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Archive for the ‘suffering’ Category

The Two Main Ways In Which Evolution Is Not Our Friend

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With millions of years of evolution behind our species, and a billion behind life in general, we might expect – in a Panglossian frame of mind – to function very well, and to be free from unnecessary misery. Wouldn’t the ruthless process of selection have removed causes for fitness-draining suffering and poor well-being in general?

There are two main reasons why we should expect a great deal of unnecessary suffering to be the product of evolution.

1. Adaptation Executors

A maxim of evolutionary biology is that organisms (like us) are adaptation executors, not fitness maximizers. Evolutionary processes create organisms that execute biologically-mediated strategies – it does not create rational beings that maximize fitness in all instances.

In many cases, the detection mechanism is “too sensitive” for our own good – our pain response and our startle response, for example, both generate lots of “false positives” in terms of fitness threats we may respond productively to. This is because in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness, the cost of tons of false positives was outweighed by the benefit of being “right” that one time that counts.

Our social ostracism detection system has also been posited to be hypersensitive, for the above evolutionary reasons. Social belonging has such a high survival value that any potential threat must be addressed immediately. This is true even if it means 100 “false positives” – instances of social ostracism with no actual fitness threat – must be suffered by the individual organism.

What’s a good idea for evolution is not necessarily a good idea for you. Evolution works fine – it just doesn’t give a fuck about the well-being of individual organisms.

2. Failures

In other cases, complex systems interact in such a way that the detection system is “broken.” This may be because the EEA doesn’t match current conditions, as may be the case with asthma, allergies, diabetes, and obesity. In other cases, it may be because organisms aren’t created perfectly every time, and are not perfectly matched even to EEA conditions. Evolution can only act on the mutations it’s given. The pain of a migraine, for instance, is not an indication of a necessary response the way the pain from a burn is. Problems may not reflect any adaptation at all – it might be a defect in the system, or in the organism.

Written in response to this comment by The Plague Doctor.


Written by Sister Y

May 23, 2011 at 2:41 pm

Maslow Be Damned: How Social Belonging Trumps Everything

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The need for social belonging is the primal human need – and failure to have it satisfied is subjectively worse than death.

Social Pain Causes Suicide

People don’t commit suicide out of just any sorrow.

What suffering, specifically, is bad enough to cause people to want to pull the plug on existence itself? It is only and exclusively social pain.

The most modern, scientific model of the causes of suicide that we have is that articulated by Thomas Joiner in his 2005 book Why People Die By Suicide (my review here). Joiner’s model, supported by a large body of empirical evidence, posits three conditions that reliably predict suicide: a failure of social belonging, the perception of oneself as a burden on others, and the development of competence in actually carrying out the difficult act of suicide. Only the competence factor is not a direct function of social belonging.

Other kinds of pain aren’t sufficient to cause suicide – not hunger, not remorse, not even extreme physical pain. The research suggests that being a valued member of a social group, with a role to play in supporting others, is the most basic human need – not just on par with, but frequently surpassing other human needs such as those for food, shelter, sleep, and sex.

For example, the misery of prison is primarily one of failed social belonging. In the general population, marriage is protective against suicide, as is employment. But married prisoners and prisoners who were employed prior to incarceration are more likely to commit suicide than unmarried, unemployed prisoners. For the first group, incarceration represents a severance of important social bonds and a failure of belonging. For the second group, prison may merely be a continuation of previous social belonging experiences.

The fear of death itself may be, when reduced to its essence, primarily a fear of the ultimate social cutting-off, the final ostracism. The data on suicide and social belonging support the idea of suicide as revealed preference – that the value of life is not as high as the negative value of complete social ostracism. This is in contrast to the idea of suicide as necessarily irrational and a product of mental illness.

Hunger and Sympathy

The United Nations reported in 2009 that over one billion people are hungry in the world; that number currently grows by about a hundred million a year. The suffering of physical hunger is the easiest form of suffering to empathize with; indeed, a recent Foreign Policy article noted that the statistic of a billion hungry “grabbed headlines in a way that any number of World Bank estimates of how many poor people live on less than a dollar a day never did.”

Here’s the fascinating thing about hunger, though: as bad as prolonged malnutrition is – and we all agree that it is very bad – poor, hungry people do not spend every extra cent on more calories.

When staples like wheat and rice are subsidized so that people may buy them at a cheaper price, in many cases they buy less of the staple, and more meat and shrimp. People suffering from severe malnutrition (wasting, growth stunting) still spend money on alcohol, tobacco, and festivals. Starving families still have televisions and cellular phones.

One response to this is to harden one’s heart: if they’re not hungry enough to spend every spare rupee on more calories, they must not be hungry enough to deserve our sympathy (much less our money).

A more productive response would be to view the data for what they are: evidence that some things are more painful than hunger. Specifically, the need for social belonging is more pressing than the need for food. Alcohol and tobacco are addictive substances, but a quick look at actual practices reveals that they are generally used socially (as in the fixed men’s social groups that smoke together late into the night, in the 600-person Indian village Christopher Alexander studies in the appendix to his Notes on the Synthesis of Form). Spending on “festivals” is by its nature social. Television, described by one interviewee in the Foreign Policy article as “more important than food,” functions both as a social focus for actual people, and a pleasant, comforting substitute for actual socialization. (Cellular phones need no explanation.) Even the “better tasting” food the poor seem to buy rather than more cheap, boring, nutritious food – the meat and shrimp from the China wheat study – is “high status” food, conveying a social message at least as important as its nutritional function.

As I have stated before, poverty doesn’t just suck – it hurts. I think it a valid hypothesis that poverty is actually dreadfully painful – not only physically, but emotionally and socially. There is only so much pain we can expect a being to endure before his attempts to relieve it through future-damaging means becomes perfectly understandable and, in fact, rational.

What We Know About Social Pain

Why and how do we perceive social pain and social belonging, and how do these perceptions affect us? A recent body of research has provided some surprising answers.

  1. Social pain hurts like physical pain. fMRI studies have demonstrated that the pain of perceived social rejection involves the same brain regions as physical pain. Social pain even responds to acetaminophen!
  2. Social pain is ubiquitous. Everyone experiences it, even if they don’t register it as such. People experience about one episode of social ostracism per day.
  3. Social pain is irrational. Subjects experience pain and lowered mood as a consequence of social ostracism even when they are explicitly told that it is merely a computer doing the “ostracizing.” The pain of exclusion affects even people playing a computer ball game who are told their computers are not yet connected to the other computers, making inclusion logically impossible! Even ostracism by a despised outgroup – say, the KKK – induces the same misery as ostracism by other groups.
  4. Social pain affects individuals differently. A normal individual will experience depressed mood after minor social exclusion, but will recover within 45 minutes. A person with social anxiety will not have recovered even from a minor social exclusion after 45 minutes. Repeated exposure to cues of social rejection may even sensitize individuals to these cues, resulting in even more needless pain.
  5. What about autists? A 2011 study found that the brains of adolescents with autistic spectrum disorder did not process cues of social rejection the same as neurotypical brains, but they were just as hurt and concerned after experiencing social rejection! Not even autistic folks are immune from the pain of failed social belonging.

(For more on this fascinating subject, here are lists of publications for Kip Williams and Naomi Eisenberger, two major researchers in the field of social pain and ostracism. Williams’ “Ostracism: The Kiss of Social Death” is an excellent introduction to the field.)

To sum up, social pain is more common, more painful, and less rational than is widely understood. Experiencing social pain is not optional; unfortunately, neither is causing social pain. By virtue of being born, each of us will cause innumerable incidents of social pain in others throughout our lives – most commonly without realizing it at all. But it’s actually much worse than that, because one of the most common, effective responses to experiencing social ostracism is aggression toward others, even others not involved in the original ostracism event. Negative ripples spread out from each incident of social pain – and all the while the proximate source of the social pain may be entirely unaware of having caused it.

Analysis of a Decision to Smile

To illustrate the problem, consider the following everyday decision: whether or not to smile at a passing stranger.

A conscientious actor with a passing familiarity with evolutionary psychology literature will know that smiling at a stranger is potentially damaging, especially if the actor is attractive. When a woman smiles and acts warmly toward a man, he becomes less satisfied with his current partner. So smiling at a stranger may damage his relationship – negatively affecting not just him, but those around him as well, such as his partner and children.

However, the actor must also be aware that failing to smile may induce feelings of social ostracism in the stranger. This will not only cause the stranger suffering (especially if he happens to have social anxiety), but may cause him to act aggressively toward others to recover from the social pain.

A great deal of attention has been paid to the idea of the hedonic treadmill – the fact that an increase in welfare (say, from winning the lottery) does not lead to greater happiness, but causes one to reset one’s expectations at a higher level. A benefit may only make the same level of happiness more expensive. I hope that this example illustrates that there is also an altruistic treadmill. It is impossible to do good for someone, because his expectations will reset to account for the deed. Unfortunately, others – even strangers – already depend on our altruistic inputs to them, and will feel their absence even while their provision would not make them any happier. It’s a Giant’s Drink situation: the only winning move is not to play.

But we’ve already all been forced to play.

The Lonely Modern

In learning about social pain, we have discovered a new Civilization and Its Discontents issue. Philippe Rochat, in a postscript to his excellent Others in Mind: Social Origins of Self-Consciousness, presents a picture of the kind of social life we evolved to experience:

Walking around in South Pacific island traditional villages, during the
day or in the pitch dark of moonless nights, it is almost impossible to cross paths with someone, young or old, woman or man, familiar or absolute stranger, without some greeting, without some acknowledgment of your existence, either called by your name or being asked what you are doing and where you are going, even if the response is very obvious. For individuals like me who grew up in rich postindustrial regions of the world, who struggle for their career and place in society, constantly under the spell of a panic fear of failure, of having failed, or of being an impostor, such simple, yet constant social acknowledgment amounts to the experience of tremendous relief. Finally one experiences the peace of being effortlessly recognized by others, the absolute sense of being socially substantial, as opposed to socially transparent.

This kind of small village experience lifts the curse of social transparency. One rediscovers what might be a long-lost intimacy and bonding with others, something like the absolute trust and acknowledgment we might have experienced once in love or with our mother in the long-lost high-dependence state of infancy. Who knows? What I am convinced of, however, and have tried to convince the reader of this book is that this kind of intimacy and bonding with others that is the wealth of small traditional society is what we all strive for, regardless of where we live and where we grew up. It is the force that leads us toward self-consciousness, probably more forcefully if we grow up in an industrial region of the world. If there is such a thing as a universal criterion for ‘‘the good life,’’ a comfort we would all aspire to, then it must be the sense of social proximity. It must be the sense of being acknowledged and recognized, of being included and intimate with others, no matter what. It is being safe, the ultimate prize and the ultimate refuge. [Emphasis mine.]

Rochat provides a glimpse of the alternative to our modern experience of daily social ostracism and consequent social pain: small village organization. Of course, this is not a real alternative; it is not possible for our enormous, complex modern society to operate in this way. Most of us would not even wish to live in this way, with its concomitant social control and extreme conservatism. I certainly would not. But it demonstrates that we are adapted to something very different than the environment in which we live. And this necessary mismatch – which, in fact, defines us as moderns – ensures that we will all suffer, and make each other suffer, interminably.

Written by Sister Y

May 18, 2011 at 5:15 pm

The Empirical Nature of "Meaning"

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A body of research suggests that the subjective experience of “meaning” is a response to one’s becoming aware of negative wellbeing.

Put another way, the phenomenon of meaning is reducible to a psychological response to suffering – suffering that cannot, for some reason, be remedied in the outside, extrapsychological world.

Studies have reported for years that parents report less happiness than those without children. However, some studies have shown an allegedly counterbalancing feature: parents report that their lives are more “meaningful” than do non-parents. So parents trade off happiness for meaning; seems rational.

That’s not the whole picture, though. An ultra-recent study finds that meaningfulness is a function not just of parenthood, but of how much parenthood sucks. “Parents who had the high costs of children in mind were much more likely to say that they enjoyed spending time with their children, and they also anticipated spending more leisure time with their kids,” say the study authors. While children used to have economic value – used to be a “good deal,” we might say – parents had no need of a subjective sense of the meaningfulness of parenting. “As the value of children has diminished, and the costs have escalated, the belief that parenthood is emotionally rewarding has gained currency. In that sense, the myth of parental joy is a modern psychological phenomenon,” say the study authors.

This same phenomenon is at work regarding hazing and group membership. The more suffering one endures in becoming part of a group, the more one subjectively values the group – whether it’s an American street gang or a Japanese university. Suffering is a quantifiable predictor of the subjective experience of meaning.

Similarly, having a crappy life (low SES) is a good predictor of religiosity. Religion is a technology that allows suffering people in a very shitty, unfair situation to continue living and producing children – in the interest of nature, but against their own interests.

The Book of Job is an example of this technology. It demonstrates a way to respond to the uncompensated sufferings of life: love God (the system) even more. Find “meaning.” Even the author of Job is disingenuous, though; he posits a little reward at the end for the ever-loyal, meaning-finding Job. As Ted Chiang shows in his story “Hell is the Absence of God” (and says explicitly in his story notes),

It seems to me that the Book of Job lacks the courage of its convictions: If the author were really committed to the idea tha virtue isn’t always rewarded, shouldn’t the book have ended with Job still bereft of everything?

The Book of Job is not logical or consistent; instead, it demonstrates a fitness-promoting response to unrecompensable suffering, and on another level, promises that this response will be ultimately rewarded on a non-psychological level. Therefore, I think the Book of Job is evil on two levels: trying to get people to engage in an irrational psychological response to allow them to ignore unfairness, and at the same time promising them that this defense mechanism will allow them to get compensated in the manner they really care about at a later time. It’s like the con artist who preys on victims of his previous cons, promising to get their money back.

My predictions from this meaning-as-quantifiable-response-to-suffering theory:

  • Women who experience horrific body changes from pregnancy will report finding more meaning in childrearing than those whose bodies are less affected.
  • Women whose husbands leave them shortly after the birth of a baby will report more finding more meaning in childrearing than matched controls whose husbands do not leave them.
  • This need not be limited to personal suffering of the parents. Parents whose children suffer major birth defects or illness will report more meaning in childrearing and the child’s life than matched controls of healthy children.
  • A sudden drop in SES will be a good predictor of the adoption of evangelical Christianity.

Written by Sister Y

March 6, 2011 at 12:44 am

…But It Probably Won’t

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From the Boston Globe, “A world of misery left by bullying“:

Childhood bullying is an old problem, one that has produced generations of victims. And while many of those bullied as children move past it and thrive in adulthood, a surprising number say they have been unable to leave the humiliating memories behind. Their accounts are supported by a growing body of research suggesting that the bullying experience stays with many victims into young adulthood, middle age, and even retirement, shaping their decisions and hindering them in nearly every aspect of life: education and career choices; social interactions and emotional well-being; even attitudes about having children.

Unfortunately, it does not appear to affect attitudes about having children nearly as much as it should.

Written by Sister Y

November 29, 2010 at 6:32 pm

30% of Children Wish They’d Never Been Born

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Chip Smith points to a study, published in the American Journal of Sociology in 1932, with the surprising result that 30% of a broad sample of children studied expressed a wish never to have been born. (I know someone pointed me to this before, but I forget who it was.)

Life’s cheerleaders will no doubt argue that such wishes, while common, are most likely fleeting and not of a serious nature. However, I think this study must suggest to even the cheeriest of us that most people’s feelings toward life are ambivalent from the very beginning of mature consciousness. A feeling of certainty that anyone brought into being will be grateful to his creators is not justified. The essential value of one’s own life is not a feeling universally shared.

Many, many people are not glad to be alive. They are among the most seriously wronged by being brought into existence. But (and the author of the above study is a case in point) their position is pathologized and not taken seriously; even though cheeriness is not the universal position, it is assumed to be the correct position. Any deviation from gratitude for life does not, from the dominant point of view, need to be sincerely considered.

Written by Sister Y

September 30, 2010 at 5:16 pm

The Rape Doctor Hypothetical

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Dr. A is a research psychologist who also has a private clinical practice. He specializes in treating Female Sexual Arousal Disorder (DSM-IV 302.72) – similar to what used to be called frigidity. Female Sexual Arousal Disorder consists of a persistent or recurrent inability to attain, or to maintain until completion of the sexual activity, an adequate lubrication-swelling response of sexual excitement. The inability must cause marked distress or interpersonal difficulty, and is not better accounted for by another disorder (e.g. depression), a general medical condition, or substances, including medication. From the DSM-IV:

The individual with Female Sexual Arousal Disorder may have little or no subjective sense of sexual arousal. The disorder may result in painful intercourse, sexual avoidance, and the disturbance of marital or sexual relationships.

Dr. A has identified a syndrome (a cluster of symptoms) common to a subgroup of his FSAD patients with a particularly severe version of FSAD – Criteria A, B, C, and D. Members of this subgroup, he believes, are unable to achieve sexual arousal except in cases of forced sexual contact. A highly statistically significant number of patients who meet Criteria A, B, C, and D who have been raped report the rape as their only enjoyable sexual experience, compared to rape victims who do not meet the criteria. Dr. A labels his syndrome Forced Sexual Contact Arousal Syndrome (FSCAS). Based on his research, Dr. A has statistical grounds to believe that, of FSAD patients who meet Criteria A, B, C, and D, 99.9% will experience sexual enjoyment exclusively from forced sexual contact. Beyond that, Dr. A notices that his FSCAS patients who have been raped are much more socially and emotionally well-adjusted than those who have not. It is statistically reasonable for him to believe that, out of 1000 patients with FSCAS who have not been raped, 999 will experience a great deal of sexual enjoyment and a much better quality of life if raped; one will experience the usual extreme distress that rape would cause a normal woman.

You can probably guess where I’m going with this. Should Dr. A rape his FSCAS patients?

I think it’s hard to answer anything but CHRIST, NO! to this one. The harm of rape is so intrusive and severe that any possible benefits to its victims simply do not count against the harm that may be sustained. It is not conscionable that one person should be raped to provide a pure benefit to even 999 others. (Note, however, that it may be moral to allow the rape of one person in order to prevent extreme harm to an enormous number of others.) Both those who identify as consequentialists and those who subscribe to a more deontological perspective would likely share this conclusion (though some more extreme consequentialists would not).

I have highlighted the common intuition that, in the case of a serious violation or harm, the possible benefits do not count against the possible harms (in an essay about dosing someone with ecstasy against his will – see Inflicting Harm and Inflicting Pleasure on Strangers). My correspondent Arthur Tilley points out that there is a limit to this intuition, however. While the intuition about the ecstasy case is strong, he says, “we probably can’t say that doing nothing is ALWAYS better than taking a (teeny tiny) chance at doing harm.” His example:

Consider my setting up a cookie stand by the side of the road and offering free cookies to passersby. It is probably reasonable to
assume that a percentage of the population (one not nearly as high as the percentage that doesn’t like being dosed, but still nonzero) has some sort of phobia of cookies or aversion to being offered free things.

But it seems that in these cases where the probability of harm is really low, the action (in this case, having the cookie stand) is morally permissible.

Arthur’s insightful example illustrates that, though the intuition that inflicting serious harm to strangers cannot be offset by providing them pleasure, taking a chance on inflicting minor harm to strangers can definitely be balanced by the probability that one will do them good. How could we live otherwise, since all actions or inactions entail some possible unconsented harm? The morally restricted action is one that will produce serious or especially intrusive harm.

One antinatalist argument, propounded by Seana Shiffrin, is based on just this intuition: that, while it is fine to inflict harm on a stranger in order to prevent greater harm (e.g., to break his arm in order to rescue him from a burning car), it is not permissible to inflict harm on a stranger in order to provide a pure benefit.

A major, though often unspoken, point of contention between pronatalists and antinatalists is what counts as harm. Pronatalists often only admit that harm has occurred through procreation if, on balance, the person brought into existence finds his life not worth living. Since most people report finding their lives worthwhile, to a pronatalist, the risk of “harm” in bringing a being into existence is slight.

Antinatalists, on the other hand, recognize as harm all suffering inflicted on a being who is brought into existence – pain, hunger, unrequited love, violence, sickness, aging, and ultimately death. Most lives include positive aspects such as pleasure, love, and a sense of meaning – but the persons experiencing these benefits also experience extreme harm – at the very least, the harm of death.

Dr. A may not chance inflicting the harm of rape on a patient in order to likely provide her with pleasure and increased quality of life. It follows that, since the harm of life (separate from its pleasure and meaning) is so serious and so great, it may not be inflicted on a person in order to provide him with a pure benefit (that is, the pleasure and meaning of life). The harm of life is not slight or unlikely. It is extremely great. The pleasures and benefits are also likely and extremely great; what I wish to illustrate is that, in similar cases, that simply does not matter.

Written by Sister Y

May 1, 2009 at 2:54 am

Mismatch and Meaning

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In my earlier post, I mentioned that the lack of inherent meaning of life functions as a limit on human happiness. It is more accurate to say that the mismatch between the lack of inherent meaning in life and the human desire for meaning is what limits happiness and causes suffering. All of the limits on human happiness I proposed in the earlier post are products of some sort of a mismatch.

That the mismatch between the lack of meaning and the desire for meaning, rather than meaninglessness itself, is the cause of human suffering is a major point in Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus. Camus is interested in the question of suicide; specifically, he appears to be investigating the question of whether intellectual honesty and consistency require suicide, the way a certain view of animal suffering might be said to require vegetarianism. He is concerned with what might be called authenticity. He argues that nearly every philosophical response to the inherent meaninglessness of life takes what he calls a “leap” – toward a belief in God, or even deification of the absurd itself, to escape from the suffering (and contradiction) that meaninglessness, coupled with a desire for meaning, produce.

Camus ultimately concludes that suicide is not the only intellectually honest response to absurdity. The authentic path, he says, is to live at every moment aware of absurdity – not to lose sight of meaninglessness – but to also scrupulously avoid “leaping” into mysticism or some other escape from absurdity. In terms of terror management theory, Camus feels that the only intellectually honest way to live is to be mortality salient at all times, but never to retreat into worldview defense.

It may be true that this could be an intellectually honest life. I certainly don’t think that suicide is required. But it is not a path that is realistically available to very many people. In addition, intellectual honesty and consistency cannot be the only things of value in life, in all cases. For many, they do not take precedence over suffering, or even over the subjective value of many “leaps” Camus advises against.

Nonetheless, I think realistic awareness of the many mismatches that guarantee human suffering – not least the simultaneous lack of, and desire for, inherent meaning – is required for intellectual honesty.

Written by Sister Y

June 12, 2008 at 9:09 pm