Thursday, November 07, 2013

Naked Negative Emotions

by Gary Berg-Cross

A pundit on the political scene recently summarized today’s conflict of raw emotions and suggested (I paraphrase) that Hate & Anger was winning out over Love and Happiness while Fear over Hope. These battle of opposites may be so, although dichotomizes are often a simplification that hides important complexities (see my discussion of Binary Thinking). Certainly this sports-game metaphorical judgment of winners and losers seems disturbing. We might also apply other psychological state ideas like apathy and cynicism in the political sphere. I guess there is more mention of this although since they aren’t binary ideas they don’t have as easy a comparison of one going up and thus the other down a zero sum game.

More broadly our system seems not to be handling distressful social and cultural problems, such as school, office and church shootings or racial and ethnic tensions.  It is easy to be on the negative side of emotions but we might more systematically expand that observation of what is abroad in the emotional and attitudinal space of the nation.  

Discrete emotion theory developed 2 decades or so ago (Fogel and friends) assumes that psychological states & emotions are phylogenetically adapted to serve the basic function of survival. That is, they are like a skill such as language learning and planning. Human emotions like reasoning serves a human purpose. 

And like a tree growing from a small acorn we might conceptualize them unfold from simpler states – feeling good or bad, being energized or not. Seeing a bear gets one energized. That’s basic for survival. Arousal is a primitive state as is its unaroused, relaxed state. If seeing a bear generates enough fear we may run away and survive. Babies have both but emotions can build on these as they develop. Being a social animal as well as one that can be eaten by bears some complex emotions like parental love are largely social in nature but are central to babies hence society surviving. There is developmental support for the idea that emotional expression like language expressions emerges, driven by maturation of the central nervous system but also social interaction.  Human children learn rules that modify and modulate emotional expression and behavior.  Simple experiments to test the theory reveal surprising results.  When people are told to hold a pencil between their teeth for some period of time (this uses the facial muscles involved with smiling) they afterwards reported feeling happy!  Discrete emotion theory, mentioned earlier, proposes functional values for each emotion, suggesting that patterns of particular neural activity in the brain causes the associated, subjective changes in feeling, but also in behavior. Behavioral changes make the theory testable.  These behaviors can be as simple as distinct sets of facial, vocal, respiratory, skin (measurable galvanicly), and muscular responses
During childhood certain repetitive emotional experiences, say anger situations, can develop traits and biases that will be a strong factor in interpersonal relationships later in adulthood. 

So it is bad for us as a culture if indeed Hate & Anger are winning out over Love and Happiness while Fear is dominating Hope.  Cultural systems can favor some emotions over others. An economic system that has a central base of fear and greed may be heading for a bit on trouble.  Sure fear is a core emotion, but so is happiness. Greed is more complex, although we can see kids hugging toys to preserve comfort and happiness.  Guilt is used by  cultures, including religious ones, as a balance on greed. Mary share your toys!
Indeed some negative emotions like resentment may act as moral checks on drives like greed.  It’s a question of balance. So hearing a binary contest of greed versus generosity just seems to be simplifying things too much.

But to be sure in the contemporary atmosphere the end result of emphasizing a negative emotion like fear or anger is to produce people and groups whose trait is being in the state of fear, or frustration or anger for long periods.  That’s unbalanced and bad for reasoning which usually requires some middle ground between excited and relaxed. 

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