Disclaimer: I don’t necessarily agree with or endorse everything that I link to. I link to things that are interesting and/or thought-provoking. Caveat lector.
Spontaneity plays an oddly crucial role in our ability to feel legitimate positive emotions.
Consider children. Forcing them to play and telling them that they have to have fun is one of the surest ways of ensuring that they have no fun at all, even if the activity they’re doing is one they’d normally enjoy. Teenagers are the champions of this. Thanks to their drive for a unique personal identity, they absolutely refuse to enjoy anything that seems to be forced upon them. Even in adults it’s much the same, though usually self-inflicted. Trying a new activity while putting pressure on yourself to enjoy it is an easy path to a miserable time.
Insomnia is a bit outside the realm of what we normally consider our emotional life, but falling asleep is another example of a similar pattern in a different form. The more desperately you want to fall asleep, the farther away it seems to be. It’s become practically common wisdom that the least effective way to calm somebody down is to tell them to “just relax”.
The explanation for all this is fairly mundane. Stress in moderation is something which increases our physical and mental responses, and generally improves our performance at most tasks; it’s an evolutionary response which tends to help. But of course it becomes rapidly counter-productive when the “task” we’re stressing ourselves to accomplish is “not being stressed”. Falling asleep and being happy are both fairly dependent on a state of at least moderate relaxation, so when we worry too much about achieving them, nobody wins.
I opened this essay with a claim about legitimacy, so let’s circle back in that direction. In a post a couple of years ago I discussed the concept of preference legitimacy, and the question of what role social conditioning can or should play. We can see a version of this question also arise from the spontaneity/stress issue. If somebody desperately wants to feel a particular emotion for a particular reason, then obviously the stress could impair their ability to reach that emotional state. But even if they do manage it, is that emotion legitimate? Or has the person effectively given themselves Stockholm Syndrome, forcing themselves into an emotional state that is somehow unearned?
The answer seems to depend on one other factor. Just because you want an emotional association, that doesn’t make it impossible to achieve legitimately. Equally however, it is distinctly possible to use various psychological tricks (for example, misattribution of arousal) to trick yourself into “false” emotional states. Now, these emotions aren’t false in and of themselves. But by attributing them incorrectly we are committing the sin of intellectual dishonesty; the goal is not just the emotional response itself but the association with a particular stimulus. Our brain’s notion of causality is flexible enough that we can trick it, but deep down we still know the truth. (In my mind, this is oddly analogous to the Gettier problem in epistemology. Even when all the relevant factors are present, if there is some causal disconnect the criteria fail).
The weirdest and most concerning application of this line of argument is dating. By this logic, going on a date with any desire to further develop feelings for the person you’re dating (which is a pretty normal desire) is in itself sufficient to make that task difficult, and the result potentially illegitimate. In fact the fairly standard dating advice (to do something you’d find new and exciting regardless of the person you’re dating) operates by exploiting exactly this flaw via misattribution of arousal.
It’s relatively easy to rescue dating in itself; treat it as an opportunity to explore and develop your feelings, rather than as a completable task with the end goal of falling in love. Or, as a rather wiser friend of mine called it recently: “emotional horticulture”. This is something I need to remember more often. But even with dating rescued, it does seem to be the case that as a society we’re just… going about it the wrong way. Perhaps we should be giving the opposite dating advice: don’t do anything but sit, and talk. If there’s still an emotional connection, then maybe you’re in business?
2019 has been a very interesting year so far. I haven’t really blogged much, being consumed with the real world, but I feel like I’ve learned a lot. In May last year I said I wasn’t necessarily happy with how I’d changed recently. I’ve definitely changed again, and while it’s definitely a bit early to say, I think I’m going to be happier with this one.
At the very least, I’ve learned a lot and have an improved understanding of myself, people, and the world. Some of this has been updated mental models, and some of it has been emotional journeys toward things that my brain has known for a while already. For better or worse, a lot of those journeys are still incomplete. At any rate, here’s a sampling:
- Model emotions as a collection of separate values (a la “Mood” in the various The Sims games), not as a single specific value (“I am happy/sad/etc”).
- Model the emotional impact of experiences as velocity changes rather than position changes. The concrete example is stupidly obvious, but: something can make you happier without making you happy.
- Trying to figure out how I feel about a given thing in abstract is actually weirdly difficult because of the above two points. My emotional state at any given time is a complex tapestry of recent experiences and biological signals (hunger, etc), and only truly exceptional stimuli will manage to dominate all that. Most things still move the needle, but expect it to be subtle and hard to pick apart.
All of these are somewhat embarrassing to admit to because I certainly played The Sims as a kid, so you’d think at the very least I’d have better absorbed its model, but clearly it’s taken me some time to realize how complicated emotions can be. I’ll class this set not exactly as new knowledge, but something I’m trying to remember not to over-simplify from now on.
- It relieves a ton of pressure on all sorts of things to ask yourself “does this make me
happyhappier” instead of “is this universally optimal in all possible futures”. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
- I grew up with a lot of specific cultural narratives about how a lot of parts of life were supposed to work. This has left me with some weird subconscious expectations that don’t really materialize except as cognitive dissonance when they aren’t being met. Noticing these is extremely difficult, but weeding them out tends to be rewarding.
- I am an introvert, so all people take energy to interact with, despite my occasional expectations to the contrary. Immediate family may be the exception that proves the rule? There’s probably a whole blog’s worth of content here on trust vs familiarity and the interaction of those two things.
My emotions are mostly on board with this set, but my brain still needs to give the occasional reminder.
These ones, on the other hand, are mostly things where my brain has been quietly at odds with itself for a while. Recently my conscious brain has been attempting to drag my emotions through that journey kicking and screaming. Very much a work in progress.
- There’s no such thing as “The One”. Technically you could take the distribution of “compatibleness” for all people and point to the person at the far end of that distribution, but you’re so statistically unlikely to meet them they might as well not exist.
- Infatuation is not love. Infatuation has obviously never been sufficient for a happy relationship (c.f. Romeo and Juliet), but neither is it even strictly necessary. People emotionally bond in all sorts of interesting (and sometimes even positive!) ways that don’t require mutual insanity.
- Piggy-backing on the last one: relationships should not be all-consuming. Even if you somehow meet the person at the very far end of that “compatibleness” distribution, losing yourself so completely in somebody else is not healthy.
This post needs some sort of pithy closer, but I got nothing. The changes I’m aiming for may be positive, but they are not easy. This year has already been stressful and tiring for other reasons (work, etc.), but I guess there’s never a perfect time to do stuff like this.
When I think of love, I think of a deep, romantic, starry-eyed limerence combined with a strong underlying bond of commitment. This shouldn’t be too surprising, given that I grew up on a steady diet of Christian family values and golden-age Hollywood movie-musicals. While I’ve consciously rejected some parts of that childhood, it has nonetheless had a lasting and obvious effect on my subconscious and what I want out of life.
Of course, this is hardly the only kind of love that exists in the world. I have written before about this and generally keep coming back to Patrick Rothfuss’s two blog posts on the topic. Go read them if you haven’t already, they are important context to what follows.
At a very simple, practical level, the many different kinds of love that we talk about are merely a linguistic problem. The fact that they all share one word is annoying, and makes communication more difficult sometimes, but doesn’t fundamentally alter reality. The asterisk on this is of course that the way we define emotional words at all is weird and complicated. Still, this does not seem an insurmountable problem.
Since this problem seems initially surmountable, let’s try to surmount it. Specifically, let’s try to pin down what the right kind of love is upon which to build a marriage or other relationship. It may be tempting to object that there is no “right” kind of love, all love is unique, every relationship is different, etc. but love is such a broad term that this is clearly false. I love chocolate, but it would be a categorical mistake to marry someone about whom I feel the way I feel about chocolate. Or consider the Greek word philia which is sometimes translated as “brotherly love” or similar, but is again not something a romantic relationship should be built on.
We’ve just seen a couple of easy examples of what “marriage love” (for lack of a better term) shouldn’t be, but pinning down what it actually should be is rather more complicated:
- The traditionalist, “family values” line is that it should be storge, which is another Greek word usually translated as love but with more of a lean towards family and commitment. Among other things, storge is what parents normally feel for their children.
- The Hollywood line is that it should be limerence, which is not Greek at all but was coined by a psychologist in the 1970s and is roughly equivalent to so-called “romantic love” or emotional infatuation.
- The modern, sexually liberated generation of today might imply that pragmatically the most important form of love is eros (Greek again, with “erotic” an obvious descendant in modern English), with the others relevant but generally secondary. Certainly, there have been studies supporting this point.
- Rothfuss, in his second post above, argues for a conception of love he calls eleutheria and which he defines approximately as “love without expectation”.
- The final meaning of love I’ve heard talked about in this context is something I don’t have a good word handy for, and I’m not even sure I can describe it properly. It is an intentional, intellectual form of love, almost more a compatibility of spirit and mindset than an emotion? Maybe this is what philia means? Or philia combined with storge? I’m not sure. For the purposes of this post I’ll just keep calling it philia, and apologies to any Greek speakers who disagree.
So which one is it? In an ideal relationship, obviously, we would want all of these to be present. If you feel storge, limerence, eros, eleutheria, and philia for one person all at once, then that’s pretty definitely somebody you should be talking to. But what if you only feel some of those? Limerence and/or eros are clearly enough for a lot of people to act on, but don’t tend to produce a lasting relationship by themselves. Storge and philia, as far as I can tell, are potentially necessary for a healthy long-term relationship, but are also emotions that we feel for others (siblings, children, etc) and are therefore clearly not sufficient. Eleutheria sounds pretty but I still find it a little hard to grasp; I don’t have a good referent for when I’m feeling it.
Discarding eleutheria because I don’t properly understand it, and taking storge and philia as necessary but not sufficient, then either limerence or eros (or both) must be a necessary component. Of the two, limerence seems more plausible; eros is obviously very common, but it seems possible to be “in love” to the point of marriage without having an erotic component. Initial conclusion: storge, philia, and limerence.
This is all very theoretically well and good, but has a more practical problem: limerence seems rare. At the least, it certainly seems far rarer than the number of actual existing relationships (57.7% of the adult population as of the last census). Does this mean that limerence isn’t actually necessary? Or is it more that people are so afraid of being alone they will enter into a relationship without all the necessary conditions? I don’t know.
Emotions suffer from what I like to think of as “the colour problem”. It probably has a proper name in philosophy circles (related to, but distinct from Wittgenstein’s “private language”) but I think of it as the colour problem because the easiest example is to do with colours. A fancier name would probably be the experience-description problem or something.
Anyway, the easy example goes roughly as follows: presumably we both agree on what is meant by the colour blue. I can point to a blue sky and you will agree that the sky is, in fact, blue. You can point to a green plant and I will agree that it is not blue. We use this word the same way, to refer to the same property of the same things in the real world. But that says nothing about how we actually experience the property of blueness. Perhaps for me, the visible colour spectrum is reversed; I see violet as red and red as violet. I see blue as orange, and orange as blue. To the outside observer (and in fact to me myself) there is no way to tell. How I perceive a particular wavelength of light doesn’t change the categorization of real objects, or the words that we use.
When I see a blue sky, I might experience what you consider the sensation of orangeness But to me, that’s what blue is. All the things that generate that sensation have always just been called blue, and all the things that generate a sensation of blueness have just been called orange. I know no differently, and short of some miraculous yet-to-be-invented mind-reading technology, there is no way for anybody to detect this issue, because practically it’s not an issue. The only thing it could possibly have implications for is aesthetics, and that’s incredibly subjective anyway.
But enough with colours. They’re the easy example. The thing I want to actually talk about today is emotions, because they suffer the same problem but with much more serious implications. Like colours, emotions are internal experiences which we can describe only indirectly. We learn to associate smiling and other physical cues with happiness, and so as children the feelings that produce those physical reactions in us we start to call happiness. But of course, we can also lie about our emotions: we call it acting.
Consider as a thought experiment, two children raised separately by two very bizarre parents. Parent A raises child A almost perfectly normally, except for one thing: parent A lies about the name of emotions. When they are feeling happy, or talking about being happy, they use the word “sad”. When they are feeling angry, or talking about being angry, they use the word “calm”. Etc. Etc.
Parent A is a little weird, but parent B is even weirder. Parent B doesn’t lie with words: they lie with body language and facial expression. When parent B is feeling happy, they use the word “happy”, but they *act* like they’re sad. When they’re feeling angry, they use the word “angry”, but they *act* like they’re calm. Etc. Etc.
In theory, the end result is exactly the same. For both children, their internal mapping of words to external cues is reversed from what we consider normal. They could probably even talk to each other about their emotions, and understand each other perfectly, though everybody else would end up quite confused. All of this simply to show that we have no certainty that, when we use a given word to describe an emotion we’re feeling, it lines up with how other people use that word at all. All we have to go on are easily faked or confused external cues.
For colours this wasn’t a problem; aesthetics are subjective anyway. But for emotions, it’s rather more serious, because we frequently attach ethical weight to our emotional states and the communication thereof. These range from the mundane (feigning enjoyment of an awkward social situation) to the serious (telling someone you love them when, in fact, you don’t feel any such thing).
Now, hopefully nobody does the latter on purpose; that would be an incredibly nasty thing to do. But we just got finished talking about the fact that we can’t really be sure about our emotional labels anyway. Maybe through some confusion of cues and feelings, the emotion you describe as love is just different than that of your partner. You say you love each other, but you mean different things by that statement. This is not only practically dangerous, but ethically complicated as well. In a certain sense, your relationship is built on a lie; not an intentional one, but a lie nonetheless.
I completely lack a conclusion, but I’ve run out of things to say. Hope everyone’s had a merry christmas.
First piece of context: I just binge-watched the first season of The Good Place. It is excellent, and since it’s weirdly anchored in moral philosophy (this is a sitcom that references Kant, uses the word consequentialism as a punchline, and calls its episodes things like “The Trolley Problem”) it was right up my alley. This of course means that a warning is in order: spoilers for the first season of The Good Place ahead. I haven’t seen the second yet since it’s not on Netflix.
Second piece of context: this TED talk that I ran across on Facebook recently.
It’s a great talk with a lot of interesting ideas, but a couple of lines in particular stood out to me because I just found them so… incomprehensible.
Sure, she’s dating down, she’s sleeping with a knucklehead, but it’s not like she’s going to marry the guy.
Do people actually think like this? Does this phrase fit in the worldview of a normal person? Am I really that unusual in my perspective that I find this a little weird?
Now, it’s easy to assume my objections here are along the lines of “traditional Christian morality”, prudishness around sex, and a very marriage-is-the-only-permissible-outcome kind of approach. But that’s not the case. I have no problem with sex as a recreational activity, with no expectations of commitment or marriage. My problem is with the confusion of the two that is evident in these two quotes.
If you sit down with any of these people and ask them what they’re aiming for, do they have an answer? Do they even know if they want their relationship to lead to a long commitment or if it’s just for fun?
It’s fine if you’re just looking for fun, and that’s clear and everyone involved is aware. The opposite is also fine, if you’re looking for something long-term and serious. The thing that boggles my mind is that so many people don’t really seem to know?! Oh, it’s fun for now, and maybe it’ll become serious later? Maybe we’ll get married if we’re still together when I turn thirty? I really don’t get it.
Let’s bring this back around to The Good Place, and specifically motivation, which is where my mind originally started (thus the title) and is a topic that TGP deals with extensively. It is sometimes hard to know your own motivation for things; after all, most of our conscious thought is retroactive story-telling justification rather than actual forward-thinking decision-making. In this way I identify very strongly with Chidi (William Jackson Harper), the indecisive ethics professor who acts as “moral support” (how has nobody made that joke yet?) for protagonist Eleanor (Kristen Bell).
In that sense it maybe isn’t so surprising that people just don’t know what they’re looking for. As somebody who spends an inordinate amount of time worrying (for those who care the experiment was a flop and only survived about a day) about my own motivation for certain decisions and the various ethical implications there-in, this is something I am particularly attuned to and I still have no idea half the time.
But (again per the title) motivation is a critical part of what makes many actions ethical or not, in a common practical sense. Yes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and a pure consequentialist is free to disregard motivation entirely, but pragmatically it makes a huge difference. There’s a reason it’s a key part of law, and law is basically just a higher-order abstraction on ethics. Breaking somebody’s heart? Bad, but sometimes unavoidable. Breaking somebody’s heart on purpose? Legitimately evil.
If you’ve read this far, and maybe you’ve read my previous posts (1, 2, 3) on related topics, the theme that is finally standing out for me (hindsight is wonderful) is the following underlying question:
Is it possible to have an ethically sound romantic or sexual relationship?
Most people instinctively say yes, of course. I can’t disagree with the obvious conclusion without sounding crazy, but sometimes I wonder.
In post-war America, everything was clearly magical. Everyone was happy. The future was bright. Coca Cola cost a nickel. In particular, this was an era of perfect romance: it was the golden age of the Hollywood movie-musical. From Meet Me in St. Louis to Singin’ in the Rain, the formula for love had never been so simple.
The truth is, of course, not so simple, but I’m not really here to talk about that. What I want to talk about is the idea that the formula for love really was simpler (in a sense) back then. Bear with me.
At its core a romantic relationship needs two things to (metaphorically) catch fire: a spark, and fuel. The spark can be any kind of social interaction, any chance encounter, any glance across a room. It’s just one of those weird things about human social behaviour that’s intensely hard to predict individually but is easy to talk about in aggregate. The fuel is a little easier to pin down: shared interests, shared beliefs, a shared worldview. Something to build a relationship upon. This is over-simplified of course, but hopefully fairly uncontroversial.
In post-war America, there were, potentially, a few more sparks than today. Sparks rarely happen when you’re looking down at your phone. Social mixers are less common in the age of Netflix. Still, plenty of opportunities to spark do exist today, so all is not lost.
However, in post-war America, there was way more fuel.
Not only did the pressures of the war drive people together, but it was an age of cultural homogeneity for other reasons as well. New media existed (radio, film, tv, etc) but not in diversity. Everybody read the same news. Everybody watched the same movies. The entire freaking continent tuned in to I Love Lucy on Monday evenings. And those new neighbours you hadn’t met yet? They were almost certainly the same general religion as you, and chances are they were the same denomination too. In short: the odds that you had something in common with that cute guy/girl across the dance floor were actually pretty good. Today though, one of you is a vegan Hindu who likes documentaries and yoga, and the other is a meat-eating Catholic who’s into video games and obscure science fiction.
The modern age does sort of offer a solution to this problem of course. Your “tribes” may not be physically local anymore, but they’re still connected via the internet. Facebook and memes and super-specialized message boards and conventions all keep our various tribes intact and allow this diversity to flourish, no matter the geographic distance involved. Unfortunately, attraction is still a very physical response. Sparks can happen over the internet, but they are rare. The net effect is that while sparks and fuel are both still in supply today, modern technology has… separated them. Fuel is primarily online, and sparks in person, and never the twain shall meet.
“But wait”! I hear you say. “Isn’t online dating a thing”? It is! How perspicacious!
Online dating seems ideal; you fill out a form and let computers sort through the mountains of people in your region to find those with the appropriate “compatibility” (fuel), and then you go and meet them in person, and voila! Reality is somewhat unforgiving of this hypothesis though. For whatever reason, sparks are mostly a function of spontaneity, and they rarely happen in a one-on-one setting. Going on a deliberate coffee date with somebody you met online has to be the world’s worst possible approach for generating that initial spark, no matter how much fuel is present.
I think like an engineer (I can’t say I am an engineer or else real engineers will hunt me down and sue me) so I have come up with a couple of ridiculous solutions to these problems. Among other even more terrible ideas:
- An “offline dating form” for people to fill out when there you spark with someone in real life. It doesn’t actually increase the likelihood of a successful match, but at least it avoids wasting time on a couple of dates until you figure out that you’re just not compatible.
- Blinded online/offline mixers. A dating company holds an invite-only real-life party for groups of its users, with the guarantee that most of the people there will be people you match with really well.
Am I done with this rambly rant? No, I am not. The other dimension I have mostly glossed over so far is the fact that in ye olden days, everybody in your social group was looking for basically the same kind of relationship. Marriage, dog, 2.49 kids, white picket fence, whatever. Today we are much more liberal: you can have whatever kind of relationship you want as long as it’s consensual; you just have to agree on it first.
In a way this just kinda falls under fuel: yet another point of compatibility to consider when filling out the form. But it’s also special, because it’s super-hard to talk about and there’s tons of room for confusion. I don’t have a problem telling a date I’m an atheist, and it’s the sort of thing that might come up in a first-date conversation. If they’re not into that, oh well, moving on. Kids though? Who talks about kids on a first date? But it’s important. Most people feel pretty strongly about it one way or the other, and if you realize six months in that you feel differently, well then… oops?
Even worse, there are so many shades of grey in this that it’s easy to fall into a relationship and not even realize that you’re in different places. Love is a ridiculously overcomplicated word. Rothfuss says it better than I ever will:
Here’s the thing, I’m not a fan of LOVE as a singular concept. It’s a ridiculously broad term that can be applied to pets, sex partners, or Oreos. When a word accretes that many definitions, it becomes virtually nonsensical.
In that second link above, Rothfuss splits “love” into five or arguably six concepts (philos, eros, agape, storge, eleutheria, romance). These are useful distinctions with compelling definitions, but they blend into one another. Where does agape end and romance begin? What about eros, isn’t that kind of a component of the others sometimes? Word definitions are fuzzy abstractions to begin with and language is socially negotiated. When someone says “I love you”, chances are they don’t even know exactly which mix of love-concepts they really mean, and god help anybody else trying to come up with a correct interpretation. It’s kind of a crap-shoot, and not a necessarily a particularly ethical one.
All of this leaves us where exactly? I don’t really know. Clearly, I think too much. I started this thing talking about musicals, so I’ll end it with one too. If you’re looking for love out there in 2017… good luck?
Disclaimer: I don’t necessarily agree with or endorse everything that I link to. I link to things that are interesting and/or thought-provoking. Caveat lector.