part of the reason is that facts are complicated, they are often disputed, and they lead to ready conclusions only when greatly simplified.

Personally, I am very comfortable with the facts about nuclear weapons and nuclear power. But I have a Ph.D. in physics, and I have spent many years studying the subject. I am also very comfortable with the facts of climate change; those have proven to be much more difficult to master than the facts on nuclear power, in part, because the level of the scientific reporting is not so high. But if you ask me about Obamacare, I am totally lost. People throw all sorts of facts at me; I read the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal every day, and The Economist every week, and I admit to being completely befuddled on this subject. One thing I do see on this issue is the enormous bias in facts that both sides throw forth. So I am left with a Whoopi Goldberg attitude: I revert to feelings. Yet I know enough not to trust them.

In his wonderful book, Uncommon Sense, Alan Cromer shows from a study of history that most people don’t base their opinions on objective analysis. Most people not only adopt the Whoopi Goldberg approach, but like her, they know that and believe it is the right thing to do. How do you choose whom to vote for President? Do you create a big spreadsheet and weigh all the factors, or do you go with your feelings? I think the results of the last presidential election in the US illustrates that most people vote on feelings. There were those who felt that Donald Trump was unqualified to be president, not only wrong-headed but incompetent; this conclusion was based only in part on his policies, but more on what they sensed of his personality. And there were those who felt that he was a person who represented them and would actually get something done to help them; they may not be able to explain why, but they dismissed the behavior that they too found objectionable, because they felt that he understood them. Neither side really understood the other, because both sides voted with their feelings.

When you choose a career, do you base it on facts or feelings? When you choose a mate, do you do it on facts or feelings? When you buy a car, how do you make up your mind? I like my wife’s answer to this question. Rosemary once told me that she approaches all important questions in the same way:

1. Analyze the issue to death. Gather all the numbers, all the facts, put them (if possible) on a spreadsheet. Create an evaluation function to weigh the importance of all the numbers and facts (she was a math major), and see what the computer says. (Actually, you can do most of this in your head.) Then analyze it a different way. Compare conclusions.

2. Then, having completed Step 1, ignore the results, and base your conclusion on your feelings.

That sounds contradictory, but I don’t think it is. Facts and numbers are important, but they can be misleading. Moreover, your own evaluation function, based on what you think is important to you, may be completely wrong. We often can’t articulate what is really important to us. Maybe we don’t even know.

Rosemary’s approach takes all this into account. First you have to feed your intuition all the relevant facts and numbers. But don’t believe what they are telling you. If you don’t go through this stage, you may make a poor decision. For example, in buying a house, if you go ahead and only learn afterwards that local schooling is poor in quality, then you may not have made the right decision. So feed in the facts and figures. But don’t base your decision on the facts and figures alone.

I think Whoopi Goldberg was right in deciding based on her feelings, but she had skipped the first step. She needed to know more about nuclear power before she made her judgement. Yes, she should make that decision based on feelings, but those feelings can be misguided if based only on partial information. Once she learned (and she should independently check what the reporter told her), she should re-evaluate her feelings.

So in answer to the original question, Rosemary’s approach is best. Both facts and feelings are real. Combining facts and feelings in a thoughtful way is essential in any important decision.

This question originally appeared on Quora. More questions on Quora:

* Emotions: What was the most profound thing you have ever felt?

* Facts: What are some of the most mind-blowing facts?

* Philosophy of Everyday Life: What one thing can you say with certainty?

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