Are Our Emotions Designed to Manipulate Others?

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A controversial new theory states that our emotions may have evolved as tools to manipulate others into cooperating with us.

Certain emotions have traditionally been viewed by psychologists as short-term reactions to an immediate benefit or cost. For example, gratitude has been seen as a signal of pleasure when someone does you a favor and anger as a way to signal your displeasure when another person does you harm. However, John Tooby, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and his colleagues think that our anger or gratitude reflect our judgement of how much the other person is sacrificing enough for us— and whether they will continue to do so in future. In other words, anger has as much to do with cooperation as with conflict, and emotions are used to coerce others into cooperating in the long term.

For example, an unpublished study by Tooby’s colleague Julian Lim found that 296 student volunteers were more willing to cooperate with an unseen partner when that partner had forgone a profit to give them money. This gratitude was absent when the partner gave them the same amount of money not as a favor but to avoid paying a penalty.

This suggests that anger and gratitude—and perhaps other emotions, too—may be tools for turning up a partner’s mental cooperation control dial says Tooby’s colleague Aaron Sell. You get angry not when someone hurts you, but when their actions betray a setting of their cooperation dial that is lower than you expect, and your anger is both a threat to turn down your own dial and an inducement to them to turn theirs up. You show gratitude not when someone benefits you, but when their dial is set higher than you expect, and this signals that you plan to turn yours up in response.

Drawing from evidence presented at the meeting of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society in Eugene, Oregon, and some still unpublished, Tooby suggests that the cooperation control dial, or ‘welfare trade-off ratio,’ is a real part of our mental make-up.

via New Scientist

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