Emotions linked to our moral sense such as admiration and compassion- awaken slowly in the mind, according to a new study from a neuroscience group show that emotions linked to our sense of morality are aroused slowly. The study was led by Antonio Damasio, director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California.
This makes three different ways I’ve seen people try to make a cautionary tale out of this study. And this is one of the more subtle consequences of growing older: since I’ve seen this process several times before (the ‘new study of a particular process is abstracted to give a potential overall insight into why we’re fucked up’ process), and I’ve seen the process almost without exception sputter toward final inconsequence, I have become, if not scornful, at least indifferent to it. Is that wisdom? If it is, wisdom blows.
I miss the days when this sort of thing fired my imagination.
This meme is very similar (if not identical) to the one in which a fairly technical discovery in some particular scientific field is immediately seized upon by the media and extrapolated to construct a probable future in which wild, weird, new things become as common and important as the car or air travel or the cellphone. The media delight in telling us these things to the point that they will make one up if a ‘real’ one hasn’t come along for awhile.
Obviously, the fact of cars, air travel and cellphones indicates that, sometimes, the “probable future” actually happens. I’m aware of that. But by the same token, the fact that there are no personal submarines, no cures for cancer, no cold fusion, no teleporters, no huge starships trawling the asteroids for uranium and gold, no robot salad makers squatting inside kitchen cupboards, no cheap solar panels on every home, no healthy cigarettes, no fat pills, no telepathic communication–it makes it hard to pay attention when tidings of “the next greatest thing” worm their way into the popular consciousness.
Another similar if not identical media process is the one in which a particular thing happens (eg: USAir’s plane ditching in the Hudson after a birdstrike) which is so exciting that they are compelled, for awhile, to over-report other happenings that have even the slightest chance of producing the same outcome (eg: any birdstrike on any plane that forces the plane to return to the airport for a landing). Because I’m a pilot (and so through professional channels heard about many birdstrikes that required emergency landings that weren’t considered worthy of mainstream reporting until after the USAir incident) I know that these things happen all the time. In fact, I’ve had a birdstrike or three that required me to return to the airport. They happen all the time.
This new study shows that there is a difference in the speed that more and less visceral displays of tragedy matter to people. That’s interesting: there are differences in the speed at which things matter. For example, seeing someone break an ankle elicits a response of compassion more quickly than seeing someone being told that her mother died. It’s an interesting study. But interesting psychological studies happen all the time. And because I was a psych major (and also because I’m a human being that pays a certain amount of attention to things that may impact my human being-ness), I know this new study should be interpreted narrowly until proven to matter more generally. That’s just the way it is. You can’t go from this study to a pronouncement on the moral effect of Twitter in one go and not sound like a shrieking ass, at least to experts. That’s just the way it isn’t.
The tricky part is knowing the difference between a carefully constructed hypothesis and the shrieking of an ass when the subject is not one you know well. Years of being led to believe things were important that in the end turned out not to be very important have taught me to delay judgment on anything that isn’t already completely obvious. While that may be wise, it’s hard on optimism.
I know when things that happen in my areas of expertise are being stretched to fill a news vacuum. Birdstrikes and psychological studies happen all the time. They happen all the time. So where was CNN the thousand other times these things happened? I’ll tell you where CNN was: CNN was busy over-reporting some other goddamn thing that, since I’m not a professional sailor or bond-trader, I had no idea that they were over-reporting. So because I’m not an expert on everything, I am potentially duped by the media, day in and day out, to believe things are more consequential than they really are.
I know the media don’t do this on purpose. They don’t get up in the morning and say “Let’s over-report tsunamis today.” I know it’s just the lousy way things work. I know one of the functions of the media is to find whatever excitement there is in the daily crush of happenings in the world and offer it to the public, so that they can make money and continue existing. Or if there’s nothing really inherently exciting that day, to find the hook into something else that was exciting before and offer that. To blur potential and real if real doesn’t look like it will sell. I know all that.
Knowing that doesn’t make me happier. And one of the cardinal attributes of wisdom, I think, is that once you become wise to something, it’s very hard to become un-wise to it. In other words, I can’t go back to being optimistic about such things even if I wanted to. Wisdom is a jealous god.
I used to think that, given the choice, I would choose wisdom over innocence every time. Every time. I used to think that, given the choice, accurate knowledge of the probability that something is true is always preferable to ignorance of it. Do I still think that? It’s hard to say.
I guess I just wish wisdom wouldn’t trash optimism quite as thoroughly as it seems it has to do.