Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Rational Rider Can't Control the Emotional Elephant If They Have No Internal Conversation

Our emotions are like an elephant, and our reason is like an elephant rider.  Thus does Jonathan Haidt give a sense of the proportions between our emotional judgments and our reason's ability to sway them.  Haidt, in The Righteous Mind, says that our emotional systems are very old and refined, whereas our reason is a relatively new addition.  Reason has to bring something that the emotional elephant can use.

What reason gives us is the ability to imagine alternative futures.  Our emotional cognitions lead us to want to feel a certain way, but there might be several paths to that feeling.  On a good day, the rational rider can sway the elephant to choose one path over another by bringing out the advantages of one imagined future over another.

We are reading Haidt in Theory Camp now.  I have also been reading critical realist social theory this summer, especially the work of Margaret Archer.  Archer makes the case that our internal conversation works in a similar way.  The 'I' that I am now is in conversation with the 'You' that I want to be in the future.  Archer understands our emotions to be part of the future self that we wish to have.

Archer, like most intellectuals, imagines this conversation as a rational discourse.  She is unusual among rationalist intellectuals in giving even this much weight to emotions.

Haidt, unlike most intellectuals, has worked his way to the scientific conclusion that our internal conversation is primarily an emotional intuition rather than a rational discourse. He thinks intellectuals are prone to a rationalist delusion that all people are primarily rational.

Archer, in her recent works, has attempted to conduct a small empirical study of how different people conduct their inner conversations.  The results seem to me to show that the educated and privileged classes have more elaborate internal conversations.  Indeed, the people with the most disrupted lives sometimes had no inner life at all.

So what do we get when we put Haidt and Archer together?

We all make instantaneous moral judgments all the time, which our 'elephants' are inclined to follow. The people who have cultivated reason the most have the greatest chance of swaying the elephant toward one imagined future over another.   And the people who have cultivated reason the least will be guided by their first emotional reactions. They may not have much internal conversation at all.

Intellectuals imagine that everyone has internal conversations that rationally weigh alternative futures.  But really, only intellectuals do that, and even they (we) are not nearly as rational as we like to think.

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