It may not strictly be considered the same as ‘irrational’, but the term ‘emotional’ is often regarded as diametrically opposed to ‘rational’. Perhaps dividing people in ‘emotional’ and ‘rational’ types would be all too simplistic, but we seem to have no particular problem with distinguishing between emotional and rational choices.
Not only that: it is sometimes also implied that emotional decisions are somehow inferior to those made rationally. The assumption is that emotions lead to impulsive choices, which fail properly to take into account the pros and cons of the options, and which we often regret some time later.
A good example of this thinking can be found in a New Statesman article from 13 July 2016, with the unambiguous title “Time to bury Economic Man: why we make political decisions based on emotions over facts”. It paints this economic man as “an independent agent who makes decisions in his own best interest, after having examined all the information”, the kind of person that uses “facts” rather than emotions to select the best option. Real humans, in contrast, are the kind of people whose energy consumption is not determined by the cost of a kWh, or what proportion of the household income is spent on gas and electricity, but by what their neighbours are doing.
What is ‘better’?
At first sight that distinction seems to make sense — even the idea that those who appear to use reason and facts to make decisions are smarter than those who are led by a competitive drive with the family next door.
Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine that you are asked to help another person make a decision — someone you’ve never met or will never meet, and about whom you know nothing. You could not possibly be more emotionally detached. The choice is simple: this person must choose the better of two envelopes, A and B. They don’t know the content, but you know that B contains £20 and A £50, with no further conditions attached. You know which is which, and you need to advise the unknown person on which one is the best. In all likelihood you will recommend they pick envelope A.