Which comes first the thought or the emotion? Listening to more of ‘Why Buddhism is true’ by Robert Wright – it seems emotions shape more of context than the average rational actor might like to admit.

In essence the argument from ‘evolutionary psychology’ is that we have a number of ‘mental modules’ which operate just below our consciousness. They are sometimes collaborating – but often competing – for our attention. These modules pull our behaviour towards and away from things.

One example Wright gives, is how attracted experimental subjects are to the promise of a ‘busy museum’ or an ‘exclusive private one’ depending on whether they are shown a clip of ‘The Shining’ or a clip of a ‘Rom-Com’.

Study participants who had been exposed to ‘The Shining’ preferred the idea of a busy museum – safety in numbers. Only those who had seen the ‘Rom Com’ clip fancied the more intimate experience…

The argument is that these modules or algorithms are constantly running – and it is our emotional response to stimuli which selects which module comes to the fore. And what is the conscious mind doing while all this is happening? Running slightly behind post-hoc rationalising it all.

There are fascinating experiments which show how readily the ‘inner voice’ co-opts and instantly creates explanations for what we are doing – first to build our sense of infallibility and second so we can explain ourselves to others.

Both of these are highly ‘adaptive’ in evolutionary terms – a strong sense of self-competence gave us the confidence to keep hunting and gathering; and a strong narrative of our own competence meant other hunters and gatherers wanted us on the team. After all, who wants someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing, or why, as a partner in life, love, homemaking, the hunt, battle or active warfare?

And indeed these different roles we play are thought to have different ‘mental modules’ which put us in the right frame of mind for the actions required. There is a proposed ‘mate attraction’ module which makes us take more risks, a ‘social status’ module we use to assess and promote ourselves; clearly there are ‘fight or flight’ modules which prepare us to ‘punch and run’ – and there are many more which served their evolutionary purpose in keeping us alive and reproducing.

Some psychologists and philosophers are a bit sceptical of all this of course – and so they should be; that’s any scientist or philosopher’s job. There is a suggestion that these sorts of untestable evolutionary ‘fairy tales’ are a bit far fetched. Indeed the whole ‘genealogy’ approach of seeing behaviour and action as highly determined by social context and norms after Nietzsche and Foucault has been unfashionable in British and American Philosophy. More’s the pity as it’s clearly worth a closer look…

Foucault

…And so to spitting. An article I alighted on while looking for more on ‘mental modules’ pulls together genealogy, emotions, culture, behaviour; and one of the most powerful emotions of the lot – disgust.

In the paper by Shaun Nichols he posits that cultural norms which connect with naturally strong emotional responses ( those driven by evolutionary selection processes) will tend to survive – whilst cultural norms which are just cultural norms will come and go. As he puts it:

I maintain that emotional responses will affect the cultural viability of norms as well as other cultural items. In particular, norms prohibiting actions that elicit negative [emotions] will, I argue, be more likely to survive than [emotionally] neutral norms.

And to illustrate his point he uses spitting down the ages… In the Middle Ages spitting norms were getting a bit more strict, for example:

“Do not spit across the table in the manner of hunters.”

And:

“Do not spit into the basin when you wash your hands, but beside it.”


By 1530, apparently, Erasmus’ etiquette book, ‘On Good Manners for Boys’ gives a “slightly more refined set of admonitions”:

“Turn away when spitting, lest your saliva fall on someone. If anything purulent falls on the ground, it should be trodden upon, lest it nauseate someone.”

But by the 1600s it’s no longer enough to put your foot on it…

“Formerly . . . it was permitted to spit on the ground before people of rank, and was sufficient to put one’s foot on the sputum. Today that is an indecency”

By 1729 a handkerchief is expected:

“When you are with well-born people, and when you are in places that are kept clean, it is polite to spit into your handkerchief while turning slightly aside”

And by the Victorian era spitting is quite simply off limits.

“Spitting is at all times a disgusting habit. I need say nothing more than—never indulge in it”

On the one hand norms have evolved – and tightened – but the argument is that compared to other norms which have come and gone over 500 years, spitting norms are more durable because they connect to and easily elicit a ‘core emotion’.

It’s likely that a crucial feature here is that the disgust mechanism is at least predisposed to find saliva and mucus objectionable. That is, we come prepared to be disgusted by certain things and not others (cf. Seligman 1971; Garcia 1990).

…Disgust is a basic emotion (Ekman 1994; Rozin et al. 2000), and by common consensus, body products are at the core of the eliciting conditions for disgust (Rozin et al. 2000).

Indeed, Haidt and colleagues maintain that it’s useful to distinguish “core disgust” which is elicited by body products, food, and animals (especially animals associated with body products or spoiled food) (Haidt et al. 1994).

Similarly, Rozin and colleagues write that “Body products are usually a focus of disgust. . . . There is widespread historical and cultural evidence for aversion to virtually all body products, including feces, vomit, urine, and blood” (Rozin et al. 2000).

It seems to me we can all readily relate to that one!

So emotions – and the approach/avoid – response are always working in the background to bring the evolutionarily correct ‘mental modules’ to the mental foreground. We think we’re thinking – but we’re not; we’re largely reacting and post hoc rationalising.

And that’s good to know. Because once you recognise you’re a ragtag bag of evolutionarily conditioned emotional triggers – for modules which give us proven survival advantage – you can relax a bit. There’s no point trying to ‘control’ emotions; they control us. The point is to trust them a bit more. And be distracted by the ‘inner voice’ a little less.

The inner voice is perhaps more like a sports commentator than the illusory inner Chief Executive (which Richard Wright very much draws into question). The inner voice is all too often completely wrapped up in the ‘game’; excited and involved, telling us ten-to-the-dozen what’s happening now, not entirely wanting to predict the final result but unable to resist a bit of speculation and hyperbole… All rising voices, factoids and oohs and ahs!

…but in fact, it’s the emotions (as throughout evolutionary history) that are the star players.

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