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A War of Head Versus Heart (and It’s Always This Way)

June 27th, 2006 · No Comments

As part of a spate of reading on evolutionary psychology and the emergence of altruism and cooperation, I recently read the forthcoming Philosophy and Primates, based on
primatologist Frans de Waal’s 2003 Tanner Lecture, with comments by an array of academic rockstars. One interesting notion floated in Robert Wright‘s contribution is the idea that it’s difficut to know precisely which sort of anthropomorphic language to use when attributing motives to primates: emotional or rational. So, for example, an alpha male may sense a looming challenge to his authority from a lower status male and increase his grooming of other members of the band, shoring up alliances. We can use the language of strategic calculation to describe this, or we can think of it as a primarily emotional response, an instinctive search for contact and reassurance in the face of a felt threat. (As Wright points out, of course, lots of human behavior has the same ambiguity: I can do someone a favor from a simple feeling of personal affection, or because I predict it will be to my future benefit to be on good terms with someone. ) The reason, suggests Wright, is that many of our (and primates’) emotional responses were selected as proxies for rational calculation, presumably because the basic behavioral mechanisms were simpler, and so evolved sooner, than the ability to consciously understand their purposes and behave accordingly.

Now, the opposition between “heart” and “head,” emotion and logic, is an old cliché. “Irrational” and “emotional” are sometimes used as rough synonyms, and in fiction, “logical” characters are often portrayed as cold and emotionless, like Spock. Anyone who’s read the steamy life stories of some famous scientists has ample reason to doubt the stereotype, but there’s clearly something to the idea that the two tend to be in conflict—to some extent mutually exclusive at a given time in a particular context, if not in a whole personality. The obvious explanation for this is that certain of the evolutionary advantages of emotional responses come precisely from their capacity to override what seems like the narrowly rational course of action. Taking huge risks for the sake of kin may be bad for an individual, but good for their shared genes. People who blush uncontrollably when they lie may find that the disadvantage of being unable to decieve effectively is outweighed by the benefit of being trusted all the more by people who know this. Ditto with the impulse to vengance—a deterrent so powerful that Nixon formulated his “Madman Theory” on the premise that it would be better to be seen as emotionally unbalanced than as a strategic calculator… and so strategic calculation mandated feigning emotional imbalance.

But Wright’s observation points to another possible explanation: Rational calculation and emotion are in many cases effective substitutes for each other, with careful reflection counseling the same behavior that a gut emotional reaction would have impelled. On that account, you’d tend to find the presence of one to an unusual degree correlated with the absence of the other not because there’s an intrinsic conflict, but because having either sufficiently developed makes the other to some extent redundant. Since my next reading topic is likely to be child development, it’ll be interesting to see whether that pans out.

Tags: Science