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Feelings Matter

If ideas alone caused revolutions, then Lenin could have stayed local instead of unleashing Marx on Russia.  Those who read Voltaire couldn’t control the rest of the third estate; a rationalist would at least impose a limit on guillotine use. People like Rush Limbaugh may mock, but feeling matter and motivate action.  If this were not the case, charisma would not be an evolutionary advantage and economists, not politicians, would run the world.

Unfortunately, feelings can make negotiation difficult, even when new terms can benefit both parties.  In one memorable, since replicated experiment, subjects were given 10 tokens which they could distribute between themselves and a partner.  Most people chose to give their partner three tokens.  In the next round, everyone switched roles; those who had received were given the tokens to distribute to a new partner who had distributed in the previous round.

This round though had two twists.  FIrst, that in denying the partner a token, the player lost a token.  Second, before making their decision, half of the distributors, randomly selected, were told that in the previous round, their partner hadn’t shared the tokens.  In the second round, those who had no additional information about their partner distributed, like the previous group, such that the average was about three tokens.  Those who thought their partners had been unfair almost universally denied both themselves and their partner tokens.

People chose a harm to themselves, and receive no tokens, to punish someone else.  Thus, a lab experiment proved that a desire for justice, or revenge exists.  That people acted based on false information and over a few tokens that had no value outside of the lab suggests the power of such a desire.

So if growing up you go to bed hungry and grown up, things haven’t much changed and prospects for change seem futile, a person’s feelings usually go one of two ways.  To borrow an analogy from Heart of Darkness, people either become flabby devils or powerful devils: apathetic or violent.  Novels, films, historical myth-making all favor the latter.  Heroes are made by taking a stand.  It may not be rational, but those crying out for another Churchill do not emphasize his reasoned argumentation: dare I ask Winston, “will we fight them?”

Personally, my great wish for the world is that people just calm down and negotiate with one another.  While some may code negotiation as a sign of weakness, I consider it a sign of respect: it acknowledges a future for both parties that does not make future violence inevitable.  Notably, Conrad does not include negotiators amongst the devils.  Perhaps he assumed that feelings of devilry void an agreement.  He may be right, as they certainly seem to inhibit discussion.

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