Friday, December 30, 2011

Ayn Rand & Human Nature 16

Emotions as adaptive. Emotions are not tools of cognition, according to Rand. If this is true, why do people have emotions at all? What role do they play in human nature? Perhaps this is a question that is best left to those scientists who have gone to the trouble of studying the relevant empirical data, rather than relying merely on Rand's own ex cathedra say-so. David Desteno and Piercarlo Valdesolo provide a brief story illustrating the adaptive nature of emotions:

Consider the following example: you're walking thorugh the savannah with some of your family in search of a little breakfast. You come across a type of animal you've never seen before. It has dark brown fur with a white stripe down its spine. As you approach, it lunges at your merry band, sinking its teeth into your eldest daughter's neck and killing her. Now let's say we asked you what the probability is that the next animal with dark brown fur and a white stripe you see would be dangerous. You'd probably say 100 percent, and that's the most rational guess you could make since the single dark-furred, white-striped animal you've encountered proved to be dangerous.

Now let's say you accidentally happen upon another one of the these creatures. This time the animal sits there peacefully, even assuming the probability that the next animal with dark brown fur and a white stripe down its spine will be dangerous. Again we ask you, what is the probability that the next animal with dark brown fur and a white stripe down its spine will be dangerous. You'd probably pause. Rationally, your answer should be 50 percent, since as of this moment, one of two has proved dangerous. But your gut says something different. It's true that it is no longer reasonable to expect that all individuals of this species are dangerous, but on an intuitive level you know it's better to be safe than sorry. In your heightened emotional state, the cost of taking a longer path to avoid the brown and white critter is far less than the risk of losing another life. And in this case, your intuitive mind is right. While avoiding all animals with dark fur and white stripes would be an irrational calculation rooted in emotion (namely, fear), it is also an adaptive one.

Of course, this isn't just true in the jungle. In modern life too, listening to intuition and being more sensitive to the possibility of harm will serve you better on average than evaluating each individual situation rationally and objectively, particularly in situations that require rapid decisions for which you have incomplete information. [Out of Character, 188-189]

Monday, December 12, 2011

Ayn Rand & Human Nature 15

Gratitude as social glue. In Out of Character, David Desteno and Piercarlo Valdesolo make the following research-inspired remarks about gratitude:

It seems that just as there are benefits to being fair and trustworthy, so too are there benefits to forging relationships with those we feel we can trust. It's obvious we admire individuals ... who seem honest and who honor responsibilities. These are people we want as partners and friends.When push comes to shove, we need someone who won't sell us down the river to turn a profit. As we've said before, social relationships are a two-way street. These potential partners also need to know the same about us. They need to know that our short-term interest won't always win, that we're in it to share both the profit and the perils. there needs to be some sort of social glue that binds people together.

We believed gratitude functions as just this type of glue. When those warm feelings of gratitude well up inside us, we feel so bounded to others -- at least for the moment -- that we become focused on our collective welfare and willing ... to make sacrifices for the collective good. [166-167]

In this passage the authors of Out of Character make points which Rand and her disciples, because of their strong ideological biases, seem incapable of appreciating. Rand had noticed that there was a sinister side to altruism that had escaped all but the most hard-headed. She then proceeded to denounce all rhetoric that even so much as suggested altruism with a Savonarola-like furor. But in her moral frenzy, Rand lost sight of all the nuances that constitute the reality most of us face in everyday life.