"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Golden Fleece Award–We Have Fewer Emotions Than We Thought

I have never stopped to think about it, but human emotions like anything else can be categorized.  Up until recently, social scientists and psychologists had concluded that we all have six basic emotions - happy, surprised, afraid, disgusted, angry, and sad. New research, however, based on a more thorough and rigorously analytical look at facial expressions, has shown that we do not innately distinguish between anger and disgust and fear and surprise.  These distinctions are learned.

Writing in The Atlantic (2.5.14) Julie Beck reviewed the work of Scottish scientists who found that while the immediate reactions of subjects exposed to computer-generated facial expressions made no distinction between anger and disgust and fear and surprise, as time went on they did, suggesting “that the distinction between anger and disgust and between surprise and fear, is socially, not biologically based.”

This is pretty hard to swallow.  For example, when I sit across the table from someone eating with his mouth open, exposing a greenish mass of half-chewed pork belly and spinach, I am disgusted.  I feel no anger whatsoever, just pure, sick-to-my-stomach revulsion. Whether innate or learned, these two emotions are as far removed as shit from Shinola.

And when I went apoplectic with rage at my teenage son’s insolent, rude, and insulting remarks, my reaction had nothing whatsoever to do with disgust.

How is it then, that I have learned to make this distinction when I am apparently programmed to be sad or happy?  My mother used to get all blubbery when I sent her an off-the-rack Hallmark Mother’s Day card.  These cards offer the most canned, treacly, and shopworn emotional greetings ever, and Hallmark has done a brilliant job convincing us that their mass-produced, machine-punched fluff represents an accurate collective emotion of love.  She was sold a bill of goods. Hallmark had worked marketing wonders and millions of mothers have smiled at this card:


It certainly seems that happiness has to be at least as much of a socially-induced phenomenon as fear or disgust.

Sadness is no less conditioned, and most of us cry at the tear-jerkers that Hollywood concocts. “What can you say about a twenty-five year old girl who died?” is the most sappy line in movie history, and millions of women bawled their eyes out over this carefully-crafted, manipulative, brilliantly romantic movie.

According to the researchers the distinction between surprise and fear is also the result of conditioning.  Again, something is awry here.  I have tunnel vision when I write, and when anyone knocks on

Fear was reserved for a dark, rainy night in Nairobi when I was pulled out of my car, tasted the barrel of an Uzi, and heard the click of the safety catch. Or the time when we went off-piste in the Mauritanian Sahara and got lost in a sandstorm.  The wind howled, the sand pitted the windshield and sifted in through the doors, and the dunes shifted and covered our wheels.  Or when my overloaded dugout canoe lost its motor on the Napo River, a large tributary of the Amazon, and we floated downstream towards Brazil on a 15 km current as the river widened and grew more threatening.

There is a wide range of disgust, and surely facial expressions show the difference. The disgust I felt when I sat across the table from Herm Perkins and watched him chew his food was nothing compared to what I felt in India when I first visited what was euphemistically called a ‘wet latrine’ in India. 

I was working for the World Bank during the International Water and Sanitation Decade, and my job was to promote low-cost sanitation – simple pour-flush or ventilated, improved, pit latrines – to replace traditional and totally unsanitary waste disposal systems.  A necessary part of my job was to visit homes with these traditional systems to assess market demand.

‘Wet latrines’ were holes cut into the flooring of a second-story flat onto a concrete slab below.  Every day a ‘sweeper’ – an Untouchable – came by to scrape the shit off the slab and into a wicker basket which carried on his head to be dumped in a nearby canal. After a few days the dry palm fronds softened, and the basket began to leak.  Watery shit dripped from the basket down the neck of the sweeper onto his shirt and shorts. Within an hour he became a foul, fetid, stinking, walking shit stream.  It was disgusting.  The most disgusting thing I had ever seen, and nothing whatsoever to do with Herm Perkins. The expression on my face, said my Indian colleagues, was unforgettable.

Dalits clearing excreta by hand during the night

‘Dry’ latrines were not much better. They were no more than a corner of a courtyard designated for ‘ablutions’. Residents of the surrounding apartment blocks  came down to the courtyard, picked a sandy, unfouled patch, and relieved themselves.  By midday, the dry latrine was a fly-covered, putrid, foul-smelling mess.  Pie-dogs sniffed and snuffled in the shit, looking for bits of food.  Chickens picked through what the dogs did not eat. It was disgusting.

So, whether disgust is biologically or socially determined is beside the point.  The research is irrelevant because it ignores the impossibly wide range of reactions to disgusting behavior – popping pimples or picking your nose – or revolting sights. I wince at great rolls of fat hanging over sweatpants and ass-cracks showing on plumbers. 

My eyebrows furrow at someone stabbing their meat with a fork and hacking away at it like a medieval peasant.  Snot in the bathroom sink is disgusting.

If Senator William Proxmire were still alive, and had this research been American, he would have given it a Golden Fleece Award for the most nonsensical, useless, and money-wasting exercise in academic folly.

"Our data reflect that the six basic facial expressions of emotion, like languages, are likely to represent a more complex set of modern signals and categories evolved from a simpler system of communication in early man developed to sub-serve developing social interaction needs," the authors wrote.

In other words, if a behavior is mildly disgusting, like waving a fork around with a piece of dripping gristle on it, a frown is enough of a social signal to advise the diner that he might reflect on the sensibilities of others.  ‘Wet’ latrines, on the other hand, were so disgusting that the Indian government after years of debating untouchability, caste, and social progress, finally outlawed them.

Anger can be brief and explosive; or it can be deep-seated, festering, nasty, and violent.  The look on the white woman yelling at Elizabeth Eckerd, one of the first nine black students to integrate Little Rock schools is pure evil hatred.

The look o on the face of a parent who has just lost a young child is not sad, but tortured, inconsolably grief-stricken.  It is an expression of a loss so incomprehensible that it has no category.  The face of grief is twisted, distorted, and full of pain.  There is no sadness there.

Categorization is a good thing.  Where would we be without Linnaeus? And scientists are rightfully investigating the nature of human behavior. Where would marketing be without the canny analysis and classification of consumers? Facial recognition technology is improving monthly, and correlations can be made between facial expressions and intent.  A terrorist gives himself away thanks to his tics and twitches. 

At a recent MIT conference on artificial intelligence a rather rancorous debate broke out between Noam Chomsky, the proponent of brain hard-wiring, and the chief research officer of Google.  Chomsky said that in order for us to create intelligent language programs, we must understand fully how the human brain works and forms and uses languages.  The Google scientist said nonsense.  All that has to be done is to collect and track all forms of human speech and analyze it for syntax, grammar, and vocabulary. All is ex posteriori. No a priori allowed.

The same is true for academic research such as the one carried out by the Scottish scientists.  No one really cares how reactions of disgust originate.  We only need to observe, record, and classify them.


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