The Affect Heuristic, Sentiment, and Art

by [anonymous] 3 min read13th Sep 201058 comments


I was having a discussion with a friend and reading some related blog articles about the question of whether race affects IQ.  (N.B.  This post is NOT about the content of the arguments surrounding that question.)  Now, like your typical LessWrong member, I subscribe to the Litany of Gendlin, I don’t want to hide from any truth, I believe in honest intellectual inquiry on all subjects.  Also, like your typical LessWrong member, I don’t want to be a bigot.  These two goals ought to be compatible, right?

But when I finished my conversation and went to lunch, something scary happened.  Something I hesitate to admit publicly.  I found myself having a negative attitude to all the black people in the cafeteria. 

 Needless to say, this wasn’t what I wanted.  It makes no sense, and it isn’t the way I normally think.  But human beings have an affect heuristic.  We identify categories as broadly “good” or “bad,” and we tend to believe all good things or all bad things about a category, even when it doesn’t make sense.  When we discuss the IQ’s of black and white people, we’re primed to think “yay white, boo black.”  Even the act of reading perfectly sound research has that priming effect.

And conscious awareness and effort doesn’t seem to do much to fix this. The Implicit Awareness Test measures how quickly we group black faces with negative-affect words and white faces with positive-affect words, compared to our speed at grouping the black faces with the positive words and the white faces with the negative words.  Nearly everyone, of every race, shows some implicit association of black with “bad.”  And the researchers who created the test found no improvement with practice or effort.

The one thing that did reduce implicit bias scores was if test-takers primed themselves ahead of time by reading about eminent black historical figures.  They were less likely to associate black with “bad” if they had just made a mental association between black and “good.”  Which, in fact, was exactly how I snapped out of my moment of cafeteria racism: I recalled to my mind's ear a recording I like of Marian Anderson singing Schubert.  The music affected me emotionally and allowed me to escape my mindset.

 To generalize from that example, we have to remember that the subconscious is a funny thing.  Mere willpower doesn’t stop it from misbehaving: it has to be tricked.  You have to hack into the affect heuristic, instead of trying to override it. 

 There’s an Enlightenment notion of “sentiment” which I think may be appropriate here.  The idea (e.g. in Adam Smith) was roughly that moral behavior springs from certain emotional states, and that we can deliberately encourage those emotional states or sentiments by exposing ourselves to the right influences.  Sympathy, for example, or affection, were moral sentiments.  The plays of 18th century England seem trite to a modern reader because the characters are so very sympathetic and virtuous, and the endings so very happy.  But this was by design: it was believed that by arousing sympathy and affection, plays could encourage more humane behavior.

Sentiments are a way of dealing directly with the affect heuristic. It can’t be eradicated, at least not all in one go, but it can be softened and moderated.  If you know you’re irrationally attaching a “yay” or “boo” label to something, you can counteract that by focusing your reflections on the opposite affect. 

I suspect – though I have no basis beyond anecdote – that art is a particularly effective way of inducing sentiments and attacking the affect heuristic.  You don’t hear a lot about art on LW, but we probably should be thinking more about it, because art is powerful.  Music moves people: think of military marches and national anthems, and also think of the humanistic impulse in the Ode to Joy. Music is not an epistemic statement, but acts at the more primitive level of emotion. You can deploy music to change yourself at the pre-rational level; personally, I find that something like “O Isis Und Osiris” from The Magic Flute can cut through fear and calm me, better than any conscious logical argument.

Poetry also seems relevant here – it’s verbal, but it’s a delivery system that works at the sub-rational level.  I’m convinced that a large part of the appeal of religion is in poetic language that rings true.  (It’s interesting what happens when scientific or rationalist ideas are expressed in poetic language – this is rarer, but equally powerful. Carl Sagan, Francois Jacob, Bertrand Russell.)  The parable, the fantasy, and the poem can be more effective than the argument, because they can reach emotional heuristics that arguments cannot touch.

This is not an argument against rationality – this is rationality.  To fight our logical fallacies, we have to attack the subconscious directly, because human beings are demonstrably bad at overriding the subconscious through willpower.  It's not enough to catalogue biases and incorrect heuristics; we want to change those errors, and the most effective way to change them isn't always to read an argumentative essay and decide "to think rationally."  I’m an optimist: I think we can, in fact, seek truth relentlessly.  I don’t think we have to taboo whole subjects of inquiry in fear of the affect heuristic.  But we need to fight affect with affect.  

(As a practical suggestion for ourselves and each other, it might be interesting to experiment with non-argumentative ways of conveying a point of view: tell an illustrative story, express your idea in the form of an epigram, or even quote a poem or a piece of music or a photograph. Eliezer does a lot of this already: commandments, haikus, parables, and a fanfic.  The point, for rationalists, is not manipulation -- I don't want to use emotion to get anyone to adopt an idea thoughtlessly.  The point is to improve understanding, to shake loose our own biases by tinkering with our own emotions.  Clearer writing is not necessarily drier writing, and sometimes we understand an idea best when it makes use of our emotional capacities.)