the cake, the snake, and the cocktail party

Your emotions are real, but they are not reality.

Snake cake

These days, reality seems to be a matter of opinion, or perhaps mere assertion. But this isn’t just a recent phenomenon; it’s a divergence of the modern world from evolutionary biology that has been progressing for many generations, with increasingly stark effects.

Your body does not, cannot, and should not give you a truly faithful representation of the world. The world is too full for you to take in everything. Even if you were standing alone on an empty savannah, with no other living creature in sight, you would be overwhelmed by sensory overload if you could really take in everything around you: the infinite cocktail of light and shapes, sounds and scents, the feel of the particles in the air and the ground beneath your feet. You are like an ant in the ocean of all that surrounds you. To compensate, your five senses evolved to filter information down to a set that your brain can process into a different set of data that your body can act on. What you can sense is smaller than what exists, and what you perceive is different from what you can sense.

But even this finely processed data is a confusing panoply of input. Somehow, you have to figure out what to do about your perceptions. The most primal tools you have in making these decisions are your emotions.

Your emotions evolved so that you are urged to act in a matter that best suits your survival and the propagation of your genetic heritage. You might like to believe that you are not such a simple machine, but you surely are or you wouldn’t be here. Had you and all of your ancestors not experienced emotions related to hunger, you would not have survived to this point.

Now the world is a vastly different place than it has been throughout nearly all of our evolutionary history, and we are well into a time where our emotions easily lead us to wrong decisions. But it’s not so simple to determine when we are being served poorly by our emotions, because despite the mismatch between prehistoric evolution and our modern world, our emotions can be: always wrong, wrong but right, or really complicated. I can explain this more clearly with three scenarios named “the cake, the snake, and the cocktail party.”

The Cake

Our prehistoric ancestors were constantly on the hunt for food, and food was not always easily accessible. On the rare occasion when they stumbled upon some luscious morsel of fat, or some delicate repository of sugar, it was to their evolutionary advantage to immediately devour that treasure.

Today of course, our industrial food supply surrounds us with tempting confections of fat and sugar, combined in manners that are exquisitely tuned to trigger our desire to eat. When you see a piece of cake, you may have an emotion that compels you to immediately cram as much of it into your mouth as quickly as possible.

This emotion, however, is always wrong. Unless you are in an unfortunate state of deprivation, it is not true that this is a rare piece of cake that is critical to your survival and a boon to your odds of producing progeny. The truth is exactly opposite: incessant indulgence of this instinct to eat cake will lead to your premature death and very probably to a reduction in your mating prospects.

So this is the simplest example of second-guessing your emotions: In the past, this emotion was always right, and today it is always wrong.

The Snake

Imagine you are walking through the forest, enjoying a lovely day, when out of the corner of your eye you notice a deadly snake at your foot, poised to bite and fill your body with poison. You jump away from the threat even faster than you perceive it.

Your heart pounding in your chest, the fear coursing electric in your body, you look down at the ground and see that what you thought was a snake was really just a stick.

The next day on another idyllic walk, nearly the exact same thing happens: the sudden appearance of a snake, a shocked leap out of harm’s way, and then the sheepish realization that there’s no real threat. Maybe this time it’s a lizard. Or it is a snake, but it’s just not a deadly one.

And this happens over and over again, and you never learn your lesson, you just keep jumping like a fool. Until one day, you look down and it really is a deadly snake. You pick up a rock and you bash its head in.

This emotion, this often irrational fear, survives today. You may not walk in the woods that often, but maybe you park your car in a dark parking lot, and when you hurry to your car late at night, you grip your keys tightly, interlaced in your fingers to defend yourself from the attack that never comes. Maybe you walk down a dark street in a neighborhood of ill repute, and you nervously cross the street when you see strangers approaching on your side.

Are you paranoid, are you making unkind assumptions? Yes. Do you need this emotion to survive? Absolutely, yes. The genetic lines of people who completely lacked this emotion are gone now, as they were all killed by deadly snakes.

So in this case, the emotion is almost always wrong, but nevertheless you must honor it in your actions for the unacceptable consequences of the one time that it is right.

The Cocktail Party

At a festive gathering of a few dozen people, you are talking to a person that you have never met before that evening. The conversation is pleasant enough, but in an unguarded moment you make an errant comment that you suddenly realize might have offended this person. You are about to clarify your words, but just at that moment you are interrupted by a friend who appears at your shoulder, and when you turn back to your previous conversation partner, she has disappeared into the swirls and eddies of the party.

Well, perhaps it doesn’t matter. But then why does it keep you up at night? You replay the scene in your head and pick over every detail, wondering if you offended this perfectly pleasant person, agonizing over how the words came out and what you should have said differently. The emotions of social mortification can be gut-wrenchingly powerful. What gave them such power, and should we still honor that power today?

In pre-historic times, people lived in very small groups, and for many millennia your largest social context might only be the size of a small village. Almost every person that you met would be someone you would interact with many times over the course of your lifetime. If you had an awkward social interaction with someone, you would want to repair this social tear, and you will quickly have many chances to do so. Reconciliation would be important not only for your relationship with this person, but so that you would not gain a reputation in the village for being unsociable. Such a reputation is an evolutionary death sentence, as effectively all of the people you meet in your lifetime would become unwilling to to procreate with you.

Today the situation is very different, but not entirely different. You will certainly never meet all of the people in your reasonably reachable geographic vicinity. However, a great many of us, perhaps even the great majority of us, continue to live in small social circles. Consider the example of an entrepreneur in San Francisco attending a cocktail party filled with the most connected investors in the Bay Area. An egregious party foul here could effectively end the entrepreneur’s ability to continue working, a consequence as extreme as any village faux pas on the prehistoric savannah. The same concerns might apply to certain types of gatherings for a writer in New York, a union laborer in Pittsburgh, or a rug dealer in Morocco. Or even a social media addict posting to her favorite group on Facebook.

But the context is really difficult to assess. Are the investors at this party really that connected? Does that merchants’ association in Morocco really enforce its unwritten rules? Is that Facebook activity really going to spread anywhere outside the group? And who is really in this group anyway? The modern world has made this assessment extremely complicated.

So the cocktail party is an example where the emotion used to be nearly always right, and today whether to honor that emotion in your actions involves a complex assessment of reality.

But what is reality?

Reality is the set of information that allows you to make rational decisions that further your best interests. There are many, many things that get in the way of your clear perception of reality, and foremost among them are your emotions. Emotions have not evolved to accord with the reality of the modern world. For the most part, you cannot change the emergence of your emotions, as they remain encoded to respond to stimuli of many thousands of years ago.

Fortunately, you do not have to be a prisoner of your emotions. You can allow them to occur while nevertheless choosing to act in accord with reality. However, you must continue to honor the emotions that have beneficial effects in the modern context. To make choices among those emotions wisely, you should keep in mind the cake, the snake, and the cocktail party.

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