Thursday, October 15, 2009

You are responsible for your feelings. Or are you?

These days everyone seems to be in favour of people taking responsibility. But in the self-help world, an unusual spin on this idea has become popular: "You are responsible for your feelings." (Sometimes the word "emotions" is used instead of "feelings", and here I'll treat the two terms synonymously.) Now it makes sense to talk about taking responsibility for your behaviour—although it's easier said than done—but what would it mean for a person to take responsibility for their internal state of being? The question hinges on what we mean by the word "responsibility".

Consider the following scenario: suppose you're helping to organize a party and you take responsibility for the drinks. In this case, taking responsibility means looking after, taking care of. Applying this to our feelings makes a good deal of sense. Ultimately, each of us needs to look after and take care of our feelings. Other people's behaviour can of course have a great impact on our lives, but each of us is the only one with direct access to our own feelings. Given this unique position, a passive approach doesn't make much sense. Part of what it means to "take responsibility for your feelings" is embodied in the familiar term from the U.S. Declaration of Independence: "the pursuit of happiness".

But there's another sense to the word "responsibility". The sense of causation—and blame. For example, "Who's responsible for this mess?" and "The Taliban took responsibility for the attack." In what way can you be the cause of your feelings? Well, it turns out there's a very popular model in psychotherapy that suggests just that.


It's called the A-B-C model and it was introduced by Albert Ellis, the founder of rational emotive behavioral therapy, a type of cognitive behavioral therapy. The A-B-C model counters the common notion that people and events make us feel certain ways. Ellis argued that between the activating event (A) and the emotional consequences (C) lie our beliefs (B). Changing our "irrational" beliefs can change how we feel about the events in our lives. While this approach seems reasonable—and indeed studies have shown that it can be very helpful for some people—the A-B-C model has its limitations.

For example suppose you're taking a pleasant walk in the woods when a bear jumps out at you. Your response may have little to do with your beliefs and a lot to do with thousands of years of evolution telling you that you're in mortal danger! Another limitation of the A-B-C model is that while thoughts can influence emotions, emotions can also influence thoughts. The work of neuroscientists such as António Damásio has revealed the intricacy of how thoughts and emotions are intertwined in the brain. The A-B-C model strikes me as a drastic oversimplification. And that's ok; it's only a model after all. An imperfect theory can still be useful.

But the limitations of the A-B-C model often seem to be overlooked in pop psychology. If people's emotions are caused by their beliefs, then can't it be said that they "choose" their emotions? It's not hard to see how this can lead to "blaming the victim". For example, people who have suffered traumatic life events often experience serious emotional consequences. It would be callous in the extreme to suggest that their suffering is "caused" by their own beliefs.

In the end, compassion is essential, both towards others and towards ourselves. I find it hard to see how simplistic notions of emotional causation will engender such a response.

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Friday, October 02, 2009

You're being irrational!

As anyone who has watched the original Star Trek series knows, Mr Spock was big on logic. He was also big on labeling the behaviour of humans "illogical". For example, consider this quote:
May I say that I have not enjoyed serving under Humans. I find their illogic and foolish emotions a constant irritant.
Season 3, episode 7 ("Day of the Dove")
Now it's true that humans do make logical errors from time to time. For example suppose Tom is considering hiring a contractor. A friend recommends asking for references because "Good contractors provide references." Sure enough, the contractor provides references and Tom hires them. Unfortunately the work is poor, and Tom complains, "I thought good contractors provide references!?"

But it's not just in the case of formal errors of logic that people's arguments and behaviour are termed "illogical"—or more commonly "irrational". For example, purchasing and selling decisions are sometimes called irrational simply because the commenter doesn't understand or agree with them. Why doesn't Grandma sell her home to make way for the skyscraper? She's been offered a very generous price! Why's she being so irrational? But Grandma has lived in that neighborhood for years and simply doesn't want a fancy new home with new neighbours.

People whose political views differ from ours are often slurred as being irrational. But what we really mean is that taken within our political framework their arguments make no sense. What really doesn't make sense is the idea that someone else's argument has to fit with our premises.

Logic proceeds from premises to conclusions. Without the premises, there can be no reasoning. Premises can be facts ("It is raining.") but they can also be desires ("I'd like to stay dry."). When Mr Spock complains about human emotions, he's suggesting that we should behave like computers. But who will program the computers?

Descartes' famous "I think, therefore I am" sounds a bit as if it privileges thinking above other human capacities. Descartes was in fact questioning everything he believed until he reached the point of questioning whether he himself existed. Of course this is nonsense: if he was thinking this, then he must exist. Problem solved! Sort of. What about everything else in the world, including his senses?

Thinking is only part of what human existence entails. Feeling and emotions are perhaps more fundamental. And much of what purports to be reasoning may in fact be post hoc rationalizations. Simple exercises in reasoning—"It's raining and I'd like to stay dry, so I'll bring an umbrella"—depend on desires born of feelings (it's not pleasant to be cold and wet). When it comes to more complex motivations and behaviours, the roles of thinking and feeling get hopelessly entangled.

Of course Mr Spock is just a character on a TV show. The writers repeatedly emphasize that emotion is indeed central to human existence. What bothers me is the false dichotomy they set up between thinking and feeling. In general, our emotions don't cause us to act irrationally, and the notion that we should act more "logically" misses the point. This is illustrated in Season 1, Episode 12 ("The Menagerie: Part II"):
Captain Kirk: Eh, Mr. Spock, when you're finished, please come back and see me, I want to talk to you. This regrettable tendency you've been showing lately towards flagrant emotionalism...

Mr. Spock: I see no reason to insult me, sir. I believe I've been completely logical about the whole affair.

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