Friday, April 01, 2011

David Brooks and Evolutionary Conservatism (3): Emotional Choice Theory

About twenty years ago, I was interviewed for a faculty position in the Department of Political Science at the University of Rochester. The Department was widely regarded as one of the preeminent political science departments in the United States, particularly for those interested in applying "rational choice theory" to political science. Beginning in 1962, when William Riker became Chair of the Department, the Department became known for specializing in research that employed game theory to study politics based on the economic model of human beings as rational maximiser's of their self-interest.

Although I respected the work of Riker and his colleagues, I thought that their model of Homo economicus was only partially true, because its view of human nature was too rationalistic and egoistic to capture the reality of human beings as emotional and social animals. In a job talk that was entitled "Emotional Choice Theory," I argued that an evolutionary science of human nature shows that human beings are not just rational egoists, but also social animals moved by moral emotions.

Predictably, my talk was not well received, and I didn't get the job.

If I were giving the same talk today, I hope I would be a little more persuasive, because I could build on all of the research in evolutionary theory and neuroscience over the last twenty years that casts doubt on the rational choice model of Homo economicus. I could benefit from David Brooks's The Social Animal as an engaging survey of that research.

Brooks introduces the main themes of this research in his first chapter--entitled "Decision Making." This chapter sets the pattern for all the other chapters: a title that states the facet of human life that's the topic for the chapter, a narration of some events in the fictional story of Harold and Erica that illustrate the topic, and then a review of the scientific research on that topic.

The story in this chapter is how the parents of Harold--Rob and Julia--first met and fell in love. Brooks begins with the decision about whom to marry because this is the most important decision that most of us make in our lives. Moreover, all of us are products of this decision as made by our parents.

The subject of this chapter sets the themes for the whole book: how the deepest influences on our decisions arise largely from unconscious decisions, in being shaped by human genetic history and cultural history, rather than from conscious and rational calculations of individual interests.

Introduction (pp. 3-5)
Brooks begins with a mocking sketch of the "Composure Class," those high-status men and women who have climbed the American ladder of meritocratic success, so that "wealth had just settled down upon them like a gentle snow."

Brooks's writing here is amusing, but some readers will find this a bit discordant in that the comic irony of his style doesn't seem to fit the serious tone of his writing about Harold and Erica. For example, he writes:

So Mr. Casual Elegance married Ms. Sculpted Beauty in a ceremony officiated by Bill and Melinda Gates, and they produced three wonderful children: Effortless Brilliance, Global Compassion, and Artistically Gifted. Like most upper- and upper-middle-class children, these kids are really good at obscure sports. Centuries ago, members of the educated class discovered that they could no longer compete in football, baseball, and basketball, so they stole lacrosse from the American Indians to give them something to dominate.

Even if Brooks's literary skill hardly matches that of Jane Austen, there is a similarity between them in their combination of irony and seriousness in depicting the human pursuit of happiness, particularly as displayed in the decision about whom to marry.

The Meeting (pp. 5-10)
Hoping someday to join the Composure Class, Rob and Julia are young professionals who go to a swanky resort community. A mutual friend arranges for them to meet for a blind lunch date.

Relying on David Buss and other researchers on the evolutionary psychology of heterosexual attraction, Brooks comments on the differences between men and women in courtship. Men are looking for visual cues of fertility. Women are looking for indications that a man might be worthy of trust. "So while Rob was looking at cleavage, Julia was looking for signs of trustworthiness. She didn't need to do this consciously--thousands of years of genetics and culture had honed her trusting sensor" (8). So Brooks recognizes both genetic evolution and cultural evolution as shaping their behavior.

Brooks also recognizes the importance of individual temperament. In the case of Julia, "she had a hypercritical inner smart-ass" that was an impediment to any man trying to get close to her.

I see here at least three levels of analysis--human nature, human culture, and human individuals.

The Meal (pp. 10-14)
Rob and Julia begin their courtship while sharing a meal. "As destiny would have it, Rob and Julia were meant for each other. Despite what you've heard about opposites attracting, people usually fall in love with people like themselves."

Relying on Helen Fisher and others, Brooks explains how people seek out others like themselves, because "familiarity breeds trust." Discovering that they have many common interests and experiences, a couple begins to feel that they were destined for one another. Brooks demystifies this feeling of destiny. "People generally overestimate how distinct their own lives are, so the commonalities seemed to them like a series of miracles. The coincidences gave their relationship an aura of destiny fulfilled."

Brooks observes that most of the emotional communication in flirting is nonverbal and unconscious. "Unawares, Julia did the head cant women do to signal arousal, a slight tilt of the head that exposed her neck . . . there she was like any Marilyn Monroe wannabe--doing the hair flip, raising her arms to adjust her hair, and heaving her chest up into view."

And yet the verbal side of courtship is important as well. For example, men show their intelligence by displaying their large vocabulary. Here is where Brooks cites the research of Geoffrey Miller on "verbal courtship theory," which Thomas Nagel dismissed as "idiotic."

Brooks suggests that courtship is ultimately an exercise in rational calculation, which should satisfy the rational choice theorists. But most of this reasoning is done unconsciously.

Like veteran stock-market traders, people respond in predictable, if unconscious, ways to the valuations of the social marketplace. They instinctively seek the best possible return on their market value.

The richer the man, the younger the woman he is likely to mate with. The more beautiful the woman, the richer the man. A woman's attractiveness is an outstanding predictor of her husband's annual income.

Along with everyone else, Rob and Julia were doing these sorts of calculations unconsciously in their heads--weighing earnings-to-looks ratios, calculating social-capital balances. And every signal suggested they had found a match.

The Stroll (pp. 15-17)
As they walked out of the restaurant, Rob and Julia were "unaware they were already doing the lovers' walk--bodies close to each other, beaming out at the space in front of them with a wide-open glee."

This was one sign that they were making a decision about marriage. Their culture helped them to make this decision by giving them "a social script that applies to first dates in their culture." This is an example of how human culture helps us to restrain and channel our natural desires. "The tension of courtship is produced by the need to slow down when the instincts want to rush right in."

Here we can see Brooks's evolutionary conservatism. Like all conservatives, Brooks sees the importance of cultural traditions--such as the social norms for courtship--in helping human beings to make prudent decisions about how best to satisfy natural desires like sexual mating and conjugal bonding. Evolutionary science allows Brooks to see how cultural traditions are constrained but not determined by genetic evolution, and how individual judgments--such as deciding whom to marry--are constrained but not determined both by genetic nature and social culture. Thus it is that deciding what we want arises from a complex interaction of nature, culture, and judgment.

Such decisions are largely made unconsciously and emotionally, rather than by conscious acts of pure reason. That's why Brooks endorses the famous quotation from Blaise Pascal about how the heart has its reasons that reason knows not of. This belongs to an old intellectual tradition of biological and rhetorical psychology that goes back to Aristotle, which understands human decisions as arising from the interaction of reason and emotion, head and heart.

Love's Role (pp. 17-21)
Citing the research of neuroscientists Antonio Damasio and Joseph LeDoux, Brooks describes the role of emotion in decision making as working through an "Emotional Positioning System."

Like the Global Positioning System that might be in your car, the EPS senses your current situation and compares it to the vast body of data it has stored in memory. It reaches certain judgments about whether the course you are on will produce good or bad outcomes, and then it coats each person, place, or circumstance with an emotion (fear or excitement, admiration or repugnance) and an implied reaction ("Smile" or "Don't smile," "Approach" or "Get away") that helps us to navigate our days.

This shows the error of Descartes in separating the brain from the body, because the mental and the physical are inseparably connected in complex networks of sensations, perceptions, and emotions. Pure reason by itself cannot move us without the motive power of emotion. But emotion can lead us astray, and so we need reason to elicit and direct emotion towards the flourishing life that we seek.

Implications (pp. 21-22)
Brooks concludes: "Reason and emotion are not separate and opposed. Reason is nestled upon emotion and dependent upon it. Emotion assigns value to things, and reason can only make choices on the basis of those valuations. The human mind can be pragmatic because deep down it is romantic." We should see, then, that "the key to a well-lived life is to have trained the emotions to send the right signals and to be sensitive to their subtle calls."

Brooks stresses that Rob and Julia are not deep thinkers. In fact, they're rather shallow. But they have the social intelligence that allows them to make a decision about marriage that will lead them to happiness.

Rob and Julia were assigning value to each other. They felt themselves swept along in some strong and delightful current that was carrying them toward someplace they deliriously wanted to go. This wasn't the sort of dissecting analysis Julia's inner smart-ass had used when she first glimpsed Rob. This was a powerful, holistic appraisal that followed an entirely different set of rules. Julia would fall in love and then invent reasons for her attraction later. That day she and Rob began wandering together down a path that would be the most rewarding of their lives.

In showing how modern cognitive science helps us to see this "holistic appraisal" in human decision making that combines reason and emotion, Brooks shows us how modern science confirms the moral psychology of the British and Scottish Enlightenments, in which rational judgment and moral sentiment are inextricably intertwined. One can see this, for example, in the following passage from David Hume's appendix on "moral sentiments" in his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals:

Thus the distinct boundaries and offices of reason and taste are easily ascertained. The former conveys the knowledge of truth and falsehood: The latter gives the sentiment of beauty and deformity, vice and virtue. The one discovers objects, as they really stand in nature, without addition or diminution: The other has a productive faculty, and gilding or staining all natural objects with the colours, borrowed from internal sentiment, raises, in a manner, a new creation. Reason, being cool and disengaged, is no motive to action, and directs only the impulse received from appetite or inclination, by showing us the means of attaining happiness or avoiding misery: Taste, as it gives pleasure or pain, and thereby constitutes happiness or misery, becomes a motive to action, and is the first spring or impulse to desire and volition. From circumstances and relations, known or supposed, the former leads us to the discovery of the concealed and unknown: After all circumstances and relations are laid before us, the latter makes us feel from the whole a new sentiment of blame or approbation. The standard of the one, being founded on the nature of things, is eternal and inflexible, even by the will of the Supreme Being: The standard of the other, arising from the internal frame and constitution of animals, is ultimately derived from the Supreme Will, which bestowed on each being its peculiar nature, and arranged the several classes and others of existence.

The ultimate source of these two standards as grounded in "the nature of things" and "the internal frame and constitution of animals" might be, as Hume indicates, the will of the Supreme Being. But evolutionary science also allows us to see how these standards of reason and sentiment could have arisen by natural evolution, perhaps as the process by which the Supreme Being chose to work His creative will.

1 comment:

spelunker said...

You seem very taken with David Brooks piece. I will read it soon, but from your and other reviews it does seem like just another in a line of recent popularizations of ethical naturalism. Indeed, from the descriptions I have read, a far more powerful and in depth treatment is offered in James Q Wilson’s “The Moral Sense”, and certainly your work.