Emotionally charged case of India and Pakistan


Emotional reasoning describes a cognitive process by which a person (or state) concludes that their emotional reaction proves something is true, regardless of the observed evidence (Seltzer, 2017).  Aaron Beck, the founder of the concept, believed that such reasoning originated from negative thoughts, best appreciated as involuntary, uncontrollable, or automatic. The conflict between India and Pakistan is a good example of two countries who have, and are still engaged in a highly emotionally-charged affair around the Kashmir region.  

Emotions play a central role in the human experience. In international relations, there are an often underestimated yet driving factor behind the behavior that we can see on all levels – states, populations and individuals. The antagonistic relationship between Pakistan and India is a fertile breeding ground for these negative assessments.

Ever since the formation of Pakistan in 1947, both states have had a deep emotional attachment to the Kashmir region, which is considered by both as an ancestral property (Kadir, 2018). Forfeiting this land and giving up these claims has major cultural implications that could mean bringing “dishonor” to one’s family and group, the ultimate national weakness. Whilst the status quo is acceptable by Indians, many Pakistanis feel that the current situation is connected to and driven by a deep sense of being “wronged” at the time of partition. This feeling is driving Pakistan’s major political leaders, army officers and populace, which is perpetuating the conflict with intensity and relentless vigor.

After three wars and several political agreements, there have been violent incidents as recent as February 2019. The conflict has caused numerous deaths, suffering and maintains a global concern, given the impact that a full-on conflict will have by two nuclear states.

If Pakistan or India feel that they are right to claim the region, does that also transfer into an actual legal right[1]? When the situation is complex and stakes are high, and there is a large shadow of the past (i.e. personal, emotional, and/or historic grievances), it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between what we feel is right and what is actually right. For Seltzer, the danger is that in this situation, the present, ironically, remains the past (Seltzer, 2017). Following this thought, it could be that the two countries are still struggling to overcome the emotional experience of separation that took place half a century ago.

If we now go from a state level analysis to a personal assessment, it is important for diplomats to keep these aspects in mind. Whether sitting at the negotiation table with a foreign dignitary or developing foreign policies, good diplomats should check their assessments of a situation against the facts that are available for possible emotional biases. Notwithstanding, there are also studies which challenges this ratio-centric view, such as Harvard research group around Roderick Gilkey (et al., 2010). In their study on managers, they found that in tactical dilemmas, the most successful strategic thinkers mainly use the part of the brain responsible for “gut responses”, emotional intelligence and empathy for decision-making. Researchers from Italy also found difficulties in categorizing an argument as either ‘rational’ or ‘emotional’, hinting to the idea that emotions and reason will always be inextricably linked to each other in human decision-making processes.

In conclusion, it can be said that emotions, for better or worse, will always play an important role in diplomatic matters. Yet, there is a need to vest oneself against the dangers that emotional reasoning can pose.

In order to do that, here are a few recommendations below in help assess sensitive matters in a strategic manner.

  1. Go into a meta perspective.

    Ask questions such as:
    “How did I reach this conclusion?”
    “How do I feel personally about this topic?”
    “What is the emotion behind my decision/assessment?”
    “What would outcome X cause emotionally for me?”

  2. Try to test you assessments against sources of information that come from other people, contexts and cultures. This does not mean you have to alter your opinions and assessments, but it can help to switch perspectives.

  3. If you have a negative assessment and you are in doubt, check what cognitive distortion you could be using to support your belief. Are you discounting positives, personalizing, mind reading, fortune telling, catastrophizing, using negative filters?

  4. Take breaks, especially in high-pressure environments. Taking breaks can create distance from your emotions and readjust your views, instead of firing shots at the opposing chief negotiator who emotionally triggered a reaction from you.

  5. Invest in personal awareness. Getting to know yourself further, including your cultural and personal background, will increase your ability to identify emotional trigger points and manage them effectively.

    [1] Note that this term is multidimensional. There is a significant difference between being morally, legally, ethically, strategically etc. right. However, the emphasis lies in being legally right, as this is deemed to be the basis for a lasting peace agreement and end to the conflict.