Uncovering irrationality: making sense of our behavior

@Shakee Messina

If we’re supposed to be the most evolved species on this planet, then why are we still driven by self-destructive impulses?

Emilio Ortiz

Emilio Ortiz has just finished his third year at IE University and is pursuing a degree in business. Alongside his studies, he is a member of the advisory board for the IE Center for Health, Well-being, & Happiness, as well as the IE University Basketball Club. Throughout his college experience, he developed a unique sense of curiosity that has driven him to explore topics ranging from neuroscience to spirituality and fitness. He aims to express his discoveries with fellow seekers on a path of personal growth, through his quirky yet profound writing style. He was born and raised in America, and also integrates his Colombian roots and culture into his worldview.  

Have you ever had a feeling so strong it felt like a Mentos and Coca-Cola explosion, catapulting into the sky?

Abnormal feelings of anger were swirling up to the surface and intense heat was rising throughout my body. I felt pushed to channel all the built-up negativity towards the person that I loved the most. I mumbled a couple extra words that would completely transform the dynamic of my most beloved relationship. From the most ungraceful part of my being, I began to shout out illogical excuses to back up what I was feeling internally. I noticed my girlfriend’s tears dripping down, and softly falling off her chin. Immediately, I felt as though a dark shadow had drilled a deep hole into my chest.

Disappointed with myself, I shook my head and wondered why I said those hurtful things. The thoughts that followed would begin to showcase my ability to minimize the seriousness of the issue. Looking for outward explanations and something or someone to blame, my rational mind began to justify my actions by saying, “You are right. You were under attack. You had to speak out.”

For once, I felt the deep-rooted irrationality that’s part of our human nature. Where do these miscalculations and poor choices come from? Why do we do and say things that aren’t in our best interest?

Those who have sustained long-term relationships are well aware that fights are inevitable. Emotions get complicated. We say things we regret.  However, this incident stuck with me over the days to come. What personality trait enabled me to lash out like that? Searching for answers, I came across gems of wisdom that allowed me to understand my behavior, and to stop my habit of hurting others around me.

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Join me on the road to uncovering and working with our irrationality (Disclaimer: I’m still working on it. Hey, trust the process, right?)

Three governing brains

Consider some recurring human themes: binge eating, bubbles that lead to whole markets crashing, and choosing careers that make us miserable. If we’re supposed to be the most evolved species on this planet, then why are we still driven by self-destructive impulses? 

Ancient philosophers, such as Pericles, worked to deconstruct our fundamental flaw: we make some pretty bad decisions sometimes. Neuroscientists are beginning to affirm this, revealing that we can’t help it because we evolved to develop an extremely complex “higher mammalian brain” that is composed of three parts. 

Simply put, our oldest part is called the reptilian brain, which controls all automatic responses that regulate the body. Is your body temperature too high? Your reptilian brain has got you covered. To understand what this part does, it helps to remember the four F’s: our primal brain is in charge of our instincts to Feed, Fight, Flee, and… engage in intimate activities.

Above that, we have the old mammalian or limbic brain. This part governs all our feelings and emotions. From here, we are able to discern complex social feelings such as trust and safety. It helps us to quickly decide to befriend a person based on their charming outlook and skinny jeans. The limbic, or “feeling” brain, as you’ll see, has A LOT of influence.

Lastly, our most recent acquisition is called the neocortex, or “thinking” brain. This part represents our ability to plan, make calculations, and use words to communicate concepts. This is the only part of us that understands language and intricate concepts like the quadratic formula, marketing plans, or financial statements.

Our reptilian brain does what it has to do, and minds its own business. However, it’s the relationship between our thinking brain (neocortex) and our feeling brain (limbic) that leads to what Robert Greene in The Laws of Human Nature calls our fundamental irrationality.

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The grand split

Emotions are just cocktails of chemical reactions and sensations in our body that are meant to capture our attention, like one of those annoying Instagram ads that chases us for months.

Remember, emotions are ruled by the limbic brain, which does not use language or words. But when we notice intense emotions arising, we try to put them into words. Where’s the beef? 

Our thinking brain is struggling to make sense of what our feeling brain is, well, feeling. This has created the grand split: we don’t actually have conscious access to where our emotions and moods are coming from in the moment. 

When emotions come up, we use all our vocabulary to translate them into language, and more often than not, we don’t do a very good job. For example, we may lash out in anger and scream “I hate you!” to our parents, but really we are triggered by a need for approval, and want them to accept our decision to move to Bali and go surfing. 

With the constant internal conflict between our emotional self and our thinking self, shouldn’t there be a way to reach a state of balance? Greene argues that we must agree on a principle to come to terms with our irrationality. 

We constantly feel emotions, and they continually infect our thinking, making us veer towards thoughts that please us and soothe our egos. It is impossible to not have our inclinations and feelings somehow involved in what we think.

Graham Greene

This means that we must accept the reality that our emotions are deeply ingrained in us and aren’t going away anytime soon.


A fact checks on Socrates

Rationality doesn’t mean that we are completely detached from what we feel.

In his book Everything is F*cked, Mark Manson describes what he calls the “classical assumption.” Since the days of the Greek philosophers, Socrates and the gang declared that reason is the root of all virtues. Thinkers during the Enlightenment such as Descartes and Kant followed suit and announced that rationality and reason were the only ways to triumph over humanity’s animalistic desires rooted in emotions. 

However, more recently, many psychologists have realized that emotions are integral to our decision-making and actions: life would NOT be rainbows, sparkles, and unicorns if humans just learned to strictly rely on rational thinking.

Instead, we must understand what really goes on up there. We can imagine our mind being like a two-passenger car whose riders include the emotional self and the thinking self. Who do you think is driving? 

The driver decides where to go, when to break, and when to speed up. To my surprise, it is actually our feeling brain that is in the driver seat. Why?

We are moved into action by our emotions. Think about it. E-motion. That translates to energy in motion. We feel emotions throughout our whole body. Muscles tense up, our stomach tightens, our face gets warm, or our chest feels pain. Through these sensations, the feeling brain communicates vast sources of wisdom, intuition, and also stupidity, that force us into action.

In his book Start With Why, Simon Sinek explains that our limbic (feeling) brain is powerful enough to override any rational thinking process because it is precisely in charge of the reason we do things, such as choosing a career or buying from a certain brand.

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Me wondering if I’ll ever be a little rational

The optimal balance between thinking and feeling

To understand the balance between reason and emotion, the ancient Greeks used the metaphor of the rider and the horse. The horse, our emotional self, has a strong desire to move with all its overpowering energy. However, every horse needs a rider. One without the other is useless. That rider is our thinking self. When trained, the rider can hold the reins and guide the horse.

We learn to observe the feelings that arise, understand the underlying reasons they are there, and not act on wild bursts of sensation. Not only will this save us from regretting our actions, but we will hurt others around us much less.

Leading a life based on rationality, as we’ve observed, does not necessarily force us to suppress our primal instincts or feelings within. In fact, the wisdom we receive from our emotions can be immensely aided by our evolved gift of analytical thinking. Learning to align with both can bring transformative effects in our life, and as Greene puts it:

You want to retain the elasticity of spirit you had as a child, interested in everything, while retaining the hard-nosed need to verify and scrutinize for yourself all ideas and beliefs.

Graham Greene

Luckily, I was able to bounce back and recognize the flaws in my actions before I lost a valuable, loving relationship. Since then, I’ve learned to manage the ways my feelings are transmitted, and involve my thinking brain in the process (or at least try). I am beginning to embrace my irrationality. I love the fact that all experiences give us a choice: will we mindlessly react or tap into our rational genius?

Taming the emotional self is a journey with no end. We will never fully transcend our irrational behaviors, but we can master ourselves in a deep way by accepting them. Through the process, we’ll open up our mental space towards creative projects and experiencing moments of clarity. And, hey, we might even finally tap into that “sixth sense” that our mom has been bragging about. 

I wish you the best on your path to becoming a more flexible, resilient, and creative human being. By raising your consciousness, you will plant the seeds to allow others to follow suit.