Imagine a scenario where you are on your way back home after a late night with friends. At one of the turns, you hear loud screams. You slow down to get a sense of what the commotion is all about. Turns out that a big built guy is forcefully holding onto a frail and timid looking guy who is desperately trying to extricate himself.
The frail guy looks at you helplessly, pleading for help. At that moment, you feel moved by the helplessness of the frail guy. You decide to take charge, mobilize a few others, and help the frail guy. Meanwhile, the big-built guy is trying to say something, but the noise and commotion drown his voice.
You and a few others manage to free the frail-looking guy who quickly thanks you and then runs away. You feel a sense of satisfaction at helping someone who needed support. As you take a deep breath, get back your composure and prepare to head back home, you notice that the police have arrived. Soon you get to know that the frail-looking guy was a thief and that the big-built guy was trying to turn him to the police.
While talking about focusing on the immediate versus taking the larger context into consideration, Tal Ben-Shahr (author and teacher of Happiness Studies at Harvard) explains that our emotions respond to the most salient piece of information available to us at that given point in time. Hence, sometimes, thoughts guided purely by emotion can be misleading if information or facts that get our attention at a given moment evoke strong emotions as compared to facts that are more significant but less conspicuous.
While reflecting on examples from my own past, I could think of several instances where the rescuer in me jumped in too soon due to a rush of emotions, only to realize that I didn’t know all I needed to know and that there were more constructive ways of being useful in those emotionally charged situations. Feelings are transient but the consequences of actions are permanent.
We tend to focus on snapshots of isolated parts of the system, and wonder why our deepest problems never seem to get solved.
Can rational thinking be learned? Psychologists suggest that rational thinking can be developed by training our minds to consider the complete context of a situation so that we can choose a well-thought-of response rather than an instinctive reaction.
The example of the thief may have been somewhat evasive because, in a situation of that nature, it may not be the easiest to get the full context. That said, there are situations where it is possible to get the context, but one may miss looking at the complete picture before reacting.
While talking about rationality, Tal Ben-Shahr, beautifully explains the concept by saying “Rationality is about broadening the horizon and seeing beyond the here and now. I can experience life more fully when I am able to willingly shift my perspective and choose when to immerse myself in the present when to take a step back and reflect; when to surrender to the here and now, and when to rise above the immediate situation is appropriate”.
With intentionality and practice, we can cultivate the ability to integrate learnings from our past, considering all that is available in the present while keeping in mind the impact of the decision on the future.
Some time back, I came across an interesting exercise by the author and psychologist Michael D. Yapko. The exercise offers a structured way to develop the ability to anticipate the consequences of our actions.
It involves going through the news headlines and identifying stories that clearly reflect a negative event that occurred due to a lack of foresight. After the stories have been identified, the following questions need to be reflected upon:
· Could this event have been predicted and even prevented?
· What insight and foresight could have prevented the negative event?
· How soon into the situation could some applications of forethought have prevented the event?
· What situational factors prevented the individuals involved from anticipating what could go wrong?
· What psychological factors kept the people involved from anticipating what could go wrong?
· Was this situation unique or does it have relevance to other negative events that may be prevented with some foresight?
I tried using these questions to reflect on certain events – the process, as well as the reflections that emerged through the process, were interesting 🙂
After practicing with impersonal stories for a month or so, one can shift to personal instances from the past and gather reflections and insights. The next and final step is to predict in upcoming situations and assess how accurate one’s predictions are.
Would love to hear about what helps you think rationally in emotionally charged situations.
Have an awesome week ahead 🌻.