September 20, 2012

Constrained emotion vs. unchecked reason in damage prevention

The other day during a BS session with my realtalk buddy, the topic came up of how intellectuals can support all kinds of destructive policies. I've been reading a book on the facial expression of emotions, so I just threw it out there -- maybe the cerebral types find no problem going for wacko stuff like that because they have low, almost minimal emotional reactivity.

First, here is a thorough post on the brains of liberals and conservatives. It's about a year old, but I doubt any more recent work will overturn what seems pretty solid so far -- that liberals have stronger analytical reasoning regions compared to conservatives, while compared to liberals conservatives have stronger emotional regions.

The author, a liberal, only sees the good side of the ability to generate propositions, forecast or deduce their likely consequences, and revise these in light of incoming information. And emotion is something that's only OK in small doses -- he issues the standard warning against emotion "getting in the way" of the reasoning process.

I searched the post and comments for "Damasio" and "Descartes" and came up empty. I realize that after awhile, all popular science books will see their take-home messages gradually evaporate, but I think that's especially true for Descartes' Error during the '90s through today (it came out in 1994). The upshot of his book is that emotion aids the decision-making process by attaching weights to the various outcomes that the analytical part can think up and forecast about. Neurological patients with defective emotional centers live incredibly screwed-up lives because they don't feel strongly to go this way or that, so they often decide on whim.

The past 20 years have seen a return to Renaissance Humanist, Enlightenment, Victorian, and Mid-century Modern faith in clarifying, path-clearing reason over blind emotion and baseless superstition. While the academics who research emotion have been making steady progress since Damasio's breakthrough book, there is very little audience today for a popular science book about the importance of emotion. It cuts against not only the faith in reason but also the craving of snark. Too bad he didn't write it around the time of Julian Jaynes -- that was the ripe time for those ideas.

For example, that whole Emotional Intelligence literature never caught on with the pop sci readers. That seems strange because those readers love paradigms that attack IQ research in the context of racial differences; it allows them to morally preen as racially sensitive white people. However, they turn out to love the IQ research on within-race differences -- it shows how superior the brainiacs are. The Emotional Intelligence program did not seek to over-turn "racist" tests, robbing the pop sci readers of the opportunity to show it off in public. Even worse, it argued that IQ isn't the be-all end-all of psychological differences, and that autistic nerds have their own suite of problems that empathetic people do not.

Rather, what sold like gangbusters was Howard Gardner's idea of Multiple Intelligences. The pop sci crowd really loved that because they weren't superior to the slobs at Wal-Mart in just one way, but in multiple ways! Please, Prof. Gardner, relish us with the details about all of the wonderfully different flavors of intelligence that we smartypants excel at. As it turns out, tests of the multiple intelligences all share a common factor, just like all other IQ tests.

Getting back to how the cerebral types can so easily corrupt and ruin a society, I see their emotional numbness playing two roles.

First, because they lack a strong sense of empathy, the suffering of their intended beneficiaries doesn't shock them out of their delusion. An autistic person does not change his ways upon picturing "a boot stomping on a human face -- forever".

Second, and more importantly, emotions are linked to basic bodily drives, so they can be satiated, and indeed be followed by a refractory period where the person cannot feel that emotion or act on it. This negative feedback loop keeps a person from eating and eating until they truly do eat a horse, or from punching and wrestling with someone until they actually do tear their head off, or from sleeping with one person and then another until they wind up fucking anything that moves.

Those idioms all show that the limits on our drives are not the result of our conscious effort, strength of the will, good intentions, etc. Emotions just were not designed to keep us engaged in those activities forever and ever, satisfying our desire with one example after another until all possible satisfactions became actual satisfactions.

This draws a narrow circle around the corruption, damage, fabric-fraying, and so on, that an emotional person can do. They want to punch someone, they pick a fight, maybe injure several people or at most a dozen in a bar-room brawl, and then they're done fighting. They want to scream real loud, they get in someone's face, they blow off steam, and then they mellow out. When emotions motivate some extreme behavior, the release during catharsis makes sure that they won't feel like doing so again for a long while.

With reason, it's the opposite. Subscribing to abstract principles, deducing their implications, and implementing them in special cases was not designed to slake a corporeal thirst. For most of our species' history, nobody's mind wandered near that mode of thinking. There is never a feeling of satiety -- you can always strive to instantiate your cherished principles in yet another real-world case. From the principles that human rights are inviolable, democracy falls under human rights, and that we ought to defend such rights, we get one special case after another of striving to Spread Democracy, usually with little success.

I don't think Vietnam or Iraq would've been possible without that kind of mind. An emotionally reactive, racist redneck might have gone over to Vietnam, kicked some ass in a couple bar fights, and then come back home satisfied from having busted some skulls. How many could he kill? Probably no more than 10, if he was a real killer type, and likely not even one. But when someone in the liberal establishment wants to aggress against Vietnam because it follows from the principle that Communism must be contained, then the lack of a satiety mechanism could keep them going until hundreds of thousands are killed.

That example shows how reason-based policies extend indefinitely not only across time but space as well. It's not enough to contain Communism in Vietnam but in all of Southeast Asia, and then Asia, and then the whole world, including such strategic lynchpin countries as Grenada. Damasio mentions that emotionally crippled patients often develop collecting / hoarding behaviors, and I wonder if there isn't a similarity in the cerebral types who have to implement their cherished principles in every conceivable locality, no matter how worthless -- searching half-senile old ladies at the airport, putting in a wheelchair ramp to a moon bounce, passing out condoms and sex toys to Yale freshmen, etc. The OCD completist cannot sleep until all the boxes are filled in their checklist, whereas the hothead doesn't have to kick everyone's ass just to call it a night and go hit the hay.

Anyway, thought it made sense the other night, and thinking it over has convinced me even more. There really is no telling how bizarre the cerebrals will wind up making our world. They do not feel satiating pleasure and cathartic relief, but instead are caught on an addictive, joyless treadmill.


  1. Good post. It is sometimes pretty shocking what kinds of statements nominally intelligent people can make who have fallen too in love with their abstractions. I saw a release from the ACLU the other day basically saying "here in the 21st century, schools have no business assuming girls might prefer going to dances over participating in sporting events. Such thinking is the product of outdated notions of 'girl' and 'boy' that are long since disproven". It demands some impressive mental gymnastics to live in the world and make that statement without batting an eye, but apparently some people are just that good at disbelieving their lying eyes.

    Are you familiar with Bruce Charlton's writing about "clever sillies"? It touches on similar ideas to your post: that people who experience success using abstraction to deal with evolutionarily novel situations (like working with technology) err when they try to apply the same technique to managing or interacting with people, which demands instead a reliance on evolutionarily fine-tuned instinct and empathy. You can reason your way through problems like how to design a motherboard using hard-and-fast principles, but apply that same kind of rigid thinking to, say, what the proper roles of husband and wife should be, and you're going to make a mess of things.

  2. I don't think you have to smart necessarily. You could be dumb and nasty things in the name of your ideology.

    Check out this story of Yao Ming's mother:,8816,1126765,00.html

    Da Fang was barely 17, but she seemed transformed. Her lively banter was gone, supplanted by fervent recitations from Mao's Little Red Book. Her hair had been cut very short in a display of revolutionary ardor. Her usual sports garb had been replaced by a baggy dark Mao suit and black cloth shoes. The only splash of color on her was the red armband, which bore three characters that struck fear in millions of Chinese: Hongweibing. Red Guard.


    Da Fang was one of the Red Guards the old leaders feared most. As an acolyte of the so-called Strong Wind Rebels, who took over the institute, the 17-year-old became a leader of the basketball section. Her group of Red Guards had one primary task: to investigate, punish and re-educate the "bad elements" among their former coaches and leaders. "Da Fang seemed especially eager to improve herself as a revolutionary," says one of her former teammates. "Some of us wanted to join the Red Guards to avoid trouble, because anybody who wasn't with them was considered an enemy. But Da Fang was a true believer. And true believers, you know, were capable of anything."


    According to former players and coaches who lived in the compound during these years, Da Fang became one of the most zealous disciplinarians. "She treated people badly," says one former coach, who remembers watching her cut off another woman's braided hair in one of the gentler forms of punishment. "The Cultural Revolution gave her a sense of pride, arrogance," says another coach. Thirty years later, he still searches for an explanation. "She was just a child. What did she know, right?"

    Hunched before his captors at center court, Zhu Yong listened as Da Fang and the other Red Guards recited his crimes: working at a department-store candy counter before the revolution, maintaining contacts with the enemy Nationalist Party, deviating from the true path of Maoist thought. The deposed commissar had been active in Shanghai's communist underground long before Da Fang was born, but now the revolution was eating its own, and among local sports leaders Zhu suffered the most. The Red Guards deprived him of food. They beat him with fists and clubs, and they pulled his arms up behind his back in the excruciating "airplane" position. There's no evidence that Da Fang participated in Zhu's physical abuse, but several witnesses say she often led the public denunciations against him. During one session, in an apparent attempt to turn the onetime leaders against each other, she commanded Zhu to engage in hand-to-hand combat with his former second in command. The two men refused, and Da Fang erupted in anger.

  3. Much of the left is arrayed against the old and conventional practice of male circumcision, while it is righteous and forward-thinking to chop the whole thing off in the name of gender identity.

    Sometimes the left winds up accidentally eating its own cooking, no, steaming poo, such as when left wing activist Warren Beatty gave us this bit of press:

    "Warren Beatty was said to be devastated when his teenaged daughter confessed she wanted to be a man."

    Being smart, his rationalizing mind got to work and now he blathers all sorts of politically correct affirming horseshit about his daughter who has mutilated herself and destroyed her reproductive system.

    The reason liberals get away with being so retarded is that conservatives are usually not the types to be brutally mocking and satirical. Turds like Beatty are much less than men for allowing their daughters' sex to be shredded by cold steel.

  4. "It demands some impressive mental gymnastics to live in the world and make that statement without batting an eye"

    I knew a gender studies major in college whose senior thesis was about how sex-segregated bathrooms was a crucial, and overlooked, source of the perpetuation of the gender binary in adult society.

    The logically obvious solution was to implement unisex bathrooms from childhood onward.

    In person she wasn't crazy, cooky, or even off-beat. The only thing in common with other wacko intellectual types was her relatively flat affect.

    It seems less a case of impressive cognitive gymnastics a more like a faulty piece of emotional machinery that would normally put the brake on weirdness before it spiraled off into outer space.

  5. "The reason liberals get away with being so retarded is that conservatives are usually not the types to be brutally mocking and satirical."

    That probably stems from the conservatives being more emotional or intuitive, which makes it harder to spell out the propositions of the other side clearly, to succinctly state how the world is in various ways, and to connect the dots in how the two clash.

    And if you're being satirical, you have to do all that in a covert, not-so-analytical way.

    I think the best satire comes from liberals who have half a lick of common sense and those conservatives who got in a fistfight and kissed a girl before 15.

  6. Another point to make is about reality checks.

    In the cerebral view, a reality check comes from updating the list of propositions and their consequences in light of newly processed information.

    In the real world, that almost never causes a visible change in someone's worldview or behavior. They dismiss it, rationalize it, or recruit any other number of cognitive biases.

    The most vivid reality check comes from empathy -- being put in another person's mind, and seeing and feeling how different things are from the way you had felt. You thought that some joke was funny and all in good fun, then you see the person's face begin to scrunch into the crying shape, and suddenly, immediately, you change your view on the nature of the joke.

    Sure, you can still rationalize that -- maybe they just have a poor sense of humor, are easily offended, etc. But it's harder to wave away that initial visceral feeling that you'd caused another person pain. That impression is way more palpable than hearing information that contradicts one of your already-held beliefs.

  7. Have you had experience with low empathy mothers, fathers, teachers, or bosses? They can scream and scream and scream. And they can do this even if the person they are screaming at starts crying.

  8. I don't think liberals are irrational. Their policies are rationally designed to hurt conservative voters - in other words, 50% of the country. If those policies seem destructive, its simply because they're meant to be.


  9. Agnostic,

    This is one of your best posts yet.

    Lawrence Auster often talks about something you touched on: that ideology and beliefs are always, in his view, taken to their logical conclusions in a fairly predictable series:
    a person's ideology clashes with some observed reality,
    a "principled exception" is immediately created,
    the principled exception slowly loses out to the ideology.

    There is a liberal Christian woman I know that I just saw tonight at a church function. I'll call her Carol.

    She profoundly lacks empathy. She seems mostly nice and soft-spoken, has a nice home and is not uncouth is upper middle-class. She is also attractive for her age (60s) and is not a feminist. However, she will pick fights and become absolutely hostile toward anyone who doesn't share her views.

    We had a wonderful kind-hearted elderly woman run off from our weekly get togethers by Carol. The elderly woman had just been to a state pro-life conference and brought back material to share. She casually mentions some candidates who were there or their spokespeople. This woman was NOT political. She couldn't remember most of their names and we had to help her out. She also doesn't have strong negative feelings toward Dems because she's not a junkie nor is she that type.
    We're not allowed to discuss politics so the elderly woman just wanted to leave it out as much as possible as did the rest of us.
    Carol asked which Democrats were there as she was apparently irked that none were mentioned. The woman replied with the truth and the elaboration that Democrats are pro-choice. The liberal tore apart this woman whom we had shared many a weekly dinner with all because "it was a lie to say Democrats were pro-choice when some aren't and I just can't let that go unchallenged". Until then, we didn't know Carol was liberal.

    I never had a problem with her personally until tonight when I laughed and agreed with her that the Medici were ruthless, but that I would rather have them than our elites. Apparently, she's a severe Whig.

    I went to tell my husband later about the incident, and he interrupted to say, "It was Carol, wasn't it."
    He proceeded to tell me she tried to pick a fight with a man about Charlie Crist after I left. She overheard this man say he didn't like Crist in a small setting of guys. She asked him why and the man politely and desperately tried to drop the subject and muttered that he and another man asked Crist similar questions but were given two different answers depending upon the perceived views of the questioner.
    Incredibly, she wanted to know more about the question so as to defend Charlie Crist! Worse, this man had been unemployed until very recently for over two years and their progress was very much all our concern during this period. Her compassion was reserved for a politician she'll never meet over the man she personally knew and who we personally witnessed suffering from the economic downturn!

  10. Especially that "I can't let that go unchallenged" part -- that really smacks of sperginess. If it meant there's someone trying to dominate or intimidate, and someone else stands up to it, that's simple courage.

    But that wasn't the context with that woman. It was like a Trekkie shooting out of their seat when a sequel has an inconsequential point that contradicts a point from another movie in the series. "I can't just sit here and let that go unchallenged!"

    It's like every minor disagreement has to be attacked and settled in her favor, like how every parentheses need to be closed in a block of computer code. It's a completionist thing, not a courage thing.

  11. "I knew a gender studies major in college whose senior thesis was about how sex-segregated bathrooms was a crucial, and overlooked, source of the perpetuation of the gender binary in adult society.

    The logically obvious solution was to implement unisex bathrooms from childhood onward."

    LOL, is she famous at all now? Or did everyone in her field say that even back then?

    Some schools have implemented unisex bathrooms in early grades, until 4th grade I think, and some even later.

    This is now framed in terms of not ignoring differences being discrimination. The new level of demanded feigned ignorance is higher than before.

  12. Not so much trying to retrain people, as steer the country in a different direction, and make the younger generations.

    The irony is that status-strivers don't want the younger generation to be status-strivers also, or else the system will be overloaded. This is why more status-striving Millenials ended up supporting Bernie Sanders.


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