Tag Archives: Emotion

Scared, Sad, Angry, Bitter

These four emotions: scared, sad, angry, and bitter, all suggest that one has suffered or will suffer a loss. So all of them might inspire empathy and help from others. But they don’t do so equally. Consider the selfish costs of expressing empathy for these four emotions.

While a scared person hasn’t actually suffered a loss yet, the other kinds of feelings indicate that an actual loss has been suffered. So the scared person is not yet a loser, while the others are losers. When there are costs with associating with losers, those costs are lowest for the scared. For example, if it takes real resources to help someone who has suffered a loss, the scared person is less likely to need such resources.

People who are angry or bitter blame particular other people for their loss. So by expressing empathy with or helping such people, you risk getting involved in conflicts with those other people. In contrast, helping people who are just sad less risks getting you into conflicts.

People who are angry tend to think they have a substantial chance of winning a conflict with those they blame for their loss. Anger is a more visible emotion that drives one more toward overt conflict. Angry people are visibly trying to recruit others to their fight.

In contrast, bitter people tend to think they have little chance of winning a overt conflict, at least for now. So bitter people tend to fume in private, waiting for their chance to hit back unseen. If you help a bitter person, you may get blamed when their hidden attacks are uncovered, and your support may tempt them to become angry and start an overt fight. So by helping a bitter person, you are more likely to be on the losing end of a conflict.

These considerations suggest that our cost of empathizing with and helping people with these emotions increases in this order: scared, sad, angry, and bitter. And this also seems to describe the order in which we actually feel less empathy; we feel less empathy when its costs are higher.

Note that this same order also describes who has suffered a larger loss, on average. Scared people expect to suffer the smallest loss, while bitter people suffer the largest loss. (Ask yourself which emotion you’d rather feel.) So our willingness to express empathy with those who suffer a loss is inverse to the loss they suffer. We empathize the most with those who suffer the least. Because that is cheapest.

Thanks to Carl Shulman for pointing out to me the social risks of helping bitter folk, relative to sad folk.

Added 18Feb: Interestingly, many lists of emotions don’t include bitterness or an equivalent. It is as if we’d like to pretend it just doesn’t exist.

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Effective Altruism Complaints

The Boston Review asked eleven people to respond to an essay by Peter Singer on effective altruism, i.e., on using careful analysis to pick acts that do the most good, even when less emotionally satisfying. For example, one might work at a less satisfying job that earns more, so that one can donate more. Response quotes are at the end of this post.

The most common criticisms were these: five people complained that in effective altruism the people helped don’t directly participate in the decision making process, and three people complained that charity efforts targeted directly at people in need distract from efforts to change political outcomes. Taken at face value, these seem odd criticisms, as they seem to apply equally to all charity efforts, and not just to this approach to charity. Yet I doubt these people have published essays complaining about charity in general. So I’m tempted to try to read between the lines, and ask: what is their real issue?

Charity plausibly has a signaling function, at least in part. Charity can let us show others our wealth, our conformity to standard social norms, and our loyalty to particular groups. Charity can also display our reassuring emotional reactions to hearing or seeing others in need or pain. Charity can also let us assert our dominance over and higher status than the people we help, especially if we control their lives a lot in the process. (There are birds who gain status by forcing food down the throats of others who lose status as a result.)

The main complaint above, on including the helped in decisions, seems closely related to showing dominance via charity that controls. But again, how is this problem worse for effective altruism charity, relative to all other charity?

I think the key is the empathy signaling function. People who give because of emotional feelings induced by seeing or hearing those in need are seen as having friendlier and less suspect motives, and people who participate in a political process that includes those they help are also seen as treating them more as equals. In contrast, people with an abstract distant less emotional relation to those in need, whom they help directly as opposed to indirectly via politics, are seen as less having a personal-like relation to those they help, and so are more plausibly trying to dominate them, or to achieve some other less relational purpose.

This interpretation, that the main dislike about effective altruists is their less displaying empathy emotions, is also supported by two other criticisms made of Singer’s essay: two people complained that effective altruism relies too much on numbers and other abstractions, and two people complained that it can be very hard to estimate many numbers.

Imagine someone who said they were in love with you, cared about you, and wanted to live with you to help you, but who didn’t seem very emotionally engaged in this. They instead talked a lot about calculations they’d done on how you two could live your lives together well. You might suspect them of having ulterior motives, such as wanting to gain sex, money, or status from you. Maybe the same sort of thing is going on in charity. We want and expect a certain sort of emotional relation to people who help us, and to people who help the same people we help, and people who say they are trying to help but who won’t join in the usual emotions in the usual way may seem suspect. We’d be more likely to find fault with their approach, and to suspect them of bad ulterior motives.

Those quotes from responses to Singer: Continue reading "Effective Altruism Complaints" »

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Why Happiness?

You can’t be happier than the person you’re with. I’ve tried. It doesn’t go over well. Scott Adams

Why did evolution makes us (sometimes) happy? One standard story, and in fact the only story I’ve found so far in a quick search, is that happiness is just our mind’s way of telling us what we want. We consciously want to be happy, and so to direct our behavior our subconscious tells us that we are happy doing what it wants us to do.

But this can’t be the whole story. Not only are we well aware of wanting as a different feeling from happiness, we know of many systematic differences between our wants and our happiness. For example, even though we expect these choices to make us less happy, we expect we’ll pick money over sleep, shorter commutes, leisure time, friends, family, and legacy. We’ll pick school over a social life, and a career-helping internship over interesting one. And we’ll pick attending a favorite musician’s concert over a friend’s birthday party or reporting a crime. (Source) Two other fascinating cases:

To reconcile the intuition that Americans today are better off than in the past with the finding that average SWB [= subjective well-being] has remained flat in the U.S. over the past decades, we ask respondents to rank being born in 1950 versus being born in 1990 in both choice and SWB questions. Although our respondents overwhelmingly favor being born in 1990 in both questions, more choose 1990 despite believing that they would be happier in 1950 than the reverse. …

To reconcile the intuition that expanding political and economic freedoms for women have made women better off with the finding that average SWB among women has declined in the U.S. since the 1970s, both absolutely and relative to men, we ask respondents to rank living in a world with or without these expanded freedoms for women. Again, significantly more respondents choose a world with these expanded freedoms for women in spite of believing that a world without them would make them happier than the reverse. (more)

These all seem to me reasonably consistent with our thinking we’ll be happier doing what others approve, and what connects us to them. Our visible happiness functions in part to convince our associates that that we care about their approval and contact. This fits with smiles, taken as an indicator of happiness, also being seen as signs of submissiveness – athletes and runway models rarely smile in photos. (More on smiles)

This seems similar to a plausible theory of pain, that pain is in part a call for help from associates:

Certain types of [human] pain are not associated with any physiological damage, and studies that show the presence of others can affect reported sensations of pain. Labour pain is another good example. Across all human cultures, there are nearly always helpers, from relatives to medical professionals, who attend births. … By contrast, among our primate relatives, solitary birth is the norm. Human childbirth appears to be uniquely painful among members of the animal kingdom. … I suggest that protracted labour pains make us show distress and recruit help from others well in advance of the birth – a strategy that offers a survival advantage. (more)

Added 6:30p: Calls for people to be happy, and to teach them what leads to happiness, can be seen as calls from associates to attach yourself more strongly to them and conform more strongly to their norms and pressures.

Added 12May: Bryan Caplan correctly points out that in the last two cases above, of being born earlier and women’s rights, it is choices that are in the direction of doing what others approve and connecting to them. Happiness goes against those things there. Bryan also suggests that we tend to choose money and status over happiness because of social pressure to work hard and succeed. In this view athletes and runway models don’t smile as a signal of having sacrificed happiness for status. This all makes sense; it seems I was just confused.

But Bryan’s account raises the question of why happiness doesn’t encode our value for status and social approval, as it encodes so many other values. Bryan suggests that this is because “foragers tend to act on impulses that farmers strive to suppress.” Somehow the transition to farming changed the values we use to chose actions in a way that wasn’t reflected in the processes by which our minds compute happiness. But surely foragers had to deal with social pressures and status; those issues arose long before farmers. So there seems to be more to this story that we don’t yet understand.

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Emotionally, Men Are Far, Women Near

Me theorizing two weeks ago:

We should expect men to be more self-aware, transparent, and simple regarding their feelings about short-term sexual attractions, while women have more complex, layered, and opaque feelings on this subject. In contrast, women should be more more self-aware, transparent, and simple regarding their feelings about long-term pair-bonding, while men have more complex, layered, and opaque feelings on this subject. By being more opaque on sensitive subjects, we can keep ourselves from giving off clear signals of an inclination to betray. (more)

Now add two more assumptions:

  1. Each gender is more emotional about the topic area (short vs. long term mating) where its feelings are more complex, layered, and opaque.
  2. Long term mating thoughts tend to be in far mode, while short term mating thoughts tend to be in near mode. (Love is far, sex is near.)

Given these assumptions we should expect emotional men to be more in far mode, and emotional women to be more in near mode. (At least if mating-related emotions are a big part of emotions overall.) And since far modes tend to have a more positive mood, we should expect men to have more positive emotions, and women more negative.

In fact, even though overall men and women are just as emotional, men report more positive and less negative emotions than women. Also, after listening to an emotional story, male hormones help one remember its far-mode-abstract gist, while female hormones help one remembrer its near-mode-concrete details. (Supporting study quotes below.)

I’ve been wondering for a while why we don’t see a general correlation between near vs. far and emotionality, and I guess this explains it – the correlation is there but it flips between genders. This also helps explain common patterns in when the genders see each other as overly or underly emotional. Women are more emotional about details (e.g., his smell, that song), while men are more emotional about generalities (e.g., patriotism, fairness). Now for those study quotes: Continue reading "Emotionally, Men Are Far, Women Near" »

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