Published on January 10, 2010 / Ambigamy
“Every life could be said to be defined by two great love stories. The first — the story of our quest for sexual love — is well known and well charted. Its vagaries form the staple of music and literature; it is socially accepted and celebrated. The second — the story of our quest for love from the world — is a more secret and shameful tale. If mentioned, it tends to be in caustic, mocking terms, as something of interest chiefly to envious or deficient souls, or else the drive for status is interpreted in an economic sense alone. And yet this second love story is no less intense than the first, it is no less complicated, important, or universal, and its setbacks are no less painful. There is heartbreak here, too.” ~By Jeremy Sherman, Ph.D.
Alain de Botton “Status Anxiety.”
To be loved by the world–what could that mean? I think it’s a sense of inner and outer harmony, relief from dissonance within yourself and dissonance between yourself and the outside world. It’s a sense that you can both be yourself and be successful by the world’s standards. Being loved by the world doesn’t have to mean being adored by the world, but still somehow affirmed, or as the biologist Stuart Kauffman put it, a feeling that you are “at home in the universe.”
This affirmation is not just the thought or realization, “Hey, I’m at home.” It’s a feeling. I’d go so far as to say it’s the feeling of being well adapted–surmisal of the fittest–a sense, even a false one, that you fit your circumstances. In that respect it’s a direct extension of what organisms have been evolving toward for over 3.5 billion years.
Still, surmisal of the fittest is not just about biological fitness despite what evolutionary psychologists tend to imply. No, it’s surmisal of the fittest by whatever standards of fitness have emotional resonance for us these days, not all of which are directly or indirectly in the service of biological reproductive success. Think of how much human behavior is driven by a desire to feel like you’re a good person on the side of righteousness, a person with integrity fighting for greater integrity in the world around. That feeling may have nothing to do with having children who survive and reproduce. It can be uncorrelated to the biological urge and can even work at cross-purposes to it, for example in a suicide bomber who dies childless feeling that he has acted with supreme integrity in perfect service of what is truest in the universe.
Feeling fitted has both the inner and outer quality–integrated within and integrated with your outside circumstances. The inner feeling is relief from dissonance or doubt, a sense that who you are–your preferences, intentions, and values hold together with simple clarity. This internal consistency is what in the world of the intellect is called coherence. But with feelings it’s not necessarily a drive to have a coherent intellect. The coherence that makes us feel loved by the world is just the gut’s satisfied feeling of relief when ambivalence, confusion and inner conflict has lifted. Indeed, emotional coherence might be achieved at the expense of intellectual coherence. For example George Bush who many of us found intellectually incoherent felt that he was a man of exceptional integrity. And indeed for most of us, most of the time the feeling of being right takes priority over actually being right. Emotional coherence often trumps intellectual coherence.
The feeling of freedom from conflict with your outer circumstances is like what in the world of the intellect we call correspondence. Correspondence is having your theories match sense data and experiential evidence. If I said “eggs don’t break when you drop them from second story windows,” you would say that lacks correspondence to the audiovisual sense data that comes the splatting crunching sight and sound of eggs dropped from windows. Again though, here I’m talking not about theories that correspond to fact but rather about a gut feeling that your way of being fits or corresponds with the world. In other words, you feel cool, successful or “in.” And again you can get that feeling sometimes at the expense of intellectual correspondence. For example you can ignore inconvenient facts and give yourself the impression that you fit the world well.
Giving ourselves the impression of fit reminds me of what pilots call “flying by instrument” Pilots can fly even in conditions of very poor visibility by tracking the cockpit’s inner indicators. In a way, we all do that. Like pilots we want our internal systems to be working well together, and we want our overall system to fit the outside world. But the main way we know whether they are is by monitoring the feeling that they fit, our cockpit instruments that measure gut comfort level. I want my ideas to be coherent but the main way I tell whether they are is by the feeling that they are coherent. I want to make my ideas to correspond to reality but the main way I tell if they do is by the feeling that they do. The trouble is that there are many ways to get the feeling other than by achieving true coherence and correspondence. Pilots make sure their instruments are well calibrated, but we don’t necessary do the equivalent. We may even like flying with poorly calibrated instruments so we can get the feeling that we’re on course even if we’re not.
The big news in decision theory these days is that emotions play an enormous role in our decision making. Early in the last century, decision theory started out as mathematical or engineering research into how people ought to reason their way to optimal decisions. In the late 50s the field shifted toward a focus on how people really do make decisions. In the subsequent decades the theme became “bounded rationality,” the idea that, in practice we stop short of reasoning everything out. Instead we make fast and frugal decisions. In the last few decades, the focus has shifted to the way emotions guide whatever rationality doesn’t cover, and ultimately to the way emotions control the lion’s share of our choices. It is argued that we don’t weigh costs and benefits so much as we go with what feels right. Studies described in The Political Brain, my current favorite book on the role of emotions in decisions making, suggest that liking or disliking a candidate predicts as much as 85% of how one votes, whereas opinions about the candidate’s policy positions counts for only about three percent. Far more than we tend to think, preferences drive reason, not the other way around. Rationalization is the norm, not rationality. That’s why candidates who campaign on policy positions just about always lose to candidates who give voters the affirming feeling of inner and outer harmony.
In decision theory we’re only just beginning to see what the emotional drivers are, and a big one beyond the biological and economic is what I’m describing here as the feeling of being loved by the world, that feeling of internal and external integrity or fittedness. I think a central focus this decade will be what could be called affirmationomics, a topic with many parallels to what we see in straight economics. For example there are questions of supply and demand of affirmation, of affirmation inflation, and ways in which one kind of affirmation can substitute or complement another kind of affirmation–topics I’ll take up in other articles.
Since the focus these days is on how emotions shape decisions, why not call it emotionomics? Emotions, like dollars are just the currency by which value is measured. It’s not emotionomics any more than economics is “moneynomics.” The greater question is for what the emotions flow?
And the distinction between emotions and rationality isn’t quite right either. Antonio Damasio’s now classic book “Descarte’s error” turned researcher’s attention to how rationality doesn’t even work without the flowing currency of emotion. And besides preferring one emotion to another is also a kind of rationality, at least in that rational means ratio-like, the comparison of one state to another. It is not irrational to go with one or another gut emotional preference. It is rational in the sense of comparing or making a ratio between two gut emotional preferences and deciding that one is a stronger preference.
Affirmationomics is a solid and lovely way to bridge the gap between soft-hearted sensitivity and hard-headed systems thinking. Some people don’t trust the gap to be bridge-able and some people seem to be not particularly interested in one or the other side of that bridge. But if the bridge interests you, start maybe not with the systems-thinking but with your own experience of wanting to be loved by the world as I’ve described it here, the quest for that feeling that made blissed out jazz musicians say “copascetic!” which at least according to some sources is derived from the Yiddish “kol be seder,” or “everything in order”–me and it, me and me–everything in sweet harmony.