The cognitive economy of emotions

David Brooks has an opinion piece in The New York Times entitled ‘The New Humanism”.  A prelude to his pending book The Social Animal, Brooks points out that “We have a prevailing view in our society — not only in the policy world, but in many spheres — that we are divided creatures. Reason, which is trustworthy, is separate from the emotions, which are suspect. Society progresses to the extent that reason can suppress the passions. He correctly identifies this way of thinking as a fallacy, and drawing upon modern findings in neuroscience (some call it social neuroscience, behavioural economics, etc., but to me, if it is about the brain, it fits under the umbrella of neuroscience), he reminds us that “emotion is not opposed to reason; our emotions assign value to things and are the basis of reason.”

What Brooks does not mention is the reason that emotions are (to a certain degree) the basis of reason. Emotions are probably best viewed as heuristics – shortcuts to arrive at a decision that is consistent with our previous experiences, without expending the computational energy required the first time that we encountered a similar situation. Gidon Felsen and I have discussed this perspective on emotions as a type of of cognitive economy in a paper that is in press in AJOB Neuroscience entitled “How the neuroscience of decision making informs our conception of autonomy.” Here is an (edited) excerpt of the relevant section of the paper.

“The emotional influence on decision making postulated by Damasio’s somatic marker hypothesis (SMH) can be thought of as a more elaborated form of the primitive “fight-or-flight” response exhibited throughout the animal kingdom. This response enables the nervous system to make rapid survival-promoting decisions when confronted with dangerous situations: with very little deliberation required, the stimuli directly trigger the motor output necessary for either escaping or confronting the danger. The SMH extends this idea in two ways. First, it suggests that not only do instinctive emotions influence decisions (as they do during fight-or-flight), but secondary emotions, which are learned through trial and error, do so as well. Second, it posits that these emotions change the likelihood of particular decisions being undertaken, rather than being “hardwired” to produce a particular stereotyped response. Just as the fight-or-flight response is evolutionarily advantageous, so too are the associations between secondary emotions and decisions.

It is important to note that the SMH does not suggest that emotional and rational decision making are incompatible. In Damasio’s words, “The action of biological drives, body states, and emotions may be an indispensable foundation for rationality” (Damasio 1994, p. 200). In particular, emotional decision making may act in a “cognitively economical” manner by narrowing the set of options on which the computationally expensive value-based processing described above must be performed in order to select the ‘best’ option. Although this initial winnowing stage would not traditionally be considered rational because it eschews deliberation, the outcome (i.e., the ultimate decision) may match the result of a truly deliberative process. Indeed, somatic markers are only advantageous to the extent that they provide an efficient heuristic for making adaptive decisions (Marewski, Gaissmaier et al. 2010). If we allow that a rational decision could be produced by a previously learned “shortcut” yielding an identical outcome to a deliberative process, a premise that might be termed neurobiological consequentialism, emotions would not pose a threat to rationality, but rather may provide an efficient mechanism for it (Frank 1988; De Sousa 1990; Evans, Over et al. 1993; Chase, Hertwig et al. 1998).”

Link to David Brooks op-ed piece.


2 thoughts on “The cognitive economy of emotions

  1. Very interesting comment. And I found Brooks’ op-ed interesting, too.

    While I haven’t read Damassio’s books in over a year, I did not find his discussion of consciousness compelling. At a minimum, it makes little connection with other neuoscientific work on consciousness by people like Koch and Edelman. And I’ve never quite understood the smatic marker hypothesis.

    I also find Damassio’s terminology confusing. For him, emotion equals emotional behavior, while ‘feeling’ equals the inner sense of emotion. While this might be quibbling, I think that many feel that emotion is the inner feeling, and emotional behavior is emotional behavior. But, if I’ve described Damassio’s definition of emotion correctly, then your use of the term ’emotion’ isn’t Damassio’s. The sentence beginning “The emotional influence on decision making … ” makes little sense if emotions are the behavior.

    Additionally, you might be conflating ‘automatic’ behavioral responses with emotional behavior. if a ball is thrown at my head and I duck, that is a fast automatic behavioral response, with no deduction, but I wouldn’t call it emotional. (Perhaps later it becomes emotional). Much of our behavioral repertoire is automatic; conscious, deliberative supervision is possible, but it slows things down and does not always result in better decisions. in my view, emotions (which I think are the sense of inner state, and involve somatic markers) may influence automatic behaviors, but are not the whole story.

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