f. Emotions and Decision Making

Emotions and Decision Making

For the following discussion, I will define a “positive situation” as one in which a need is addressed by a latent, precarious, or entrenched satisfier, and contra-satisfiers are absent. A “negative situation”, on the other hand, is one in which a need is not addressed by a satisfier or there is a latent, precarious, or entrenched contra-satisfier.

If a need is important to us, then negative situations cause negative feelings, for example, dis-satisfaction, frustration, anxiety, and fear. Conversely, positive situations cause positive emotions, for example, satisfaction, pleasure, and exhilaration. However, the latter are only felt when positive situations are first attained, and they last for a limited time. To motivate our behaviour, we must have satisfiers to seek and contra-satisfiers to avoid. Without these we would be inactive. The short duration of positive emotions ensures, therefore, that we attend to other needs once more pressing ones have been satisfied and secured. We can, therefore, only feel fully satisfied for a relatively short time.

Positive emotions do however reinforce our desire to behave or act in a way that generates that emotion. Conversely, negative emotions make us less likely to do so.

Knowledge has a part to play in our emotional state. What we perceive to be positive or negative situations are based on unconscious attitudes and beliefs. Many of these attitudes and beliefs are gained from our society, peers, advertising, etc., and we may not be consciously aware of them.

The feedback loop which causes us to be conscious has a part to play in our decisions and behaviour. For example, our unconscious mind may conclude that saying something potentially hurtful to another person will satisfy our needs. If so, then before acting we may consciously attempt to predict that person’s reaction via empathy or our knowledge of them. This may have an emotional effect on us which might cause us to reject or modify our unconscious mind’s conclusion.

What we perceive as satisfiers or contra-satisfiers, and thus, what we perceive as positive or negative situations, has a bearing on our level of stress. Stress has an emotional component, which can be positive or negative, and a biological component. The emotional component is negative when we experience feelings of frustration, anxiety, or fear, in a negative situation. It is positive when, for example, we experience exhilaration on first acquiring a satisfier. The biological component of stress is arousal, or a heightening of the physical ability to seize opportunities and avoid threats. It will occur when a situation is significant.

What we perceive as satisfiers and contra-satisfiers, and the value that we place on them, are important in valuing social institutions. Satisfiers and contra-satisfiers have a value to the individual, and the value that society places on its institutions is the aggregate of the value that each individual places on them. For example, the UK’s National Health Service has a very high social value because it is a satisfier of the existence and procreation needs of so many. This will be explored further when I discuss politics.

The value that we place on satisfiers and contra-satisfiers also has a bearing on what we hold to be good or bad, our morals, and ethics. For example, the aggregate impact of our behaviour on others, in terms of the satisfiers and contra-satisfiers that it invokes, forms the basis of utilitarianism. This will be explored further when I discuss ethics.

In the next article, I will describe how place a value on satisfiers and contra-satisfiers and in the following article how we use this to make our decisions.

h. Knowledge and Utility

Knowledge and Utility

Clearly, it is desirable for knowledge to be as close to objective reality as possible. However, there are practical limits on our ability to achieve this, many of which were explained in previous articles.

This is not something that I advocate, but it is an undeniable fact that people sometimes promote beliefs that are not necessarily true, beneficial to society or to the environment. Rather such beliefs may merely satisfy the personal needs of those who promote them. So long as we have individual volition, rather than a selfless hive mentality, this will always be the case. Again, I do not advocate the latter. Human success is based on maintaining a delicate balance between individuality and collectivism.

There are numerous examples of harmful beliefs in religion, commerce, and politics. They can cause immediate harm or, whilst having a short-term benefit, may be unsustainable in the longer term. Even scientists can sometimes prevaricate if they believe the paradigm on which their status or livelihood depends is at stake. Treating knowledge in this way is an inevitable aspect of human nature that we must learn to accept and manage.

The best that we are capable of achieving is schemata, memeplexes and paradigms that are consistent and have maximum utility. That is: schemata which optimise the individual’s chances of survival and procreation; memeplexes which do the same for society as well as satisfying its members individual needs; and paradigms which accurately represent any known objective truths, and which accurately predict phenomena. Here, the word “utility” refers to Utilitarianism, a philosophy founded by Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832). Utility is the ability of things to act as satisfiers of our needs or to prevent contra-satisfiers. Buddhist belief, for example, includes acting in a way which maximises utility, rather than acting solely out of kindness. This implies that some forms of behaviour must be opposed.

It is important to be critical of the knowledge we are presented with. It is also important to be critical of knowledge and beliefs we already hold, including unconscious ones. This can be achieved by asking the following questions of any item:

  • Is it consistent with everything else I know?
  • Is it consistent with other information I can research?
  • Is there evidence to support or refute it?
  • How reliable is its source?
  • What are the motives of the individual or group promoting it?
  • Would accepting it satisfy its advocate’s needs to my detriment, to the detriment of society, or to the detriment of the environment?
  • What would be my motives in accepting it?
  • Would accepting it satisfy my personal needs?
  • If so, does this over-ride my need for truth?

It is also important to be critical of our personal beliefs and attitudes, including those that we are not necessarily aware of. We can unearth them by questioning our actions as follows:

  • What need made me want to do that?
  • What belief or attitude made me choose that satisfier?

The more frequently we identify an unconscious belief or attitude in this way, the more likely it is that we hold it. However, we all carry a self-image and will vigorously defend it using various strategies described by Bartlett. For example, we may alter details, shift emphasis, include rationalisations, and make cultural alterations.  Some of the beliefs that we unearth may come as an unpleasant surprise, therefore. To challenge them, it is necessary to develop a degree of objectivity about oneself and to recognise that such beliefs and attitudes are an inevitable aspect of human nature.

Unconsciously held beliefs and attitudes can be positive, of course, but are not necessarily so. Having unearthed one, it is, therefore, sensible to question what type of satisfier it is. For example:

  • Is it a singular or synergistic satisfier that is benefitting me?
  • Is it an inhibiting or pseudo-satisfier that is not benefitting me?
  • Is it a violator that is causing me harm?

We can also assess whether it is harmful to the environment or those around us and for this I would refer the reader to a future article on ethics.