In the workplace, even a single overly emotional outburst can brand a professional as unreasonable or irrational and cast doubt on a person’s overall competence. But is it really irrational to be emotional? “It depends on what you mean by rationality,” says Professor Michel Tuan Pham, who undertook an extensive analysis of empirical findings across research disciplines to understand the effects of emotions and their relationship to rationality.
According to Pham, three types of rationality should be distinguished when evaluating human behavior. Based on logical rationality, people are rational if their actions and choices conform to accepted rules of reasoning and logic. Material rationality refers to the consistency between actions and self-interest: if people’s actions and choices serve their own interest, these actions and choices are materially rational. Ecological rationality refers to people’s ability to relate to their social, cultural or natural environment.
Viewed through the lens of ecological rationality, some actions can be viewed as rational, not because they appear logical or promote material benefits to the individual, but because they are consistent with greater social goals, higher moral standards or less obvious evolutionary functions. For example, altruistic acts typically are not materially beneficial to the individual who performs them, but they usually are socially or morally beneficial. “If a witness to a physical assault decides to intervene to rescue the person in distress, it may not be in their self-interest, but such an act can’t really be considered irrational,” Pham points out. “Similarly, if employees discover fraud in their company, it may not be in their material interest to be whistleblowers, but it wouldn’t be irrational.”
Pham found that the effects of emotions with respect to these three conceptions of rationality are mixed — sometimes positive, sometimes negative. “But the ecological perspective reveals the most interesting layer,” he says. When examined from a broader societal or organizational perspective, emotions turn out to have largely positive consequences because they promote prosocial and moral behavior. “It’s good to have emotional people in organizational settings because emotions keep people in check. Emotions, including anger, are very helpful in regulating behavior,” Pham explains.
Consider why most people avoid cutting lines, for instance. They may not jump the line because it’s not fair. Or they may fear an angry outburst from others in line. “One of the major functions of anger is to keep people in step with social and moral norms. If I express anger at someone who cuts in line, I’m signaling that he has violated a norm. He may abandon his more immediate self-interest and take his rightful place at the end of the line to preserve social harmony and therefore the norm,” says Pham.
Positive emotions also play a role in social and moral regulation, but to a lesser degree. “Prosocial behavior such as doing favors is encouraged by anticipations of personal pride and expressions of gratitude by the recipient,” explains Pham.
It’s difficult to overstate the contribution of human emotions in promoting smooth social functioning. People who experience fewer emotions aren’t very good at empathizing with other people or reading emotional and nonverbal cues. “Completely emotionless people are probably terrible to work or live with. It’s healthy to have people who feel and express emotions,” Pham says.
Pham also discovered recurring findings across disciplines that suggest emotions and moods have other benefits. Pham cautions against making overly broad generalizations, but generally, sad moods tend to promote better analytical thinking. In addition, while both good and bad intense moods can reduce overall reasoning abilities, intense emotional states may have played an evolutionary role in helping people make quick assessments in do-or-die situations. Good moods, which enable creativity but trigger less rigorous analysis, promote more contemplative thinking and explorative behaviors during less stressful interludes.
“There is usually a very good rational basis for our emotions,” says Pham. “We should keep in mind that they mostly help us.”
Michel Tuan Pham is the Kravis Professor of Business in the Marketing Division at Columbia Business School.
Read the Research
"Emotion and Rationality: A Critical Review and Interpretation of Empirical Evidence"