Hedonism and debauchery »« Righteous and unrighteous

Only the best people turn up this road

Speaking of righteous and unrighteous, I’m still reading the Jonathan Haidt book. (I read several books at once, so that I’ll be sure to confuse them all.) I’m quite liking Part One, which argues for the primacy of intuition over reasoning. I’ve seen a lot of it before but not all of it, and anyway it’s presented well. It’s convincing.

Like the bit on p 55 about William Wundt and “affective primacy.”

Affect refers to small flashes of positive or negative feeling that prepare us to approach or avoid something.

I’ve been noticing something like that recently, with amusement, about driving – about a ridiculous little sorting thing going on in my head while driving that has to do with approval of the road I take and disparagement of the road others take. That’s related to stuff like “I’m going fast enough here, so the people behind me will know I know my way and I’m not some pathetic outsider who doesn’t know the way.” I have thoughts like that constantly, and then once in awhile I notice them and laugh at how ludicrous they are.

That’s not related to the affect, really, but to the small flashes.

Anyway, Wundt said that

affective reactions are so tightly integrated with perception that we find ourselves liking or disliking something the instant we notice it, sometimes even before we know what it is.

Wundt said it in the 1890s. In 1980 a social psychologist, Robert Zajonc, revived the idea, to correct the then-prevalent one that humans are “cool, rational information processors.”

Zajonc urged psychologists to use a dual-process model in which affect or “feeling” is the first process. It has primacy both because it happens first (it is part of perception and is therefore extremely fast) and because it is more powerful (it is closely linked to motivation, and therefore it strongly influences behavior). The second process – thinking – is an evolutionarily newer ability, rooted in language and not closely related to motivation.

Affect is more powerful than thinking.

I knew that, but that’s a particularly vivid way of explaining it, or reminding us of it.

Comments

  1. Mano Singham says

    The power of the affective domain is often underestimated. I counsel faculty that when leading discussions based on some reading, that rather than plunging straight into an analytical discussion of the work, they should first allow students to express their affective reactions to the work (did they like it? hate it?), then let them describe why they think they had that reaction, and only then go on to the analytical. It leads to much more fruitful discussions.

  2. hjhornbeck says

    Sounds a lot like Sentimentalism. The SEP has a good summary of David Hume’s version:

    (1) Reason alone cannot be a motive to the will, but rather is the “slave of the passions”.
    (2) Moral distinctions are not derived from reason.
    (3) Moral distinctions are derived from the moral sentiments: feelings of approval (esteem, praise) and disapproval (blame) felt by spectators who contemplate a character trait or action.
    (4) While some virtues and vices are natural, others, including justice, are artificial.

  3. says

    I’m pretty sure I often underestimate the importance of the affective domain, but I’ve also learned at least that that’s a mistake, if not to correct it often and thoroughly enough.

  4. says

    HJ – yes – Haidt cites and agrees with Hume throughout. He says his view is basically Humean.

    Sam Harris’s book on morality would have benefited from more serious attention to Hume.

  5. jcsscj says

    People interested in the 2 process model should also read Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow”.

    Two systems drive the way humans think and make choices: System One is fast, intuitive, and emotional; System Two is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. Examining how both systems function within the mind, Kahneman exposes the extraordinary capabilities and also the faults and biases of fast thinking, and the pervasive influence of intuitive impressions on peoples’ thoughts and choices.

  6. kevinalexander says

    This whole idea of magical feelings is so frustrating to me that it makes my eyes bleed.

    Consider this scenario– A young woman is riding on a bus with her boyfriend. The affective thought of each of the six other men on the bus is “She’s a slut, let’s rape her to death” So then, trusting their feelings they proceed to do just that.

    Snap decisions can only work if the decision making apparatus is PRETRAINED by culture or education.

  7. Martha says

    Kevin, do you really think pure reason would have kept those men from committing that terrible act? They simply would have proceeded logically from false assumptions (she’s out at night, thus she’s a slut), all the while congratulating themselves on their perfect use of logic. Morality implies not only a reasonable set of arguments but also a shared value system (person x is also a human being and should have the same rights I do; therefore, I do not have the right to rape and kill her). If the shared assumptions are not there, reason can and has gone dreadfully wrong.

    There’s a difference between feelings of “I want” and the quite often correct responses informed by intuition. Gut feelings can often be correct before one can defend them to a skeptical audience. That doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t have to defend them. It only means that if we waited until we had airtight arguments in support of our every move, we’d be paralyzed.

    Both snap decisions and slower, rational decisions are pre-trained by culture and education.

  8. hjhornbeck says

    I think there’s some confusion about what “feelings” means here. Hume thought of them in terms of “instinct,” ie. we have a desire to eat, to learn, to avoid pain, to seek out pleasure, and so on. There’s no rational basis for them, they simply come as a consequence of being human. We can invent new instincts or feelings, by attaching them to existing ones via rational thought; we can find mathematics “beautiful,” or be frightened by the concept of hell. This may be a conscious/rational association at first, but quickly becomes a subconscious/instinctual one.

    So a Humean response to Kevin would be that he’s muddling everything together. His example is Modus Ponens itself, a reasoned extension of a set of premises (“that woman is a slut”, “sluts deserve to be raped to death”). Those premises, and not the logical process leading to the conclusion, count towards “sentiment.” And are those sentiments “natural,” built into our bones, or “artificial” constructs of our experiences and/or society? If the latter, are they founded on reality, ie. do sluts deserve to be raped to death?

    In that regard, Kevin’s last line nails it; without the construction of “artificial” sentiments, we would have a much tougher time making quick decisions.

  9. hjhornbeck says

    While I’m musing, Hume himself seems to fall into the is/ought gap. His Sentimentalism is a great descriptor of how people act, but does that also make it the moral system we ought to use?

    Benson @4: EVERYone could benefit from reading more Hume. He was so far ahead of his time, it’s somewhat shocking. I think he was the first person to provide an effective counter-proof to the existence of any god.

    Ironically, while I disagree with Harris on the details, I think he’s right to leap the is/ought divide. Creating a perfect moral code requires perfect knowledge, something we can never hope to achieve. We must settle for a pragmatic compromise, and the scientific method is an ideal epistemology for crafting that compromise.

  10. kevinalexander says

    Marla,
    “Both snap decisions and slower, rational decisions are pre-trained by culture and education.”

    That’s exactly my point. You said it better than I did.
    I have lived long enough to see the idea of ‘listening to your heart’, ‘going with your gut’, ‘trust your feelings, Luke’ and suchlike often praised as ‘another way of knowing’. It can and does go right in good people but can just as easily be made to go terribly wrong.
    Evolution gave us the means to both nurture and to kill. Unscrupulous religious and political leaders know well how to get people to uncritically ‘listen to their hearts’

  11. says

    Kevin, that certainly isn’t my point. It may sort of be part of Haidt’s point, which is why I’ve been critical of things he’s written in the past (and am of some things in this book), but in this part of the book he’s explaining how the process works, not saying “and it always gets everything right.”

  12. kevinalexander says

    Ophelia, thanks for the correction. I don’t think that I was aiming my comments directly at you anyway, I’m sorry if it seemed that I did.
    This whole subject is a personal sore point for me having made some very costly snap decisions myself as well as witnessing close friends take advice from manipulators urging them to go with their intuition.
    The church of scientology for instance has invented methods of mind fucking that the jesuits can only dream of.

  13. Ariel says

    Do you really think pure reason would have kept those men from committing that terrible act? … There’s a difference between feelings of “I want” and the quite often correct responses informed by intuition. Gut feelings can often be correct before one can defend them to a skeptical audience. That doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t have to defend them. It only means that if we waited until we had airtight arguments in support of our every move, we’d be paralyzed.

    No intention to quarrel, I think it’s quite correct. But the topic, and this fragment in particular, reminded me of something I read some time ago. Some psychological research (I remember it only vaguely) suggesting that our reasoning capacity doesn’t function as an impartial judge; it’s more like and advocate. In general we don’t look impartially at pros and cons, we look for arguments supporting the side which has already been chosen as ours. Our gut made the choice and the reason does everything it can to fight the enemy … oh sorry, not the enemy of course, the “skeptical audience”.

    I remember that I found that picture of rationality rather gloomy. Sorry, I don’t have any deep thoughts about that now, probably it’s just the hard time I’ve had recently. But have you ever considered looking at the history of human thought from such an angle?

  14. says

    Ariel – it’s possible that you read that in something Haidt wrote – in fact likely, because he uses the advocate metaphor (or, at least, lawyer). That is one of his basic points.

  15. kevinalexander says

    Some psychological research (I remember it only vaguely) suggesting that our reasoning capacity doesn’t function as an impartial judge; it’s more like and advocate. In general we don’t look impartially at pros and cons, we look for arguments supporting the side which has already been chosen as ours.

    Antonio Damasio does something interesting in his book ‘Self Comes to Mind’ He takes the words ‘emotion’ and ‘feeling’ which most people, I think, use interchangeably but to which he gives distinct meanings. When the brain receives some stimulus, either external through the senses or generated internally, it releases a cocktail of hormones that act as a kind of naturally produced drug. That he calls emotion. The thoughts that our brains produce under the influence of these ‘drugs’ are what he calls feelings.
    We probably can’t control our emotions but we can resist going along with the feelings by examining them and deciding if they are justified.

  16. Audra says

    Reminds me of the social cognition concept of humans as “motivated tacticians” who have the “illusion of objectivity”. I have not read this paper since grad school but it’s still influential and a great review of some social cognition research.

    Ziva Kunda (1990). The Case for Motivated Reasoning;

    http://www.psych.utoronto.ca/users/peterson/psy430s2001/Kunda%20Z%20Motivated%20Reasoning%20Psych%20Bull%201990.pdf

    Abstract

    It is proposed that motivation may affect reasoning through reliance on a biased set of
    cognitive processes–that is, strategies for accessing, constructing, and evaluating beliefs.
    The motivation to be accurate enhances use of those beliefs and strategies that are
    considered most appropriate, whereas the motivation to arrive at particular conclusions
    enhances use of those that are considered most likely to yield the desired conclusion. There
    is considerable evidence that people are more likely to arrive at conclusions that they want
    to arrive at, but their ability to do so is constrained by their ability to construct seemingly
    reasonable justifications for these conclusions. These ideas can account for a wide variety of
    research concerned with motivated reasoning.

  17. kevinalexander says

    Audra,
    That could explain the curious phenomenon where the smartest people do the stupidest things. It’s the most agile mind that can engineer the most complex fantasy bridge to connect where he is to where he wants to go.

  18. Audra says

    kevinalexander, I agree. I also think it’s interesting the extent to which we (humans) are unaware how much our reasoning is impacted by motivation. Our cognitive processes are not simply cold and “Spock-like” but are influenced greatly by our own desired outcome. From a philosophy of science perspective, it’s another reason why peer review is so critically important to science.

  19. Rocketmagnet says

    Kevinalexander,

    When I started reading this post, I misunderstood it. When I read the words ” … the primacy of intuition over reasoning.” I assumed it meant that intuition was somehow better than reasoning. But as I continued to read, I realised my mistake. By ‘primacy’, think Ophelia meant that intuition holds more power in our own brains. She’s not saying that we should just blindly listen to our feelings. Is it possible you made the same mistake?

    Also … I want to mention again Daniel Kahneman’s book: Thinking, Fast and Slow. (It was mentioned by jcsscj above). This is one of the most interesting books I have ever read. Hardly a page goes by without a fascinating insight into the workings of our own minds. What makes the book so powerful is that the author is one of the leading researchers in this field, and has spent his career trying to tease out the mechanisms that underlie our thought processes. Everything in the book is backed up by real research. It’s one of those books that everyone should read so as to understand themselves better.

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Thinking-Fast-Slow-Daniel-Kahneman/dp/0141033576

  20. says

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  21. kevinalexander says

    Rocketmagnet,

    By ‘primacy’, think Ophelia meant that intuition holds more power in our own brains. She’s not saying that we should just blindly listen to our feelings. Is it possible you made the same mistake?

    Yes, I did. I read too fast and react too quickly. I didn’t notice until Ophelia called me on it.

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