The Literary Mind

Life, literature, and politics, from the inside out.

The Four Moral Emotions

Guilt, Shame, Embarrassment, and Pride Make Societies Work.

In my last post, I wrote about the evolutionary value of emotions. One reason emotions are useful is that they get us to react quickly in response to danger. Although our rational (as opposed to emotional) minds do a lot to keep us at the top of the food chain, rational thinking is sometimes too slow for handling a threat (e.g. fighting a tiger). Sometimes, we need to react more quickly--and our emotions, like fear and surprise, help us do that.

But of course supplying speedy reactions to tigers is not the only use of emotion. In this light, recent research on emotion has focused not just on issues of an individual's self-defense, but on the larger social value of emotions. (For great writing on emotion, see Jessica Tracy, Richard Robins, and June Price Tangney). Emotions evolved--the thinking goes--not just to protect people, but to bind communities. After all, we all have a better chance at survival if the species works as a team, rather than battling it out to mutual extinction. In turn, emotions are useful because they seal a Social Contract, a system of ethics that protects the species--not just individuals--into the future.

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Of course our "hottest" or most animalistic emotions are usually more self-serving than communal. These animalistic emotions, often called the "basic" emotions, are the emotions that Paul Ekman famously first labeled in the 1960's, in his work with tribes in Papua New Guinea. They're the emotions we show on our faces across all cultures, and they're thought to be biologically determined. We share most of these basic emotions with animals, and they are often listed as the following six: anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, and surprise.

As said, the "basic" emotions help individuals more directly than they help groups. Take surprise as an example. Surprise is a basic emotion that allows us to avoid what's unexpected and dangerous. If I turn the corner and bump into a tiger (or my unpaid landlord or my boss when I'm skipping work), my heartbeat increases and my muscles tense. I move quickly to avoid the danger. Surprise triggers escape--which is more self-serving than group-serving. Similar analogies can be made for most of the basic emotions.

But recent research on emotion has shifted the traditional focus away from the "basic" emotions to another set of emotions which are thought to be more distinctly human. Focus has turned to the "self-conscious" emotions, which are sometimes also referred to as "moral," "social," or "higher-order" emotions. These are the emotions that an organism can only feel if it has a highly developed sense of self-reflection. Usually, the "self-conscious" emotions are listed as these four: guilt, shame, embarrassment, and pride.

Researchers (great writers here include Mark Leary, Jeffrey Stuewig and Debra Mashek) tend to cite two requirements for feeling a "self-conscious" emotion. One: The person needs to be capable of "position-taking," of knowing how her behaviors would affect or be perceived by others. Two: She needs the ability to imagine how the reception of her behavior would reflect back on her character. For example, the fear you can feel in an interview (heart beating fast, voice constricting, palms sweating) is a basic emotion. But the shame that might set in as you leave ("Why do I interview so poorly?!") is a self-conscious emotion. The self-conscious emotion is the one that arises from understanding how others see us. It influences future behavior. If you are ashamed after an interview, you might take a class in public speaking or ask for input from your friends ("what kind of person do I seem like to you?"). The self-conscious emotion binds us back to others--to their expectations and ideas.

For another example, consider anger. The anger I might feel at having my wallet snatched is a basic emotion. But if I write a letter to the editor arguing for new laws addressing local crime, that's pride, a self-conscious emotion. I want to establish my morals in relation to the thief. Self-conscious emotions are emotions in which we imagine our conformity or nonconformity to society's norms.

All our emotions work with amazing coordination really--like a symphony. One emotion can trigger another, to keep us in balance with the group. For instance, a heavy tendency for joy, anger, and pride might tilt a woman toward a career in business. She might feel strongest when finding investment deals and making money on the back of others. In this, she scores big points for individual preservation. She gets rich. But in time--if she's screwed some clients--the feelings of guilt and shame might also set in. That would be a good thing for the Social Contract. Influenced by guilt, she might shift her behavior--giving to charity, mentoring some kid, working to protect the society for a bit. Some might say she's acting altruistically "for the wrong reasons," but guilt is undoubtedly "right" when we think of the social contract it serves. In this way, our emotions serve both to propel the individual and to protect the larger group that affords every individual safety. Emotions are our rubber bands for propelling individual (and group) gain while protecting the society in which gain happens.

All this is just one small way of thinking of emotion--specifically, with a heavy evolutionary lens. There are other ways to approach the phenomenon of emotion. For instance, I'd like to hear what anyone else thinks the value of emotion is. I think love, for one, would be an interesting feeling to talk about. 

Ilana Simons, Ph.D., is a literature professor at The New School as well as a practicing therapist.

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