Steven Pinker, HOW THE MIND WORKS, post 2

The last few chapters are especially rich and fascinating. Here’s Chapter 6, about human emotions.

Ch6, Hotheads

  • This chapter is about human emotions. They’re irrational, but have a cold logic of their own.
  • It used to be thought that emotions were learned by infants, and that emotions were not uniform in all cultures; when evidence was gathered in the 1960s that emotions are similar across cultures, it was met with outrage. Why? Because languages and emotions are different in other cultures. Languages have words for some emotions others don’t (e.g. schadenfreude), and cultures do differ in how emotions are expressed in public.
  • The Romantic movement 200 years ago assigned emotions to nature and the body, the intellect to civilization and the mind, notions that persist in various terms (p370t). Rather, emotions are adaptations, well-engineered software modules that work with the whole mind.
  • The old idea of the Triune Brain, with Reptilian at the bottom, overlaid by the Primitive Mammalian Brain, and that by the Modern Mammalian Brain, is implausible and obsolete. [[ Unfortunately this realization came too late for Carl Sagan’s THE DRAGONS OF EDEN (review), which promulgated that view. ]]
  • What would a mind be without emotions? Spock wasn’t emotionless, just in control. [[ It’s always irritated me that Spock is taken to be emotionless and logical, when he is rarely either. ]] We all have emotions and goals; without them, intelligence is meaningless. Emotions are how we commit to one goal at a time, given circumstances.
  • Every species is adapted to a particular habitat; ours was first the African savanna, second the rest of the world. We burn down forests to make new savannas. We prefer views of open spaces (and water); thus our obsession with mowing lawns, to maintain something like a savanna. [[ I’ve long understood how landscape preferences reflect life on the savanna – Wilson discussed this — but never made the connection to Americans’ love of huge lawns! ]]
  • Disgust is a universal human emotion, the fear of incorporating any offending substance into one’s body—things that come from animals. Because of the danger of contamination. Two laws of sympathetic magic are involved: the law of contagion, and the law of similarity. Children under two put everything in their mouths; when older they become notoriously finicky. They don’t have to be taught what’s disgusting.
  • What about food taboos? Rabbis rationalize them, but their arguments are easily demolished. Taboos make ecological and economic sense—author suggests they are used to prevent defection to other groups; what’s taboo in one tribe is the favorite of the next.
  • There are lots of fear words, but only a short list of universal fears: snakes, spiders, heights, storms, etc. 386b. All about dangers, and they linger even in the modern environment mostly lacking snakes, and spiders.
  • What is the happiness that people strive for? People usually want health and wealth. But how much is worth striving for? We know by what those around us have attained. People are happy when they feel better off than their neighbors. So ironically, while we have so much more stuff now than we had in, say, 1957, we’re no happier than people were then. This is the familiar “hedonic treadmill.”
  • We think that emotions make us short-term thinkers, lacking self control. But sometimes a quick reward is a rational decision; e.g. criminals are said to discount the future, but that’s not because they’re dumb, it’s that many understand they’re not going to live long anyway.
  • We think strongly about other people, but the idea that individuals behave for the good of the group is almost certainly wrong. Animals behave selfishly. Genes replicate, not bodies. Thus we’re concerned about other people with whom we share genes – our siblings, our cousins. This is kin selection, leading to altruism; psychologically: love for family, parents for children.
  • There are incorrect moral takes on this. Individuals don’t work for the benefit of the group, and it doesn’t mean greed is good. Author wants to offer a hopeful way to think about this. Other kinds of altruism exist. If there are behaviors for animals to cooperate, cheaters would happen; and so a grudge-bearing mutant would arise. This enables reciprocal altruism, for people not kin. This involves recognizing other individuals, and remembering who did what. Human emotions to manage this make up a large part of the moral sense. Subtle cheating leads to better detectors, and so on; this leads to various emotions like liking, anger, gratitude, sympathy, and guilt. Conscience. Shame. Then people learn to mimic such emotions to get their way, mostly unconsciously. The next round is to discriminate between honest and sham emotions: thus trust, and distrust. People compare notes, i.e. gossip. Next level: you can accuse others of sham emotions. It’s an arms race to manage reciprocal altruism.
  • Isn’t this all a bit cynical? No. But wouldn’t it be better if we were built to enjoy what’s best for the group? But we don’t want to confuse how the minds works with how it would be nice for the mind to work. Group motives can bring about atrocities. People’s selfish desires can foil the ambitions of emperors.
  • Recalling, Dr. Strangelove and the strategy for retaliating, or not, for a nuclear strike. The paradoxes of this strategy apply to many conflicts between parties, and are ubiquitous in social life. Consider bargaining, promises, threats. Many examples.
  • More examples—The Maltese Falcon, The Godfather. Pride, love, rage. But there is a method to it. The intellect is designed to relinquish control to the passions … as guarantors of promises and threats against suspicions they are bluffs. Yet they can drive people far out of proportion of the stakes; example of the war launched to protect the Falkland Islands. Lust for revenge. Honor. These are common in societies without formal law enforcement. 413b. Thus patriotism. Even in modern societies, it’s hard to turn the desire for vengeance off. [[ How societies historically have evolved away from relatively deadly mechanisms of honor and revenge, in favor of various social programs for law enforcement, is greatly expanded on in the author’s later THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE. ]]
  • Why do we advertise emotions on our face? Perhaps because they reveal our honesty, analogous to the doomsday machine, where the strategy doesn’t work if it’s kept secret. Darwin thought they were learned habits! Psychologist struggle with why broadcasting one’s emotional state would be beneficial. Answer: they’re the same guarantors of threats and promises. What about fake emotions? Emotions are useful only if they’re hard to fake. And the strong ones are hard to fake. Actors are often mannered; we can tell they’re acting. But why didn’t we evolve the ability to control our expressions? Author doesn’t know. It would be too costly? Whatever the answer is, it may be why, in this age of telecommunication, people still hold in-person meetings around the world.
  • Perhaps we’re mad for love as another indication of credibility. Dating is a marketplace; everyone has their ideal partner; but we all settle at some point. But what if you meet someone better? It’s like the rental market. Love is a commitment the person did not decide to have, and so cannot decide not to have. You fall in love because you can’t help it. The best strategy is to flaunt your desire while playing hard to get.
  • Self-control is a battle between parts of the mind. Different parts are in control at different times. Another topic: no one knows what grief is for.
  • It’s difficult to be a good liar. We’ve evolved lie detectors too. Liars must have good memories. It’s best to believe your own lies, and so we confabulate false motives. They present us in our best light; most people think they’re above average. We attribute successes to our skill, failures to bad luck. Cognitive dissonance. A remark ‘hits a nerve’ when we know it to be true, even as we deny it. Wisdom might be seeing that such remarks are milder than what you first thought.


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