Why Your Emotions Aren’t Special

“Emotions aren’t anything special,” I stated, immediately recognizing I had said something outlandish. In my psychology circles, this probably wouldn’t have ruffled any feathers, but all seven of my relatively new friends shifted uncomfortably in their seats. We had been discussing artificial intelligence and whether robots could ever truly be considered equal to humans.

No, I don’t have Aspergers, I’m not a psychopath, nor am I a robot – though my exes might tell a different story.

Kidding aside, I felt the compulsion to write this post to explain my view because it’s easy to misinterpret. So here is what I know about emotions:

Emotions Transmit Ancestral Knowledge

First, why do we even have emotions to begin with? The most likely reason is that they increase our rate of survival in one form or another. We feel happy to reinforce that we’re doing something right in life; we feel angry, and it spurs us to correct a moral violation; we feel lonely, driving us to connect with those around us. They help us to increase our social ties, drive out deviant, antisocial behaviours, and respond quickly when seconds can mean life or death. They are also, of course, the seat of our deepest experiences in life. They are, some would say, what makes us human.

I know, I know, what I’m saying is flying in the face of my off-the-cuff, ill-thought-out opening phrase. Yes, and no. Saying the above phrase implies that I might not have emotions. Ironically, the immediate social feedback I received made me feel isolated, slightly rejected, and warrantably socially awkward. I’m fairly certain I blushed. It was, after all, a somewhat unacceptable thing to say in most settings. In that context, it made me feel like an outsider, and that I should conform more to “normal” social ideals. That is one purpose of the above emotions – continuing to act outside of those ideals would likely result in me being kicked out of that circle. Again, being alone, evolutionarily, equals death. The chemicals released in my brain, honed from millennia of ancestors, reinforced that I should step back in line. My ‘gut’ told me to say less outlandish things from then on.

When the slimy salesman makes his pitch with a little too much gusto, or you’re invited by a smiling stranger into a back alley, something inside might tell you that not everything is as it appears. This is the bread and butter for emotions. It is the limbic system in your brain yelling that something is wrong.

Emotions are the wisdom of the ages built into our brain’s operating system. Before we even consciously recognize something is off, a heady cocktail of neurochemicals has already begun cascading through our brain, spurring us to immediate actions from these feelings. Women’s intuition and other such phenomena are emotional responses built from eons of development telling us that the situation is not safe, long before we’ve consciously recognized it.

Look at it as a kind of survivorship bias. People whose emotions led them to read their peers more accurately, were scared of situations that could kill them, were driven to connect with others, and felt satisfaction from accomplishments – these people survived to have children. Those who lacked these traits were more likely to perish, and less likely to have offspring.

Emotions are Useful, but They Fall Short

When did these mechanisms develop? A long, long time ago, and over equally long periods of time. They began developing when we were in small tribes, working and living together, and dealing with each other face-to-face. When in those settings, we can be more certain that our emotions will lead us on the right path. That’s when we should trust them the most.

Introduce the internet, automobiles, texting, gambling, and the anonymity that can come from living in high densities. These situations lead us into a realm where our emotions can easily deceive us. We scream when we see a snake-like stick but get into a car that travels 100mph without the slightest hesitation. Hell, standing beside a highway should be terrifying. Yet, it’s not. To put it in perspective, let’s imagine that, instead of cars, there were elephants charging past at the speed of city traffic. I doubt we’d so casually jaywalk.

What I’m trying to say is that emotions can be useful, but following them without hesitation will often lead to bad outcomes.

Generally, making emotional decisions is regarded as a bad way to go about life. Remember the times you’ve shouted something anger only to wish you’d never said it, or when you sacrificed going to the college you wanted to attend because your high school sweetheart had gone to one in a different city. Taking emotions into consideration is worthwhile, but not if we don’t analyse why we feel the way we do and, also, look at the situation from a rational perspective.

If you need further examples of emotional decision making, look no further than groupthink. Groups are the epitome of emotional decision-making. After the win or loss of a local sports team, would a lone person start smashing glass and attempting to flip over cars? No, never. The fact that groups are able to act so emotionally is one way we’re able to achieve great or horrendous acts thanks to leaders who are successful in evoking specific emotions.

Emotions Should be Seen as Tools

We would not be better off without them. There have been studies that show that people who only have the logical part of their brain intact often get locked in a battle with indecision. For example, should you buy Pepsi or Coke? Most people would lean toward the one they’re more familiar with or which gives them good feelings – forget all that. Instead, they start making exhaustive lists on the various virtues of each brand. Then, perhaps, they start thinking about whether it should be drunk now or later. Is it even worth buying now? Will you get thirsty before your next opportunity to purchase one?

It’s paralyzing.

Often, we get a slight nudge from our emotions that gets the generally unimportant (though, sometimes very important) decisions made and we’re on our merry way.

This post is far too short and limited in scope to do justice to all that can be said on this topic, but it’s an introduction to why studying how we work allows us to see our failings – for example, being taken in by a stranger giving us a valueless gift and feeling obliged to give something in return (Cialdini, 2006) – and where they are more trustworthy.

Use Emotions to Your Advantage

The main goal should not be to eliminate all emotions, but to see how they affect us. To use them to achieve greater things, to shaping our environment to best allow us to reach our goals, and to connect more deeply with other people. None of this is possible while we are completely dominated by our impulses, nor if we completely deny that they exist. We need to see them accurately, without romanticism, and apply better practices. We all have emotions and should learn to understand and work with them. The very fact that we all have them means they’re not particularly special, individually.

Back to my point on artificial intelligence and androids: if one day we are capable of reaching a more comprehensive understanding of our own emotions, it shouldn’t be a huge leap to think that we can instill them within robots. Either by understanding the neurochemistry or the core functions of each emotion, we would be capable of allowing a machine to experience and understand emotional reasoning. Then again, do we really want emotional robots?

As for that group, they seem to keep inviting me back, so maybe there’s hope for me yet.


Suggested Reading on the Topic

  • Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion – Robert Cialdini (2006)
  • Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions – Dan Ariely
  • Thinking Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman
  • The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom – Jonathan Haidt
  • Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions – Brian Christian, Tom Griffiths
  • The Mind Club: Who Thinks, What Feels, and Why it matters – Daniel M. Wegner, Kurt Gray

Sources

Haidt, J. (2001). “The emotional dog and its rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral judgment.” Psychological Review. 108, 814-834

Cialdini, Robert B. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. New York, NY: Collins, 2006. Print.

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