I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about rational decision making versus emotional decision making and how those two approaches have been offset in DM. After reading several philosophical views on this subject, I have decided to first look at the way we would typically divide these two strategies and then inject some variations on those.
What we would usually think of as the difference between acting rationally and acting emotionally revolves around whether we react quickly without giving ourselves enough time to weigh the pros and cons of a decision or whether we reflect and refrain from reacting at all until we’ve given ourselves time to think things through. The rational decision results from containing our emotions and trying to remove them from any choices we make; the emotional decision generally stems from allowing ourselves to respond without much thought. Either one can end in positive or negative consequences.
In my post on Aunt Ruth, I noted that this show asks us to weigh the rational with the emotional. I see AR as the rational aunt as compared to Joan who is more emotional and emotive. From the moment Ruth arrives for the funeral she exhibits an affectless approach to events around her. She expresses condolences in a required sort of manner and, when Louisa introduces herself, she notes that Louisa is “the schoolteacher Joan kept on about.” Her demeanor is not offensive, merely sober and unsentimental. Whereas Joan might have given Martin a hug and possibly even done so with Louisa, Ruth shakes her hand and shows no signs of grief. (Later we find out that she can’t produce tears because she has Sjogren’s, but she shows no evidence of wanting to cry here.)
The two women have taken very different paths in life. Joan has been married and had at least two lovers we know of; Ruth has never been married and has had no attachments as far as we know. Joan has been happy living on a farm in a small village while Ruth loves London. It’s the often used contrast between the city and the country where the city represents order and regimen, the country represents tumult and commotion. Joan’s life has always seemed a bit tumultuous. She tends to her animals and vegetables, neglects her finances and allows her insurance to lapse, occasionally cooks for others, starts a B & B to earn money, involves herself in many neighbors’ lives and does her best to help out Louisa during her pregnancy. She manages to get things done although she lets herself get out of control with Theo Wenn. Joan shows signs of being capable of rational decision making, e.g. she points out to Martin that people can function with phobias and still do their jobs well, she tells Martin to leave when he blurts out some angry comments to Louisa, etc.
Joan’s death has brought Ruth to the country and her inheritance of the farm has led her to stay there. She imposes order on her surroundings by hiring Al and setting out to write a book. Many events interrupt her routine, but she always stays calm and composed and handles each event without so much as a break in her stride. She eventually moves into the village after Robert Campbell gives her quite a scare, and where the living arrangements are closer to what she prefers. She completes the book and continues to consult on cases. She misses life in the city, although she appears to have made her peace with that and will be content to make excursions to London now and then. We see her express strong emotion only once – when Martin tells her she has Sjogren’s instead of Lupus.
At first glance, we might think of Martin Ellingham as an entirely rational adult. He is science oriented and evidence based. His overall approach seems to be to do his best to eliminate emotions from his decisions, both professional and personal. Over and over he suppresses his emotions by engaging his medical knowledge. His strongest emotional outbursts are directed at patients who frustrate him with their ignorance and lack of compliance. He has a close relationship with Joan and can be tender with her, but even in her case he often reacts clinically, e.g. when he accidentally shoots her in the leg with the Colonel’s gun and then tells her it’s just a superficial wound. His decision to move to Portwenn has been made under a cloud, although still with rational forethought. It’s certainly not where he’d rather be. Even his hemophobia is handled in a way that keeps it from being emotional — he throws up and carries on or draws blood while looking away. He’s managed to reconcile himself to it (at least until S6) and accommodate it. He’s offset by Louisa who has an emotional attachment to the village and its residents. She’s always happy to return while he’s always looking for a way to leave. Martin’s facial expressions rarely change from consternation and seriousness; Louisa’s are a smorgasbord of emotions. He stands stick straight and never dresses comfortably; she has many poses and has no hesitation in wearing jeans or other relaxed clothing. She gets obviously exasperated with many people in her life, including her mother, her father, some friends, and Martin. She has highs and lows along with some even keel times. She applies her professional expertise when necessary, but finds it hard not to get personally involved.
Beyond these characters, we have a number of others who are emblematic of this dichotomy. Bert and Al certainly work in opposition to each other. Bert has no interest in properly balancing the books or in doing the necessary research before jumping into a new venture. Al is computer oriented, thus used to sequential thinking and planning for expected outcomes. Bert takes short cuts in general, while Al tries to do each job to the best of his ability.
But now that I’ve been trying to more deeply think about this dichotomy, I’ve realized it’s not so clear-cut. Nothing ever is. When we apply this distinction to the characters in DM, we get a confusion of outcomes, especially since I have read more about how to define rationality and emotionality and found that they are less distinct from each other than I originally thought. Emotion is a huge topic in philosophy and almost all of the great philosophers have tried to devise a theory of emotion (Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Hobbs, etc.) Then there was a period in the 20th century during which philosophers and psychologists stopped trying to develop a theory because it was such a broad topic. Recently there has once again been a lot of interest in a multidisciplinary approach to what emotion is. Rational thought is also a topic of much theorizing.
In an article published in Psychology Today on June 18, 2010 by Joachim I. Krueger, Ph.D. titled “One Among Many,” (“Reason and emotion: A note on Plato, Darwin, and Damasio. If reason and emotion affect decision-making, which matters more?”) Krueger states: one of the clear functions of emotions is “to guide us towards pleasure and away from pain. To succeed in gaining what is good and avoiding what is bad is difficult in an uncertain environment. We often make decisions that resemble gambles. When we invest in a company, buy a new house, or get married, there is a chance that things won’t work out as hoped. It’s critical that we’re able to judge what risks are worth taking – and emotions can help us make those judgments…Considered in isolation, emotions are rather arational (neither rational nor irrational)…By transforming goals and desires in the heat of the moment, emotions can lead us to make choices that hurt our long-term interests…Things get a bit murky, though, when we try to apply calculated reasoning to social decision-making. Many social situations involve costs and benefits that are difficult to assess and compare.”
When I relate this to ME, I can’t help wondering whether his effort to be rational actually masks an emotional substructure. In other posts we’ve been writing about the times when Martin exhibits emotion. We know his emotions can break through his defenses and clearly affect him. They can distract him from his job, make him act impulsively (like running to talk to Louisa or Ruth in the middle of seeing patients), and keep him up at night. What the show may be telling us is that even though Martin (or anyone) represses his emotions on a frequent basis in an attempt to apply rational thinking to his life, his life (our lives) is, in point of fact, governed by emotion. When it comes to social choices, we cannot separate our emotions from our decision making. M’s attraction to Louisa stems from a deeply emotional wellspring that doesn’t conform to rational arguments, and that does not make it wrong; it makes it normal.
Furthermore, Krueger notes: “Darwin would argue that the influence of emotions on decision-making has survived the rigors of natural selection…We see three reasons why this may be so. One reason…is that emotions give useful guidance whenever the environment fails to provide all the information needed for thoughtful analysis… It may be the case, however, the type of context in which emotions help is more common in our world than the type of context in which they hurt. The final reason not to discard emotions remains the fact that they make us act quickly and decisively.” Despite Martin’s or Ruth’s rational outer demeanor, we see how emotions cause them to react quickly and decisively many times, and it’s when they react quickly and decisively that the outcome is often positive. For Martin these moments include when he asks Louisa to marry him, when he can’t wait outside while she’s in labor and bursts through the door to tell her he was wrong about her and the baby, when he races after her to get her off the plane, and certainly when he runs to help patients in need or to find Ruth to ask for her help. For Ruth there are fewer moments but they would include telling the desk clerk at the hotel to stop wasting time and grow a backbone, when she tells Al she will go into business with him, and when she tells Robert Campbell she loves him as he’s about to stab Martin. I would have to say that these examples contain a confluence of rational and emotional qualities, but incline toward the emotional superseding the rational. When Ruth tells Robert she loves him, it’s an immediate reaction due to anxiety; however, she is also reaching into her grab-bag of psychiatric tricks to deal with psychopathic behavior. Similarly when Martin rushes to the airport, he is acting out of a rational desire to take care of Louisa medically, but it’s also because he is extremely worried about her and has already decided to follow her because he’s desperate to salvage their marriage.
Ultimately what I have come to appreciate is that it’s a very rare person who can dissociate his/her emotions from any decision. Trying to contrast the rational from the emotional is a fallacious mission. Although the writers of DM may have wanted to draw a distinction between two positions that seem to be in conflict with each other, they couldn’t because emotions are actually at the root of all behavior and cannot be extricated from the rational.
Originally posted 2014-07-03 17:49:35.