Power to the people

Last month in America last month there was a scandal about how unfair the selection at the prestigious universities is sometimes: famous and rich people who bought buildings for the university, after which the child was admitted. These scandals not only show the extent to which wealth corrupts, they also send a signal to people who are unable to buy a place at a university: there are different rules for people who are rich and powerful.

And that is a problem. Not only because of corruption, by the way. This article in the New York Times explains very clearly why the selection process of the prestigious universities is already a problem even without corruption. To enter such a university, a student must meet so many requirements that often a large part of the school time and energy is used for ‘curriculum building’. Students and their parents work for years on activities, grades and CVs that lead to a greater chance of acceptance. It goes without saying that here again, especially the wealthier people have greater opportunities to actually be able to carry out all these activities. But an even bigger problem is perhaps the gigantic narrowing of the field of vision of these students. Their self-worth, personal development and their childhood entirely in the service of a good university.

Coats of arms of eight of the most prestigious ‘Ivy League’ Universities in America

In the Netherlands, we do not have such selection processes. Although; my neighbour boy was admitted to a student association this year and I can’t say this admittance was due to a reasonable and well-considered selection process… Here too we seem to place a lot of value on belonging to a select group of people And here too it constricts our view of what a successful study and working life is.

In the Netherlands we also are keenly aware that different rules apply to rich and powerful people. Take the dissatisfaction with the climate agreement, where companies (which clearly use more energy than households, see infographic below) seemed to be excluded from the measures. The discontent in the country was strongly felt, and also visible in the latest election results (where I do not want to state that the election results are a direct result of the climate agreement, there is of course much more happening that affects election results).

Infographic is in Dutch I am afraid. On the right you see households use 17% of al energy, industry uses 46%.

In a book I recently read, ‘Hillbilly Elegy‘ by J.D. Vance, it is described beautifully what is so bad about the image that there are different rules for rich and powerful inhabitants. The problem is not so much that they – the rich and powerful – get their way easier and more often. The problem is much more that the non-rich and not powerful get the feeling that it doesn’t matter what they do or decide. A system in which it is easier for one group to move forward also means that there is a group for which this is much more difficult. For that group, their own commitment and making smart choices is disconnected from success. And once that has been disconnected, why should you still commit yourself?

Learned helplessness, they do call it. Nice term, but a less beautiful phenomenon. Because if you no longer think that your behaviour matters, then the world becomes a very desolate and hostile place. If you feel that you are no longer the owner of your own destiny, you can feel enormously powerless. In Hillbilly Elegy Vance describes the consequences of this powerlessness: lethargy, externalisation of one’s own bad situation (it is always someone else’s fault) and above all, far fewer opportunities and possibilities. A vicious circle of powerlessness leading to a negative spiral of life chances.

In that light, I am extremely happy with the results of the last elections in the Netherlands. Because never before have so many people voted in provincial elections. People who take their fate into their own hands, who don’t feel so powerless that they think it doesn’t matter anymore. They want change and take action for it themselves. My hope is that these people will feel taken seriously in the coming period by their elected representatives. So that they notice that they are indeed not powerless, and that their decisions are absolutely influential.

And is it then too much to ask to hope that we have now also finished making each other small and blaming each other? That we see this election result as the last push in the right direction to really listen to each other and take each other seriously? Everybody – from liberal to conservative, from woman to foreigner – deserves this respect.

Inside out: emotions are the true heroes

Up to now I have mainly represented emotions as irritating and illogical instincts that we should suppress. Logical reasoning as a basis for a better society. For trekkies and other nerds among us: live like Spock, then everything will be fine.

Spock and Data, two characters from the TV-series ‘Star Trek’

But is that the case? In addition to Spock, Star Trek also has a character called Data, the robot that continued to search for feelings and emotions throughout the series. And I never counted it, but I think that the episodes in which Spock’s logical reasoning completely misses the point, are as frequent as the episodes in which Spock and his logic saves the day. Emotions are twisted and difficult, that’s for sure, but logic alone only gets us so far. And, perhaps even more important: only having logic would make the world a much more boring place.

Scientists have long been studying in the role of emotions. A famous name in this field of science is Phineas Gage. Not because he is a famous scientist, but because he worked in America in the 19th century on the construction of the railways, and in an accident he got an iron bar through his head. Miraculously enough, he lost sight of his left eye, but seemed otherwise to recover completely: he could still reason, talk and walk.

An original photo of Phineas Gage, holding an iron rod

But: he had changed. He was angrier, cursed more, was much less socially adjusted. His character was affected by the accident. Over the centuries, scientists have been trying to make sense of the implications of Gage’s behavioral change. Because so little concrete data is known about Gage and the damage, he is seen as the ‘Rorschach spot’ of early brain research: on the basis of the descriptions of his behavior almost every brain theory could and can be explained. You could reason that is near full recovery implied that the brain functions as a whole, and parts can compensate for other parts. But, Cage’s changed personality could also convince you that the frontal part of the brain (where the stake had caused all the damage) is where the social behavior and emotions are regulated.

An inkblot from the (in)famous Rorschach test

Even with all the duplicity and guesswork, Gage has been of great influence on brain research. Two centuries after his death, for example, his life inspired Joshua Greene to investigate the influence of different brain reactions on moral issues. Do you remember the Trolley problem? One of the most famous fictional questions in philosophy. Follow the link for all information if you need, but in short the trolley problem comes down to this: to what extent and under what circumstances is it allowed to harm a small number of people, to prevent damage to more people?

Would you change tracks? Would you push the fat person of the bridge?

Joshua Greene started to present the various Trolley problems to people with and without brain disorders. People who have a brain disorder that has an effect on your emotional judgments, appear to agree much more often to sacrifice a small group of people, to save a larger group, than people with normal brain function. It goes too far to explain the science completely here, but in short, according to Greene we have methods in our brains to make decisions very quickly (emotions) and to make slower logical decisions (ratio).

To prevent us from pushing people off a bridge whenever our rational consideration is that the benefits outweigh the costs, we need emotions. And not only because our emotions are the ‘protectors’ of a number of essential agreements that make it possible for us to live together (murder is bad, sharing is good). Also simply because it takes too much time to rely solely on your rational brain in every decision. Try to make a full assessment of your best response if a traffic jam suddenly forms in front of you on the motorway: you won’t succeed in time. Your shock reaction is the only way to get your body to do something fast enough. Without our emotions, we would be a danger in traffic.

Emotions, according to Greene, are unique and very valuable ‘warning lights’ in our brains. We should not set them aside as nonsensical irrational feelings, we should take them very seriously. Without our emotions we wouldn’t be able to make good decisions and as a society we would have a lot more trouble. Love, group identity, solidarity and empathy: these are essential parts of a fully-fledged society.

To be or not to be

It was the first piece of prose I really learned by heart. Because of the beautiful words, whose meaning was lost to me. It just sounded so terribly beautiful:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing, end them.

Hamlet is in doubt here. Should he live on, or commit suicide? He doubts very rationally: in a long monologue, he systematically weighs the pros and cons of death. I love Hamlet. I love his doubt, his willingness (whether or not of his own free will) to always look at things from several angles. Am I avenging my father, who wasn’t a kind man either? Is murder a good answer to murder? This doubt makes Hamlet a special ‘hero’. He is not (well, sometimes he is but usually not) a man of impulsive action. He’s not a superhero, he’s just a prince who doesn’t know what to do.

The contrast between reason and emotion, between ‘impulsive action’ and ‘quiet contemplation’ indicates how we think about emotions and reason. Our emotions add colour to life. Early philosophers like John Stuart Mill stated that pleasure is our highest attainable good. Maximizing pleasure is, according to Mill, a good basic rule for setting up a society. Since Mill we have gone of this rule a bit: the whole Enlightenment can be seen as an attempt by philosophers and scientists to impose reason and thinking as the foundations of society. As Descartes says: Cogita ergo Sum: I think therefore I exist.

The contest between emotion and reason is far from settled these days. Certainly not now that neurologists and psychologists like Joshua Greene and Jonathan Haidt are increasingly questioning the distinction between emotion and reason. Emotion can be seen as another form of thinking (see also previous blog). The difference between emotion and reason is not – they say – in the place in your body where it is made, but in the speed with which it works and the energy it costs to produce. Emotion is fast and cheap, thinking is slow and expensive. Emotions are our automated thinking patterns. They are thinking, just as much as reason is. But they are automatic, fast and therefore inflexible. And for that reason the should keep away from our emotional reactions, some people say. After all: they are not controllable! I feel before I know I feel.

How to deal with such fast and inflexible patterns in our heads? According to Joshua Greene (Moral tribes), we have to go beyond the automatic setting if we want to bridge the problems of today’s society. We must see and use our emotions, but not sail blindly on them. We must disrupt our automatic setting. We must challenge and question our own built-in patterns. We can’t do that ourselves, because our emotions get in our way. But happily for us, we are not alone. So they call for a ‘community roast’: we must move towards a society in which we criticize each other’s ideas. Because while we may not be good at recognizing ‘the beam in our own eye’, we are all perfectly capable of seeing and naming ‘the splinter in the eye of the other’.

I have to say, I honestly don’t know yet. I have enjoyed reading the book by Greene and am delighted that he doesn’t just provide an analysis of how difficult it is, but also presents an action plan to make it better. But at the same time: how do I ‘roast’ my deepest convictions? How do I find a safe space, especially within myself, to question my truth? Who can do that? Who can’t? Before I offer up my deepest convictions for dissecting, I still have a long way to go.

An example to make this clear. I am against the death penalty. I feel strongly about this point of view, this conviction. I can tell you a very rational story about why I have the point of view. Something with type 1 and type 2 errors and so on. It is a beautiful, scientifically sounding and rational story. Unfortunately it is also total nonsense. Because even if you could overturn all my arguments in a good conversation, I would say to you: I still think killing another person is just wrong. This is an emotional reaction, an automatic resistance in my body to harming others. Even if I know that this automatic setting tries to keep me away from a reasonable conversation on the subject of capital punishment, that doesn’t help: my body is locked into the emotion ‘this is wrong’.

According to Greene, there are methods to overcome this emotional reaction. Facts, science, curiosity and the acceptance of doubt are important. I hope he is right. At the same time I doubt if it is true (or at least my emotions do this doubting). And for that reason next week I’m going to try to argue why we shouldn’t try to overrule our emotions at all, because they are our best advisor 🙂

A sentimental journey

Well, you definitely wear your heart on your sleeve.I often hear this remark. They don’t say the words ‘too much’ out loud, but most of the times they think them.

Showing emotions is often seen as a weakness. Especially in a professional setting. At the same time, you can defend the proposition that ‘being happy’ is one of the overarching human ambitions. Everyone wants to lead a happy life. How is it possible that we look down on emotions in this way on the one hand, while on the other hand we devote a large part of our lives to pursuing them?

In my upcoming blog I want to answer three questions that are related to this:

  1. What are emotions?
  2. Are emotions worse than reason? Or is it the other way around?
  3. How do we make emotion and reason work well together?

Today we will stick with the first question: what are emotions? Because although everyone intuitively ‘knows’ what the word means (haha), it is not so easy to define what an emotion is. Some say emotions come from your heart, or from your lower abdomen. Others say (cynically or not) that all our behaviour, including our emotions, is controlled by our brains. Emotions are actually the same as reason, but on automatic pilot.

Yet that’s not the whole answer, because the autopilot in my head keeps me breathing. And that I swallow, blink and all continue to perform other automatic functions. Invisible, imperceptible, but also – that’s how we notice when something doesn’t work anymore – indispensable. But however indispensable, those automatic functions of our head are not emotions, while we can say that emotions are automatic functions of our head. What makes emotions special and different?

The best definition (according to Joshua Green in the book Moral Tribes) is: emotions are automatic functions that spur us into action. Sounds still very clinical and doesn’t sound ’emotional’ much, doesn’t it? But if you chew on it for a while, it seems to kinda work. Take fear, for example. An emotion that immediately calls for a ‘flight or freeze’ action. Or love. Or anger. All automatic functions of our brain, and they all call to action to a some extent.

The combination of automatic function and action becomes clearly visible when you see how our body reacts to a number of emotions. See this still from the course ‘Empathy and Emotional Intelligence at Work‘ by BerkleyX (via EdX).

Emotions are automatic functions of our brains that evoke action. But why? Why do we have them? Do they have a purpose? Or at least did they have a clear purpose when we came up with them? According to Joshua Greene, the creator of the mentioned definition, emotions have a very clear purpose: they facilitate the transition from ‘me’ to ‘us’. As a species, humans are unique in their capacity to work together. As a species, we can come across the ‘tragedy of the commons’ – a classic sociological dilemma. Other species can’t do this, or at least can’t do this as good as we can.

So what is the ‘tragedy of the commons’, and how do emotions help? The tragedy is a classic collaboration case: in a village there is a large meadow. Cows can be kept there. Every inhabitant can let his or her cows graze there, the meadow is a commonly owned piece of land. How does the village ensure that the field is not too full with cows and all the grass gets eaten?

This case is an important basis for many collaboration theories. The role of emotions in all these theories, according to Greene, is that emotions are a very quick way to execute the rules of the collaboration theories. Think of fear or anger when you see a stranger letting his cow eat on your territory. Think of the affection you build as a community, which makes you more likely not to secretly keep too many cows on the pasture as an individual. Emotions are very quick and effective ways to make a group work together.

What is difficult about these emotions is that to do that they have a preference for ‘us’. That is, we read emotions much more easily from people who look like us than from people who don’t look like us. even worse, our ‘alert’ emotions (suspicion, distrust) are triggered more quickly by people with characteristics that visibly distinguish them from the group we belong to. Think of people with an opponent’s football outfit. Or think of how alert you are when you meet someone in the street at night who you do not recognize, opposite how you feel when you meet a n neighbor. These reactions, these emotions, are instinctive and automatic. To create a ‘us’, to make people feel like they are part of a group, our emotions needed a ‘them’. A counterparty. An antagonist.

The question is what the implication is of this somewhat overlong definition of emotions. Are emotions our salvation or our downfall? Are they what makes us good collaborators or distrustful racists? Should we suppress our emotions in favor of our ratio? Or should we embrace our instincts?

Next blog, I will go into these follow-up questions in more detail.