For the last several days, social media has been raging with discussions about race and law enforcement. I’ve felt an impulse to jump in with one insight or another in response. But I’ve refrained. Emotions are fraught and even if my insights are rationally defensible, they will do no good. I have at least enough social intelligence to recognize that the debates are at least as much about what people are feeling as they are about the intellectual merit of the ideas being expressed. It took a little longer for me to recognize that my urge to participate was born of emotion as well. There are others with much greater emotional needs relative to the events of the day, and my explorations of interesting angles to the stated arguments would not be helpful.
So, I decided to scratch my itch with this blog post. As a younger man, I considered myself oh-so-rational. You know the type. The kind of adolescent white boy who reads “the Fountainhead” or “Atlas Shrugged” and nods approvingly at how vigorously rational Ayn Rand’s ideas are. But, really, the appeal to a kid like I was is very emotional. The very special protagonist is being held down by silly social constructs that won’t let him thrive or enjoy the recognition he so richly deserves. So he takes his toys and goes home, making everyone cry. It’s a revenge fantasy. It’s the little kid threatening to run away because “then everyone will be sorry.” But it’s dressed up as a sort of philosophical musing. For a kid like me, it captured my emotion and then let me pretend I was merely being coldly rational when I found some appeal in the ideas.
I say that not to trash my younger self or even, really, Ayn Rand. (All right, so I take a little pleasure in the gratuitous hit on Rand — but I try to be kind when I think of younger me.) I say that as an example of how our minds encourage us to disregard the emotional man behind the curtain. Advertisers know that it’s not the words that matter, it’s the feeling that counts.
See, for example, this explanation in a post about brain science and marketing:
The reptilian brain first wants to know if the thing is threatening or desirable (edible, sexually attractive). It ascertains this from what it can see, smell, taste and touch, not what it can deduct by rational means. All these evaluations occur without recourse to the rational mind.
The limbic brain then responds emotionally and asks, “Is this my friend? Can I put my trust here?” . . . Finally, when most of this is sorted out, the rational brain creates a story to make sense of it all. How memorable that story will be is also set within the limbic system, by the amygdala, where the emotional impact of an experience determines its memorability.
We often mistakenly think the rational brain’s story or the person’s stated argument is the primary focus of the discussion. But, often enough, it’s just the container for the emotional content — merely a bottle for the wine within.
When you’re negotiating or having a discussion with someone, you should always be on the lookout for pretext. When there is a pretext involved, meeting the person’s stated needs will never be entirely satisfactory — because there is an unstated need that has to be addressed. That’s essentially what is at work when you ignore the emotional context of a discussion. If someone makes a statement or an argument online (or anywhere else, really) that’s prompted because they are angry or sad, you can’t engage with them productively unless you consider the emotional background of the statement. It’s maybe easier to see with kids. How many times have you seen a kid who is unmanageable because he or she is tired? The stated reason for their unhappiness is only rarely, “I need to be put to bed!”
And it’s not like everyone else is an emotional basket case while, somehow, you are the only intellectual adult in the room. You have your man behind the curtain, deep in your lizard brain, affecting your rationality. You’re never going to stop that, but you can mitigate its effects to some degree by being mindful of the dynamic.
It’s not necessarily your job to be some Internet stranger’s caretaker, but when you go online and see someone holding forth about how some person or group or thing sucks, you’re not necessarily going to get very far by patiently explaining the ways in which that person or group or thing does not, in fact, suck. If you care to do so, you’ll probably have a more productive conversation by recognizing “hey, this person is angry — I need to grapple with the anger in some fashion before we’ll be able to move forward.” But, you’re not a Vulcan. That’s a lot of work and frequently not worth the effort. Sometimes it’s a lot more emotionally entertaining to get into a fight.