Political Systems as Emotional Mechanisms

Note: This is part 4 of a 5 part series. In part 1, I outlined a model of emotion: namely, that our emotions give us information about the implied structure of future possibilities. In part 2, I explored some mathematical properties of this model.  In part 3, I analyzed economic activity in terms of this model. In this part, I will look at politics through the lens of this model.  In part 5, I tie things together.

Political Systems Regulate Emotion.

My central thesis here is simple: that emotional regulation is both the reason for and the mechanism of action in all political systems.  “I’m so angry, I’m going to write my congressman” is a trope – so in the vernacular sense of emotion, many people already suspect this to be true.  The model of emotion I have outlined deals with the structure of possibility; the model states that our emotions represent our thoughts about what types of situations are likely, possible, and unlikely in the future. Using that ‘sanitized’ definition of emotion, which looks only at mathematical relationship of configurations in complex systems, we can reach the same conclusion – a regulatory regime uses enforcement to reduce the probability of certain outcomes that make people upset because they perceive more negative outcomes.  That is to say, regulation is used in an attempt to block ‘sink states’ in the structure of possibility;  situations that cause perceived problems which lead to real problems.  In this article, I will present several examples of political action, and show how these examples embody emotional regulation both in the ‘traditional sense’ of emotion – as nebulous, vague, powerful feelings people experience, and in my ‘modeled’ sensed of emotion – as the sensed topology of the structure of possibility.

Example One: Food and Drug Regulation

Before the Food and Drug Administration, people could sell whatever they wanted as food or medicine. The FDA now places limits on what can and cannot be sold, with what labels.  Before the FDA, people would die from taking fake medicine. That possibility – that I could walk into a store, buy something, and die from taking it, was scary to people (traditional sense).  If I would like to reduce the probability that I die from consuming something I purchase, I am seeking to alter the structure of possibility. The fact that a person could get wealthy selling fake medicine that kills people is upsetting (traditional sense) and concerning because people tend to do things that make them money (modeled sense).

To some people, the old way was fine. The market will reward people who sell good medicine, and companies that make bad medicine will go out of businesses. A person who thinks this way is either not bothered by the possibility that people may buy bad medicine (traditional sense of emotion), estimates the possibility that they will buy bad medicine as very low (modeled sense), believes that the government has no business dictating what people put into their bodies (traditional sense),  or believes that the government’s actions in regulating which medicines can be sold causes more problems than it solves (modeled sense).

So the arguments on both sides here come from emotional places:  in the traditional sense, people dying from bad medicine – or dying from a disease when they couldn’t take medicine that was being researched but hadn’t been approved – make us upset. In the modeled sense, the discussion revolves around varying estimates of likelihoods – the probability that people will die from taking poor medicine that wouldn’t have been approved vs. the probability that a medicine doesn’t get to market because the approval process is too expensive or is subject to other political factors.

In the example of the FDA, we see one of the first examples of an anger induced by the perception of crossed incentives: someone who makes money by hurting other people tends to be very upsetting (traditional sense) to people, probably because we expect that more people will choose to hurt people if it benefits them (modeled sense). When predation is perceived to be happening, it gets people upset and is often a spark for political action.  I’ll point out this ‘perceived social predation’ in my other examples. I call it ‘perceived’ not because i wish to claim that social predators don’t exist, but to underscore the fact that the perception of it is what matters.  In all of the examples I’ll present, some people will perceive predation and others won’t.  From a political perspective, it is only the perception of predation that matters. If someone is, in fact, preying on all of us, but nobody perceives it, political action is unlikely. If a large group believes themselves to be preyed upon by an aggressor, their perception will motivate them to action, regardless of its basis in reality.  A key component of my model of emotion is that our emotional states arise from our perception of the structure of possibility; whether that perception is accurate or not depends upon a number of other factors.

One reason I’m writing this series is that discussions about probabilities of various outcomes (modeled sense) can be productive far more easily than discussions about how we feel seeing a woman buy bad medicine for her children and die (traditional sense). The fact that political discussions can grow intensely heated and emotional is not news to anyone – but my claim that all emotional content can be translated into statements about the probability of various outcomes is new. I’d like to live in a world where we see our political process as being reasonable and sensible, instead of being the exercise in absurdity it is now.

Example Two: Uber’s Surge Pricing

My college friend Kevin Novak has been at Uber for a few years now.  He’s done a lot of work on Uber’s controversial ‘Surge Pricing’ system, which increases the rate it charges riders when there is more demand for rides. Most of this price increase is paid to the drivers, encouraging more drivers to start working and meet the increased demand.  The effect of this system is that although people have to pay more money, which upsets them (traditional sense), they are extremely unlikely to encounter a situation where they would like to get a ride, but no ride is available (modeled sense.)  This system has upset a number of people, (traditional sense) while others have argued it is truly innovative (modeled sense) and find it welcome (traditional sense).   People become particularly upset (traditional sense) when an extreme weather or dangerous event dramatically increases requests for Uber.

Uber has already acted, agreeing to cap prices during emergency situations. I think this is an example of them acting to prevent the government from taking a harder stance – they’d rather regulate themselves than have the government do it for them.  This means that people are less likely to be upset with Uber (traditional sense) – but it also guarantees that drivers will not be available for all riders, when they are most wanted (modeled sense).  I can’t imagine anyone saying that the latter effect is desirable – which to me suggests that people who get mad at Uber for raising rates during a crisis are misdirecting their anger. They are mad about the shortage of transportation, but they direct their anger at someone who is doing their best to resolve the problem. When a poorly understood mechanism is advanced to solve a commonly experienced problem, people get angry at the mechanism because it has a face and a name.  I used to be really mad at political and financial systems (traditional sense), until i understood that those were incomplete attempts to solve more fundamental problems such as scarcity and mass outbreaks of anger (modeled sense). It’s like being mad at the fire department because they always show up and spray old buildings with some nasty stuff which causes them to turn black and fall over. If you don’t understand – or don’t believe in – fire, of course you hate the fire department.

The perceived social predation in Uber’s surge pricing is simple – during a snow storm or a terrorist attack, people are afraid. Uber raising prices causes some people to perceive them as “benefitting from others’ misfortune” – and this is seen as a form of predation.  If the maximum price of an Uber ride were never more than few dollars, I sincerely doubt that anyone would bat an eye. Social predation is only perceived when the price of services goes high enough that it causes people real difficulty;  The dollar amount involved matters moreso than the multiplier. If Uber’s price multiplier were 50x, but the total cost of a ride was $5, nobody would care.  I think it’s the fact that some people earn hundreds of dollars an hour, while others are happy to earn $100 after a day’s work that causes people to perceive the social predation.

As long as having job is necessary to support your basic needs, I think the dream of a society based entirely upon voluntary interaction is severely threatened by extreme wealth inequality.  People don’t feel like they are voluntarily engaging in activity that costs them a substantial portion of their income when that activity is necessary for them to continue living. They will perceive predation on the part of people who don’t sell their labor. Whether or not this predation is ‘real’, the perception is, and that perception always leads to political action.

Example Three: Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

Continuing on the theme of labor and employment, ask people what the most important political issue is for them; very often, they will say ‘the economy’ or ‘jobs.’  If you read part 3 of this series, you’ve seen how I’ve already linked economics with emotion. The economy is another mechanism of moderating emotion; resources (the ability to manifest outcomes) move towards people who have low emotional volatility – and thus stable reality models.  Resources move away from people who are intensively emotionally volatile – and thus have rapidly fluctuating reality models.  A second order, weaker effect, is that resources move away from people whose reality models are inaccurate – but people with a lot of resources can use political  mechanics to secure their resources.  I think this second order effect is what has driven most of human progress over history, but it is very weak compared to the first effect – stable reality models absorb resources much more readily than accurate ones.

A job is primarily an emotional construct. For an employee, A job is a credible reason to believe that if you show up and work, you’ll get paid, and you can use this pay to buy things you want and need. (modeled sense). When you have a job, there is a belief that you are contributing something to society (traditional sense.)  It is rewarding to be paid for your work (traditional sense). Because money can be exchanged for goods and services, having a stream of income increases your estimated probability that you will be able to provide for your needs, and possibly those you support – if you make enough money. “I can’t afford to feed my kids” is painful thing to think – a coupling of the traditional sense and the modeled sense.

If you watch a show like House of Cards and process what the characters are doing when they make political decisions, you’ll start to see them as moving around difficult emotions.  Funding must be cut to a Navy base, and the question is which base should be shut down.  “We must make some group of people unhappy, which group should it be?”  (traditional sense).   The shutdown of the naval base reduces the probability that people who were employed there will be able to obtain the incomes they were used to obtaining; the industries dependent upon those dollars have reduced expected income as well (modeled sense.)  To defend the naval base, it would require someone to make a pitched argument in a room full of  people. This argument would move over a number of complex topics, all addressing the future structure of economic possibility for the country.  A person capable of making this argument must be capable of communicating about these models convincingly in a highly emotional context. If the argument succeeds, someone else is likely to leave the room angry, because his pet program for a nuclear laser tank got cut. It’s as if the anger moved around into places where it could be stably concentrated in large amounts, and then exchanged – or maybe exported externally. One way to employ lots of people is to have them fight an imaginary threat, or just create a real one.

Governments as Emotional Computers

It’s hard for me not to see, in the political mechanism, an image of a memory hierarchy in a computer.  Values move from the hard disk, to RAM, to caches, to registers, where they are exchanged, compared, mapped and operated upon, and then send back down to caches, RAM, and ultimately the hard disk. Likewise, anger in a group of people is handed off to their leaders, who ‘pass it up the chain’, where decisions with large emotional ramifications are made.  A politician is in many senses an actor, who pretends to understand what is going, and often pretends that, see, the problems are simple – it’s those others, who are so unlike us, the real ones – those who are truly good. If only it were not for those others, then we would not have these problems.

Look at Game of Thrones. (SPOILER ALERT).  The ‘official story’ in westeros is that the King derives his right to rule from divine blessing. The King is in charge, and everyone must do what he says. This is a model  – it is a set of rules or principles which ostensibly map onto reality.   When everyone says ‘I believe in this model’, their credibility is threatened when they are shown in public to be acting at odds to the model. This is why, when Joffrey says publicly that Eddard Stark should have his head cut off, everyone has to go along with it; all of their power is derived from the ‘official story’ that Joffrey is in charge.  What they really wanted, and what they’d agreed upon in private, is that Ed  Stark should go to the wall to prevent a war. In private, Tywin and the council rule. But publicly – in reality – the King is in charge! This story is reality model that everyone in the kingdom either subscribes to, or says they do. If Joffrey said “cut off this man’s head”, and that didn’t happen, it would break most people’s belief in the model, or their ability to reasonably claim they believed init. When nobody believes the King has power, the King loses his power – and those who had power over him lose that as well.  That breaking of the model would correspond to a war, and thus tons of people experiencing very negative emotions, as the result of seeing the families and loved ones killed, and their businesses destroyed.  As predicted by this theory, the destruction of a reality model is coupled with intense negative emotion.  The people who were prepared for that outcome were the ones who never fully believed the model in the first place, and who understood that the only power in the world comes from the ability to control the models that others subscribe to.

Leave your comments, or move on to the conclusion of this series.

4 thoughts on “Political Systems as Emotional Mechanisms

share your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s