Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A brief note regarding Oatley's brief history of emotions

I'm currently reading Oatley's "Emotions : a brief history".
He's a wonderful writer, and the book's methodological eclecticism - dipping into evolutionary psychology, literature, philosophy, and neuroscience - is something that I heartily endorse in investigations of the emotions.

In his first chapter, Oatley gives a useful taxonomy of broad emotional types.
We have reactive emotions, those emotions that have a sudden onset in response to some immediate environmental stimulus, say, the way that anger overcomes you when you're cut off while driving.
We have moods, which unlike the ephemeral reactive emotions typically last for a few hours or days. They're also distinguished by the fact that they need not have an intentional object, they're often not directed at anything in particular.
We then have sentiments, which last longer still. These do have an object, typically a person. Love, hate, and distrust are examples of sentiments.
Finally, Oatley lists preference as part of our emotional types, he says that we should "think of it as a silent emotion waiting for an opportunity to express itself in a choice we make".

Oatley then turns to the "workings of emotions" - and here is where I take issue. In his discussion of how reactive emotions are "triggered" he says the following.

Reactive emotions occur when the appearance of the world as we assume it to be is pierced by reality. In our assumed world, objects and people take on the colors of our understandings, of our hopes, of our desires, of our likes and dislikes. A reactive emotion occurs with the unexpected; it is a meeting of what we assumed with what we did not assume ...
We know from dreams that our brains have the machinery to make scenes that we experience. So eyes are not windows that let in aspects of the world. Instead they pick up clues to enable us to construct the world as we experience it. the clues are used, along with our assumed and implicit knowledge of the way the world works, to construct what we perceive.
Reactive emotions are caused when something in the assumed world unexpectedly affects a concern. Sometimes the unexpected is delightful, and we have the sense of new possibilities. Sometimes the unexpected is painful : in anger, for instance, the world narrows to plans of how we might confront the offender with the offense.
I would like to give him the benefit of the doubt and would especially like to see the idea developed further; perhaps there is more to it than what can be expected to be delivered in this non-technical introduction to emotions?
But I don't think that this provides us with anything like a satisfactory account of how and why our emotions are "triggered".

As a simple counterexample let us consider anger. Anger is a paradigm case of the reactive emotions but I don't think that it's necessary for me to have my expectations frustrated in order to experience anger, far from it. I may experience anger even in cases where what I expect is exactly what plays out in reality.
Suppose there is some individual in my office is an apartheid-era-style white South African blockhead who can't go for an hour without uttering some racist remark. It's thus part of my "assumed world" that this idiot will regularly vomit up some disgusting hateful comment. Not only that, but I expect myself to get angry! I know beforehand that this is what's going to happen but I still get angry when it does happen.

This is not to say that surprise, or the unexpected, doesn't play a role in triggering emotions - think about surprise itself - but it seems to me that in order to make this workable, we'd need to either restrict the domain of reactive emotions to those emotions that are essentially characterized in terms of this relationship between the "real" world and our "assumed" world, or we need to drop the whole notion as defining of reactive emotions in general.
I have a feeling that the problem may well run in another direction as well. We experience our expectations coming up short the whole time without an accompanying emotional experience. For example, I thought my wife was sitting in the living room and when I get there I see that she isn't, she's outside. Unless there is something seriously wrong with me I don't think that we can expect me to feel anything at all. I make the appropriate adjustments to my beliefs and move on.
In this case there is still something "extra" that needs to be added into the mix to get an emotional response, the fact of there being a difference between my "assumed" world and reality isn't a sufficient condition for an emotional response at all.
And if we do, in fact, require another "extra" something to pick out emotions from non-emotional reactions, why even bother with this notion at all?

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