Being rational and emotional are not (necessarily) contradictions

In the first part of this three part series, my colleague Ellie Shockley described how rational thinking may drive political attitudes and voting behavior. In the second part of the series, Matt Moytl described how emotion may drive political attitudes and voting behavior. In the final part of this series, I discuss how emotions and reasons are not necessarily in conflict. 

Political psychologists, scientists, and philosophers have all enjoyed weighing in on the whether or not voters are rational. Some people point out instances where voters seem to act rationally and others point to instances where voters seem to act emotionally and irrationally. A key question in this debate is the meaning of rationality. Rationality is often assumed to mean voting to “maximize one’s material well-being”; however, there isn’t a particularly good reason why rationality (or self-interest) can’t incorporate issues outside of material well-being.

I suggest that rationality should be considered anything that is in the service of helping people pursue their goals. And so it is rational for people to support any policy that furthers their goals – whatever those goals may be. These goals might be related to material well-being (e.g., maximizing income), but they may also help further moral, group- (as opposed to self-) related, or long-term agendas. For example, when people support costly environmental policies they are furthering the interests and material well-being of future generations at the economic expense of the here and now. By limiting rationality to material well-being, political psychologists may lose sight of many other things that concern people, such as their social standing, their moral obligations, and their descendants.

Social psychological research has shown that people are not always concerned about their material well-being and prioritize other goals above material well-being. Recent experiments by Nina Strohminger and Shaun Nichols (in press) find that one’s “moral conscience” is the most important and essential part of a person’s self-concept. Work over the last decade by Linda Skitka and her students has found that people’s moral convictions about political issues – those issues that people say are part of their core moral values and convictions – predict voting behavior, the legitimacy of governmental authorities, and punitive responses to moral violations (Skitka, in press). In these studies people have moral motivations that are not tied to their personal well-being or self-interest and they pursue behaviors (e.g., voting) and endorse attitudes that help further those moral motivations. It may be irrational from the perspective of material well-being to pursue moral motivations; however, given the centrality of morality to people’s self-concepts,  it doesn’t seem irrational to pursue moral goals outside of a person’s material well-being.

I am not saying that other goals, outside of moral motivations, don’t play a role in our political decisions. It seems likely that there are a multiple goals that people would like to pursue at any given moment. Maybe they want to maximize their material well-being, advance their moral agenda, and increase their social standing within their group. When the goals are in conflict people will likely follow the goal that is easiest to bring to mind at the moment (Skitka, 2003). For example, one potentially testable reason Jost and his colleagues (2003) found, in a few surveys, that low status people seem to see the social system as just and legitimate, whereas I found, across many more surveys, more evidence for the exact opposite (Brandt, 2013) is that people had different goals in mind in Jost and colleagues’ studies compared to the participants in the studies I report. The question then turns from “are voters rational?” to “what goals are currently motivating voters?”

Similarly, Matt discussed a number of important studies that suggest that voters’ decisions are influenced by incidental emotions, suggesting that voters are emotional and irrational. I agree that emotions influence political judgments and lead people to vote against their material well-being in some instances. However, the reason that emotion-primes may affect political judgments is because emotions serve a motivational function (Zeelenberg & Pieters, 2006). Emotions provide both information about a person’s current situation and about how well they are advancing their goals. By activating people’s emotions researchers are changing the relevance of particular goals for the situation and people are responding pragmatically to the new situation created by the emotion-prime. If it is rational to pursue one’s goals and if emotion-primes change the relevance of a particular goal, then these emotion- priming studies may be seen as examples of how changing goals can influence political decisions, rather than examples of how voters are irrational.

At the end of the day, I agree that I don’t want my political decisions influenced by disgusting garbage on the way to the polling station (Inbar, Pizarro, & Bloom, 2012) or whether the polling station is near a church or a school (Berger, Meredith, & Wheeler, 2008). I’d like to be able to make pragmatic political decisions that make the best tradeoff between my short-term and long-term goals. By understanding the factors that influence these goals – whether they are related to material well-being, emotions, the desire for a stable society or something else – may help us make the most of these tradeoffs in the most situations.


Berger, J., Meredith, M., & Wheeler, S. C. (2008). Contextual priming: Where people vote affects how they vote. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences105(26), 8846-8849.

Brandt, M. J. (2013). Do the disadvantaged legitimize the social system? A large-scale test of the status–legitimacy hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology104, 765-785.

Inbar, Y., Pizarro, D. A., & Bloom, P. (2012). Disgusting smells cause decreased liking of gay men. Emotion, 12, 23-27.

Jost, J. T., Pelham, B. W., Sheldon, O., & Sullivan, B. N. (2003). Social inequality and the reduction of ideological dissonance on behalf of the system: Evidence of enhanced system justification among the disadvantaged. European Journal of Social Psychology, 33, 13–36.

Strohminger, N. and Nichols, S. (in press). The essential moral self. Cognition.

Skitka, L. J. (in press). The psychological foundations of moral conviction. In J. Wright & H. Sarkissian (Eds.), Advances in Moral Psychology, Bloomsbury Academic Press, New York, NY. 

Skitka, L. J. (2003). Of different minds: An accessible identity model of justice reasoning. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 7, 286 – 297.

Zeelenberg, M., & Pieters, R. (2006). Feeling is for doing: A pragmatic approach to the study of emotions in economic behavior. In D. De Cremer, M. Zeelenberg & K. Murnighan (Eds.), Social Psychology and Economics. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.