“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, August 11, 2007

the feeling tone of the interzone

LI has seen, from the comments so far about our emotions project, that a certain part of that project is obscure. It isn’t the purpose of our project to promote negative feelings. It is, rather, to promote the idea that the positive/negative classification of feelings is wrongheaded. This part of the story we are telling is pretty simple, actually. Classification in science is not simply a random ordering. Given a well formed classification system, finding the location for a species or a thing in the classification system should tell you something about it. What the principle is can be disputed, of course. And folk classifications do make some sense. It is, for instance, true that the majority of complex organisms swimming in the ocean are fish – or may have been at one time, before nurdles, overfishing and fertilizers. But it is a misnomer to think that whales and dolphins are therefore fish. To decide that happiness and mildness are positive and sadness and anger are negative is a similar scientific misnomer, or so we claim. When classifying animals as fish or mammals, the body type’s adaptation to a typical environment has to be definitely and necessarily considered, but you are going to still find flightless birds, lungfish and whales to account for. You’ll need another classifying principle besides locomotion (flying, swimming and walking) to get you there.

Now, LI has been scouting around to find allies in the psych business. We were happy to come across this article by Ralf and Maureen Erber – “The Self-Regulation of Moods: Second Thoughts on the Importance of Happiness in Everyday Life” (Psychological Inquiry, 2000) which reports on some psych experiments the Erbers designed to test ‘mood repair’. The upshot of the experiments was not that people reverted to a happiness norm, after having been ‘induced’ to be sad from watching, say, a sad movie clip, but that they sometimes remained sad, and often times reverted to indifference. The Erbers start out by saying, pretty firmly, that the hedonistic presupposition in psychology is all too unquestioned:

“Back in the 18th century, Newton thought of light as consisting of material corpuscles. This idea became the accepted assumption about the nature of light in the science of physical optics. Consequently, scores of scholars directed their research efforts toward finding evidence of pressure exerted by light particles on solid bodies. Of course, once light was conceived of as a transverse wave motion, as became common in the 19th century, the search for physical deformations as a result of exposure to light began to appear somewhat comical.

Psychology is no different from physical optics in that it makes some basic assumptions about its subject matter (human nature) that have influenced and continue to influence our theorizing and research agendas. The assumption we have in mind is the widely accepted idea that humans, by and large, seek pleasure and avoid pain. It has its origins in the writings of Jeremy Bentham (1789), who, by conceiving of pleasure and pain as our "sovereign masters" essentially proposed a hedonistic theory of human motivation.

Bentham's principle of utility has in one form or another permeated much of the theorizing in psychology. Freud, at least in his early work, subscribed to positive hedonism of the future (Troland, 1928) by conceiving of all human instincts at being directed toward seeking pleasure. Similarly, drive reduction theories (e.g., Dollard & Miller, 1950) proposed that ridding oneself of aversive arousal was crucial for understanding human behavior and thus embrace negative hedonism of the future. Thorndike's (1898) "law of effect" that became the bedrock of reinforcement theory contains the dictum that "pleasure stamps in; pain stamps out," and thus includes elements of negative and positive hedonism of the past.

In all fairness to psychology it needs to be said that the assumption of humans as hedonistically driven creatures has not been without its critics. Titchener (1908) proposed that pleasure seeking and pain avoidance may be but two of many forces that drive human behavior. McDougall (1923) went so far as to suggest that pleasure and pain may serve no motivational purpose at all, but instead serve as mere signposts indicating that instincts have successfully or unsuccessfully run their course. Finally, Allport (1954) held that whereas hedonism may explain the behavior typical of childhood and adolescence (and perhaps among those who fail to grow up), it fails to explain the many instances of adult behavior that originate from a sense of duty, loyalty, and commitment in a satisfactory way.

Given the time that has elapsed since these arguments were advanced, one might expect hedonistically tinged theorizing to be a thing of the distant past, especially in a discipline as enlightened as social psychology. However, an inspection of theories looking at such diverse issues as attitude change, attribution, altruism, impression formation, and the mental control of affect reveals that this is far from being the case.”

We have remarked only parenthetically about Bentham. However, since we our view of the shift in emotional customs tallies with Polanyi’s notion of the Great Transformation, we should probably give the utilitarians a lot more attention. Note to self.

The article discusses a couple of ‘mood repair’ experiment. The idea of ‘repairing’ a mood, of course, is rooted in the whole positive negative logic. But beyond that, it is rooted in the idea, about which I have been arguing with my friend Alan on his site, that behavior can be explained by a template of happiness-seeking. Thus, say, if you are induced to be sad, your natural response is to find that course of action or that stream of thought that will make you happy, even if the happy object is the tenuous one of the memory of a happy time. In relation to sadness, LI made the case that sadness seeking is characteristically isolation seeking – one seeks to avoid human contact. The Erber experiment went like this:

“To test the general idea of mood attenuation prior to social interaction with a stranger, we (Erber, Wegner, & Therriault, 1996) conducted a set of studies in which we made participants either happy or sad through exposure to cheerful or depressing music. Subsequently, half the participants were led to believe that, following the main experiment, they would work on an unrelated task either by themselves or with a stranger in a room across the hall. All participants were then asked to indicate their preference for reading a set of newspaper stories, identified by their headlines as humorous and uplifting, sad and depressing, or affectively neutral. Consistent with our expectations, participants who expected to complete the second part of the experiment by themselves preferred stories with headlines suggesting mood-congruent content: Sad participants indicated a preference for depressing stories whereas happy participants preferred cheerful stories. Also as expected, participants who expected to complete the second part of the experiment with a stranger preferred mood-incongruent stories. Specifically, sad participants preferred cheerful stories and (contrary to predictions made from hedonistic approaches) happy participants preferred depressing stories. According to our social constraints model, participants made these choices presumably as a means to attenuate their previously induced mood prior to meeting the stranger.

These result suggest that mood, by itself, does not serve as a primary motivational force in terms of the maintenance and attenuation of moods. Rather than using everything in their power to (a) maintain their happy mood and (b) repair their sad mood at all costs, our participants adopted strategies designed to maintain happy and sad moods in the absence of social constraints (i.e., when there was no anticipated interaction with a stranger). However, in the presence of a social constraint, happy and sad participants relied on strategies that enabled them to extricate themselves from the mood we had previously induced.”

LI has a post coming up regarding these kinds of experiments, and Kurt Danzinger’s history of them.

The Erbers have not seceded entirely from the world of Wundt’s graph. If you will recall, the negative emotions are so called from being beneath a certain baseline of indifference. For a long time, that baseline was considered an abstract and impossible feeling tone. But the Erbers are contending that it exists as the mean to which all moods tend. They call it the cooling effect. Since the question they are posing has to do not just with moods but with emotional cuing for social situations, their hypothesis is that the ‘neutral’ mood is the best strategy to meet unpredictable social interactions. “Unburdened, free from preoccupation with our feelings and its resulting distractions, a neutral mood allows us to be sensitive to multiple mood affordances suggested by the complexities of the social settings.”

Finally, the Erbers consider an objection that is bound to pop up in these kinds of issues. If, as the ideology of triumphant happiness maintains, we are all striving to be happy, then what the Erbers are describing are simply short term detours to the long term end.

“We would like to think that the social constraints model along with its supporting research indicates that hedonistic theories of mood regulation provide insufficient accounts for how people manage their moods. Quite contrary to hedonistic predictions, we found, among other things, that sad people appear to make no attempt at attenuating their mood in the absence of social constraints. Furthermore, happy people are willing to forego their good mood when appropriate social constraints are present. At the very least, this seems to suggest that pleasure seeking and pain avoidance may not be the primary forces at work in the self-regulation of moods.
However, one could argue that our observations are not so much an indication of strategic mood regulation but instead reflect a kind of hedonism of the future. Happy people anticipating to interact with a stranger may engage in some sort of hedonic calculus in which they weigh the benefits of maintaining their good mood against the possible costs, such as the possibility of embarrassment or the fear of an unfavorable evaluation. Thus, any attempt at bringing a present good mood under control may ultimately be in the service of avoiding feeling bad in the future. It is difficult to dismiss this argument outright. Nonetheless, we believe that there are several things that are wrong with it. First, it is based on a logic that suggests that all forms of human behavior, including those that appear to be self-defeating or self-destructive, are ultimately motivated by some form of hedonism. But as we all know, a theory that explains both the occurrence of A and non-A in the end explains nothing at all.

Second, hedonism of the future seems ill suited as an explanation for why sad people would maintain their sadness in the absence of social constraints. Assuming that they do that because they expect some benefit like improved insight or increased self-awareness (e.g. Wood, Saltzberg, & Goldsamt, 1990) would create logical issues similar to the ones inherent in trying to explain why happy people would relinquish their good mood.”

I am not entirely satisfied with the first objection. It commits the positivistic fault of confusing logic and structure - it might be that a true theory may so explain a given sphere that the occurence of both x and non-x validate the theory in that sphere. However, there has to be an argument why this is so. I don't think the hedonic view has a good argument about that.

Sorry for the huge quotes in this post. Because I am accumulating these things against some future essay, I’m being a little callous about the blogging genre. One of the things I discovered long ago was that long quotes in posts are tedious. I am, mostly, aware of my duty: which is to paraphrase. But in this case, I need the quotes.

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