Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Wisdom from Oprah. No, seriously.

Haven't had a chance to blog much lately, as I've been traveling through various parts of India. On the other hand, the surroundings here in the village are a good reminder for the case for empathy, so here I am at the local internet cafe.

Today I'd like to switch gears to bring up another central point I'd like to build on as my collection of ramblings grows: that we may be harboring faulty intuitions; that they may be counterproductive; and that they are not immutable.

What do I mean? Well, to take one example from a previous post, our implicit assumption that others share our own sense of empathy or moral responsibility may lead us to the faulty conclusion that their behavior is malicious instead of merely reckless. To use a more accessible scenario: when I get cut off on the freeway, my immediate impulse is to return the favor and "teach that guy lesson." Now, if "that guy" is actually a jerk, I'm not only likely to cause a potentially dangerous escalation, but there's little chance that he'll learn anything (except for, perhaps, what an aneurysm feels like). And if he's a nice guy who made an honest mistake, then it's probably disingenuous to claim that my tit-for-tat antics were a noble attempt to educate him on the virtues of paying attention.

Returning to the theme of vestiges from my last post, we can probably trace the development of retributive tendencies to their evolutionary origins in social justice. Publicly chastising or punishing a wrongdoer clearly has implications for rehabilitation, and we can see this instinct in other apes. But as is probably the case with other emotions, the thirst for vengeance is potentially maladaptive in scenarios that are uniquely modern. It's hard to blame your ancestors for this faulty association; after all, your caveman forefathers probably never got cut off on the freeway.

Anyway, back to the central theme, and to the title of this post: I'm heartened to see potentially harmful intuitions being challenged in popular culture. In particular, I got the idea of this post from an article I read on CNN (syndicated from Oprah.com), titled "Is it love, or a mutual strangulation society?". This section in particular caught my interest:
"I can't live," wails the singer, "if living is without you." The emotion that fuels this kind of relationship isn't love; it's desperation. It can feel romantic at first, but over time it invariably fails to meet either partner's needs.

If this is how you feel, don't start dating. Start therapy. Counseling can teach you how to get your needs met by the only person responsible for them: you.
I think it's incredibly insightful, because though I've heard the song a thousand times, and I fully agree with the assessment above, it never struck me that such an insidious source of mal-intuition lay right under my very nose. Sure, poetic license yadda yadda, but I think it's important to call out such transgressions, lest we lend implicit support to the unfortunate -- but all too common -- notion that suicide (or even homicide!) is an appropriate response to a fairly mundane situation.

We'll actually investigate that particular topic (passionate vs. companionate love) in a separate post, but for now, I want to put a challenge to you: where else in your daily experience do you find potentially disastrous behaviors championed? (And where else, besides the case of romantic love, is it deemed fashionable to flaunt one's psychological or emotional instabilities?)

1 comment:

  1. One example could be UFC-- ultimate fighting championships or other brutal sports. I mean, it can't be normal to want to beat the crap out of someone else, yet its respected and honorable to come out on top in our society. I don't understand it at all.