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Our Feelings are Not Our Own

Our Feelings are Not Our Own. Artwork by William Eckersley

The book that had the greatest impact on my thinking in 2018 was not a philosophy book. It was Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman’s accessible presentation of the conclusions of his lifetime’s research in psychology (I came late to the party: the book was published in 2011). For those of us with a professional commitment to viewing ourselves as rational and autonomous thinkers, the book’s core message is startling: human thinking is largely automatic, associative, non-rational, and out of our control. Philosophically, this idea is nothing new: David Hume, in the mid-eighteenth century, argued that the human mind thinks – that is, moves from idea to idea – according to involuntary and naturally determined associations. A long line of philosophers from that time onwards has sought to debunk the notion that the human mind is rational and free. Yet as Hume would be the first to argue, philosophical persuasion is often not enough to make a belief stick. Real belief sometimes requires empirical evidence, and it took Kahneman’s empirical evidence to make me believe – and not just philosophically accept – that when I think, or rather when I think that I think, there is very little autonomous or rational thinking going on at all.

Photo of Kathleen Vohs

One phenomenon Kahneman explains is priming: the involuntary triggering of certain associative clusters of ideas by exposure to particular words or images. Words and images can trigger associative behaviours too. Exposing young people to words associated with old age – priming them with ideas of infirmity, grey hair, and wrinkles – makes them walk more slowly. Causing people to move their heads up and down, in such a way that they are not conscious that they are nodding, gives them a strong propensity to agree with newspaper opinion pieces. One remarkable study led by Kathleen Vohs found that priming people with images of money leads them to act more individualistically: those who had been exposed to images of dollar bills were less likely to help others pick up pencils spilled on the floor or to seek to work collaboratively on a difficult task. Being primed to think of money does not just make people more selfish about money; it makes them think of themselves as more self- sufficient and distinct from others in general, leading them to be less willing to engage with others.

This finding should give us pause. We are told – though we should be sceptical of these claims – that a failure to engage with others’ views underlies recent political upheavals. The rich don’t understand the poor; the old don’t understand the young; liberal “elites” don’t understand the less-educated “left behind”. At the same time, we live in societies that constantly prime us with images of money: making it, spending it, saving it, having too much or not enough of it. We dwell in a milieu in which interest rates, government spending, tax rises and cuts, and corporate share values are persistently presented as matters of universal importance. Vohs’s study suggests that it is not the fact of having more money or less money that makes us less able to understand those who are different from ourselves; living in a money-saturated society influences us to be more focused on personal choices, interests, and identities than on associating with, helping and learning from others.

Baruch Spinoza, a philosopher who lived in Amsterdam at the dawn of modern capitalism, knew about the psychological effects of money. In particular, he knew that those with money on their minds think of money as the subject of every desire and the cause of every joy. In a market society in which money mediates many social interactions, and in which the image of money as an object of desire is ever- present, money is persistently connected to our feelings about ourselves and other people. Instead of judging the value of people according to their rationality (which Spinoza takes to be the correct measure of a person’s worth), we tend to associate value with wealth. This misunderstanding has specific emotional effects. It leads the poor to feel despondent (“thinking less highly of themselves than is just”) and envious, and the rich to feel pride (“thinking more highly of themselves than is just”) and pity. For Spinoza, our self- conceptions and our conceptions of others are directly shaped by our emotional responses to the value we perceive ourselves and others to have. A society in which money is the measure of value, and is unevenly distributed, is one in which a gulf opens up between the rich and the poor. That gulf is both socio-economic and emotional. The rich and the poor have different, sometimes opposing, feelings, a situation that Spinoza takes to be dangerous. Those who feel themselves to be different are unlikely to reach understanding of their similarities or perceive the utility of helping one another.

Picture of Baruch Spinoza

Spinoza stresses that bad feelings and misunderstandings are worsened because we believe we are free. That is, to the extent that we think of others as the free and independent agents of their success or failure, we think of them as the free and independent causes of our envy or pity. (By contrast, if we think of others’ achievements as largely determined by their circumstances, we feel our emotions less keenly because they are attributed to more complex causes and thereby spread out). Similarly, if we think of ourselves as free individuals, we think of ourselves as the sole cause of our feelings about own situation, making our pride or despondency all the worse. We enter a vicious circle. Money-oriented societies cause social and emotional divisions between rich and poor, and lead to the individualistic behaviour and belief in personal responsibility that make those divisions worse. Spinoza, like Hume, believes that our thoughts and actions are wholly determined by other thoughts and actions. Our “wills” are not “free” in the sense of having the capacity to make choices uncaused by any other influence. In his Ethics, Spinoza says we believe that we have free will “because [we] are conscious of [our] volitions and [our] appetite, and do not think, even in [our] dreams, of the causes by which [we] are disposed to wanting and willing, because [we] are ignorant of those causes”. Our belief in free will gives us a strong propensity to think of human intentions as the causes of events, and to apportion praise and blame accordingly. In an emotionally divided society, where rich and poor feel differently about the same set of circumstances, it is no surprise that we think of these groups as bearing responsibility for events that generate our own bad feelings.

To take two recent examples: the result of the Brexit referendum was immediately, and almost universally, attributed to the resentful volitions of those whom modern global capitalism had “left behind”. The Grenfell Tower fire was widely blamed on the conservative leaders of a “rich” local council who were also castigated for failing to respond adequately to the disaster. Both of these narratives are highly misleading, and mask more complex – less emotionally poignant – causal stories. In the referendum, voting patterns were most strongly aligned not with income but with age, level of education, and feelings about one’s prospects. Being older, less educated, and despondent about the future is complexly bound up with one’s economic situation, but is not straightforwardly correlated with poverty. Blaming “the rich” for the Grenfell Tower fire is similarly problematic. While the inquiry into the disaster is ongoing, a rigorously researched article by Andrew O’Hagan in the London Review of Books found that the fire’s causes likely include the Blair- era deregulation of safety inspections and serious failures of communication amongst the emergency services, themselves probably caused by an austerity-induced reduction of resources. (He also documents the exemplary public service of council leaders and staff during and after the fire.) The causes of this terrible event are complexly economic, social, and political, and are not attributable to the intentions, acts or failings of a single group of people. But the media likes emotional poignancy and – amidst the emotional devastation of such events – promotes the narratives we “feel” to be true: narratives that make causality simple, freely willed, and attributable to “the rich” or “the poor”.

Hume tells us that belief is merely a stronger and more vivid feeling of the truth of a perception than one concocted by the imagination. We now know that believing something, or feeling it to be true, can be prompted in us arbitrarily by the ideas and images with which we are unconsciously primed. Knowing that we live in money-saturated societies, and knowing that (short of total revolution) there is no way out of that milieu, means we can understand that we are primed to think of ourselves as individuals (rather than social beings), and to think of events as attributable to personal choice (rather than complex causes). If we understand our predicament, we can better find a way through it. We can overcome emotional division by striving to think a little more rationally a little more often. Keeping in mind that how we feel about a situation has complex economic, social, and historical causes – that our feelings are a muddled response to the weight of what influences us, and are, in an important sense not our own – is a helpful place to start. Beth Lord is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen. She edited Spinoza’s Philosophy of Ratio which was published last year by Edinburgh University Press.

From The Philosopher, vol. 107, no. 2 ('Us and Them'). Read more articles from The Philosopher, purchase this issue or become a subscriber.


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