Consider two different scenarios. Really try to imagine them and feel the emotions you might feel if they were real. The first is giving a hug to your mother/grandmother/someone you love dearly. If you’re particularly imaginative you might be able to conjure up some nice warm feelings, perhaps using past experiences to augment the imagined scenario.
The second scenario is hitting that same person in front of a group of your friends and family. This will almost certainly leave a pit in the bottom of your stomach. It will give you a visceral sense of unease. It may even make your palms sweat a bit. Even though you have not done anything, nor do you plan to do anything, you might feel some guilt for even thinking about the scenario.
Another example that might give you more of a visceral response is to remember your happiest and most embarrassing moment as a child. Odds are the embarrassing moments won’t be hard to conjure up, while the happiest ones will take some digging.
This is meant to illustrate the disproportionate ability for our minds to simulate negative emotions over positive ones. That concept is already pretty well established in psychological circles. The general explanation is that human evolution biased our minds towards avoiding risk over seeking reward. I contend that the human mind suffers more than a deficit in positive thinking, it’s wholly incapable of simulating positive outcomes in the same way as it does negative.
In my last post about decision making, I pointed out that projected emotional states are the building blocks of choice. I pointed out that a rational choice that involves modeling a negative emotional state, even if it would result in net happiness, will be valued unfavorably by the mind. In an attempt to mitigate that bias I tried including positive scenarios in my decisions making. Instead of thinking “If everything fails I’ll have a back up plan” I tried “I’ll experience a sense of security in having a backup plan even if things are going well.” The concept was the same but the emotional content would ostensibly be very different.
It didn’t work, and not because I didn’t think the positive scenario I projected was valid. It failed because the emotional impact of that hypothetical positive is almost non-existent compared to the weight of the competing negative emotions. Try as I might, I just couldn’t imagine positive scenarios that could do battle with the negative ones. As an exercise I tried imagining positive scenarios outside the context of decision making. These were just meant to be free-for-all happy thoughts about the future. These too fell flat.
I found that I was actually quite poor at doing any sort of positive thinking. Sure, I could come up with some wouldn’t-it-be-nice stuff, but it lacked any of the emotional impact even the most idle rumination on my potential failures held. At this point I began to consider that I might just be suffering from un-diagnosed depression. I can’t see into other people’s minds to compare thought processes, so there’s no way to be sure if my own is abnormal. What I can do is compare my current mental state to previous ones.
In my past, I don’t have many strong recollections of enjoying projected positive emotions. There were a few exceptions, most notably Christmas. As a child my excitement over what was sure to be an enormously positive experience overpowered any doubts or concerns I had towards whether I would finally get that toy I wanted. It was pure impulsive desire. That was the key.
Impulse is the one exception to the rule of negative bias. Impulses and urges very easily override even our strongest projections of negative repercussions to impel us towards reward seeking behavior. Anyone who has taken a risk for the chance at having sex, or broken a diet for a doughnut knows what I’m talking about.
Unfortunately, this lands me right back where I started in my last post about decision making. Impulse is the antithesis of rational choice. It’s hardly an aid in tipping the balance back in the direction of the rational option. I’m still left with two options of unequal emotional weight and no good way to dismiss one of them.