Future Feelings: Part 1

What are all these feelings even for?

Last week, I wrote about how our aversion to "bad" feelings can lead us to do questionable things. I began with regret but zoomed out from there to look at bad feelings more generally and some of the ways that they can deceive us. One of the ways I touched on has three basic components that I think are true for most people: (1) we have a desire to feel good (and to feel good about ourselves), (2) we have a desire to be liked, and (3) we have a desire to express ourselves and our identities.

When you combine those desires, I'd argue that it gives us a strong incentive to express ourselves in ways that will improve our chances of being liked and feeling good (and feeling good about ourselves). And if you add to the mix a bad feeling that we'd rather not have, or a whole bunch of them, I'd argue that our already strong incentive grows stronger. And when it does, our self-deception warning systems should immediately start buzzing and flashing red lights and saying "Warning. Warning. Warning." Some cold-water sprinklers would also be nice. But most of us don't have SDWSs, much less ones with costly cold-water sprinkler add-ons. So our feelings often sneak in and mislead us, and we often don't notice. And the worst part about this little covert action is that it kind of works. It kind of makes us feel more liked. It kind of makes us feel good. But only in the same vapid way that it only kind of makes us feel good when someone "likes," "shares," or "subscribes" to "our content."

Some of us will live our whole lives this way. But we don't have to. There's another way. Namely, that way is getting better at noticing what’s going on inside. And I'll get to that. But it's going to take time. There's a lot of ground to cover, and I want to cover it well. But I'm neither an expert nor an authority. I'm a fumbling and humble explorer just like you, only worse. So I'm going to move slowly. And rather than write one long and unreadable piece, I'm going to write a series of comparably less long and more readable pieces. That's my goal, at least. This is part one, in which I’ll look at feelings as they relate to natural selection and tell you about some snakes. I'll start with the snakes.

I moved into the house where I now live at the end of May. Since then, I've encountered a total of three snakes outside my house. Last night, in preparation for writing this paragraph, I did some math. At the time of this writing, I've lived in my house for 140 days. On three of those days, I saw one snake. That means I've seen a snake outside my house on 2.1% of the days I've lived in it, which you’ll notice is very close to 0%. And even that small percentage is kind of misleading. Because I didn't spend a whole day with any of the snakes. I spent a combined total of maybe one or two minutes with all of the snakes, and that's only because one of them had a pretty good distance to go to slither out of my sight. But I'll be generous and say I spent a total of one hour with the snakes. That means that out of the 3,360 hours that I've lived here, I've spent about 0.03% of those hours encountering snakes.

Now, I kind of like snakes, at least from a distance. But having a close encounter with one "in the wild" is different from admiring one from afar. I was not on any of those three occasions met with terror. But I was met with a slight caution prompted by a moderate, instinctual fear. I would describe this as a healthy and natural reaction. Healthy and natural in the sense that some snakes can bring harm to humans, and humans who know this but don't know which snakes are which should probably be met with feelings of caution when encountering all kinds of snakes.

But after not encountering snakes of any kind in, say, 97.9% of the days and 99.97% of the hours I've lived in my house, I should probably know that the need for snake-related caution is practically nil, right?

And yet, every time I exit my house, there's a little voice in my head that says, "Beware of snakes." I even sometimes look to see if there are currently snakes in the places where I previously saw snakes. Which is ridiculous. But it's a harmless (and potentially even helpful) kind of ridiculous. First of all, it keeps me alert to a possible threat, which is helpful as long as my alertness stays within reason. And it does, via my awareness of the fact that the feeling driving my alertness is rooted in a highly improbable scenario. At that point, it becomes just an amusing event in my days. I go outside, I notice my alertness to snakes, I laugh at myself. And I lose nothing to that instinctual feeling because I don't react to it. I just see it for what it is. Then it goes its way, and I go mine.

In his book Why Buddhism Is True, in the chapter "When Are Feelings Illusions?" Robert Wright talks about the role that natural selection plays in our feelings. He writes that "there is a rough consensus among behavioral scientists on what the original function of good feelings and bad feelings was: to get organisms to approach things or avoid things that are, respectively, good for them or bad for them." Since natural selection cares only that we survive and reproduce, this makes sense. "To approach or to avoid," Wright continues, "is the most elemental behavioral decision there is, and feelings seem to be the tool natural selection used to get organisms to make what, by natural selection’s lights, was the right decision."

He goes on to write about one way (not the only way) to think about whether our feelings are true or false/illusory: "true" meaning they lead us to things that are good for us and away from things that are bad for us; "false" or "illusory" meaning they lead us astray and to things that are bad for us.

He breaks down a couple ways that feelings can be true in one environment—e.g., in the hunter-gatherer environment that brought us such hits as natural selection—but false or illusory in another—e.g., in the modern world. He calls these "obsolete urges"—urges that used to be good for us but are now bad for us. He gives as one example our attraction to sweet food: When fruit was the only sweet food available, this urge served us well, which would explain why it feels good, in the moment, to eat sweet food. But now that we have so many unhealthy options for satisfying this same desire, it often doesn’t serve us well.

He also gives the example of road rage, which he describes, I think crucially, as "the feeling that you’re rightfully enraged." Just as with eating sweet food, if natural selection wants us to do things that keep us alive and making babies, making those things feel good to us is important. And one thing that tends to make us feel good is the feeling that we are right.

And you can see why natural selection would have made righteous rage attractive: in a small hunter-gatherer village, if someone took advantage of you—stole your food, stole your mate, or just generally treated you like dirt—you needed to teach him a lesson. After all, if he learns he can get away with abusing you, he may do it again and again. Worse still, others in your social universe will see that you can be thus exploited, so they may start treating you badly. In such an intimate, unchanging social environment, it would be worth your while to get so angry over exploitation that you would confront your exploiter and be willing to come to blows. Even if you lost the fight—even if you got battered pretty badly—you’d have sent the message that there’s a cost for disrespecting you, and this message would pay dividends over time.

In the modern world, though, this urge is bad for us. We know that, and yet the urge remains. And for some, it can be too strong and seductive to resist. And I'd say our lack of knowledge about the likely origins of that urge makes it that much harder to resist.

Wright also gets into how some false/illusory feelings are misleading by design. He calls these "false positives" and gives the following example, which you'll probably notice has influenced the way I think about encounters with snakes:

Suppose you’re hiking through what you know to be rattlesnake terrain, and suppose you know that only a year ago, someone hiking alone in this vicinity was bitten by a rattlesnake and died. Now suppose there’s a stirring in the brush next to your feet. This stirring doesn’t just give you a surge of fear; you feel the fear that there is a rattlesnake near you. In fact, as you turn quickly toward the disturbance and your fear reaches its apex, you may be so clearly envisioning a rattlesnake that, if the culprit turns out to be a lizard, there will be a fraction of a second when the lizard looks like a snake. This is an illusion in a literal sense: you actually believe there is something there that isn’t there; in fact, you actually “see” it.

These kinds of misperceptions are known as “false positives”; from natural selection’s point of view, they’re a feature, not a bug. Though your brief conviction that you’ve seen a rattlesnake may be wrong ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the conviction could be lifesaving the other one time in a hundred. And in natural selection’s calculus, being right 1 percent of the time in matters of life or death can be worth being wrong 99 percent of the time, even if in every one of those ninety-nine instances you’re briefly terrified.

So false positives are different from obsolete urges. For one thing, they remain useful tools for keeping us alive. But as Wright explains, the way our feelings play out in the real, modern world is more complicated. We have to deal with overlap and context and whatnot.

It may seem as if there are two kinds of false feelings—the unnatural, “environmental mismatch” kind and the natural, “false positive” kind—and you should always ignore the former, whereas obeying the latter makes sense. In the real world, it turns out, these lines can get blurry.

He goes on to explain how our natural fears from our hunter-gatherer days—e.g., the ones that keep us safe from snakes so we don't die, but also the ones that keep us in good social standing so we can be liked and reproduce—can creep slowly over to unnatural territory in our modern world. In a hunter-gatherer village, for example, the "bad" feeling we're left with when we think we might have offended someone, while natural, could have easily been remedied by approaching that very nearby person or persons who "would have had a vast database on your behavior, so you’d be unlikely, on any given day, to do anything that radically revised their opinion of you, for better or worse."

Beyond our families and maybe our closest friends, this is not often the case in modern society and social circles, or it's at least far less likely to be the case. And actually, this touches on some of what I was trying to get at last week about some of my more recognizable regrets: many of them come down to my sense (or direct knowledge) that I'm not in good social standing with certain individuals whom I have no real contact with anymore. This kind of feeling is hard, if not impossible, to remedy. When that natural feeling sticks around for longer than it was designed to, it becomes unnatural, and the repeated arising of this unnatural feeling should set off my SDWS. In other words, I should be suspicious of that feeling and careful not to react (or overreact) to it.

Toward the end of the chapter, Wright summarizes what he's written in a section titled "Levels of Delusion: A Recap." I don't want to pull too much from the book. But I do think these points are illuminating. So I will leave them here along with my request (to you, Wright, his publisher, and everyone's lawyers) for mercy. The first two points are directly related to what I've covered here. The third point is a bit off-topic, but only a bit, and it shines a light in the direction I plan to keep moving next time. So for now, just take it in.

If I’ve done my job, you should be feeling a bit deceived—not by me, but by your feelings. And I haven’t even gotten to the deepest, subtlest deceptions perpetrated by your feelings. I’ll save those for later in the book. Meanwhile, let’s review several senses in which feelings can be misleading:

1. Our feelings weren’t designed to depict reality accurately even in our “natural” environment. Feelings were designed to get the genes of our hunter-gatherer ancestors into the next generation. If that meant deluding our ancestors—making them so fearful that they “see” a snake that isn’t actually there, say—so be it. This class of illusions, “natural” illusions, helps explain a lot of distortions in our apprehension of the world, especially the social world: warped ideas about ourselves, about our friends, our kin, our enemies, our casual acquaintances, and even strangers. (Which about covers it, right?)

2. The fact that we’re not living in a “natural” environment makes our feelings even less reliable guides to reality. Feelings that are designed to create illusions, such as seeing a snake that isn’t there, may at least have the virtue of increasing the organism’s prospects for surviving and reproducing. But the modern environment can take various kinds of feelings that served our ancestors in this Darwinian sense and render them counterproductive in the same sense—they may actually lower a person’s life expectancy. Violent rage and the yearnings of a sweet tooth are good examples. These feelings were once “true” at least in the pragmatic sense of guiding the organism toward behaviors that were in some sense good for it. But now they’re likely to mislead.

3. Underlying it all is the happiness delusion. As the Buddha emphasized, our ongoing attempts to feel better tend to involve an overestimation of how long “better” is going to last. What’s more, when “better” ends, it can be followed by “worse”—an unsettled feeling, a thirst for more. Long before psychologists were describing the hedonic treadmill, the Buddha saw it.

One of the reasons it's so easy for me to see the absurdity of my heightened alertness to snakes outside my house is that it's literally easy for me to see it. I can walk outside and see that there are no snakes, over and over again. I can also then "look" at my slight feeling of alertness and see its absurdity and watch it get slighter and fade away, over and over again.

But there have been times when my wife and I have neglected the weeds that grow with force all around our house. And in those times, it became less easy for me to see what was actually going on in "my environment," and I noticed my alertness rise a few degrees. And I think the image of those tall weeds, coupled with the slightly more commanding and illusory feeling that they produced in me, are more accurate representations of what we're really up against when dealing with our feelings.

That's probably a good place to pause. I'll see you in part two.