Angry Rant #2: Personal Responsibility and the extended phenotype

November 1, 2010 at 10:49 pm (rant) (, , , )

Note: The “I” and “you” below for argument purposes and are not really myself and yourself.  Please don’t take it personally.  Unless I’m describing things you’ve done, in which case do take it personally, and do something about it.

If I were to run at you, screaming and shouting, getting into your face and hurling obscenities, would that be OK?  -probably not.

Perhaps if I were mentally unable to control my actions?  Is it still my fault then? If I had taken incapacitating drugs then it would be, even though I was not in control of my actions, because I could have done something about it when I was in control. I didn’t have to take the drugs.  Even if I’m incapable of harming you, it is still not acceptable behaviour.

But assume instead that I was just like that (sometimes I want to be); it isn’t really my fault.  In that case imagine I have a minder, someone to make sure I don’t hurt myself or others.  Would it be OK for them to stand by, perhaps tut, and explain “Oh it’s not you, he just does that?”  Should you be required to have a civil and polite conversation with my minder whilst I abuse you?

Or would you consider it rude, offensive, marginally criminal and/or negligent?  I somehow think so.  And it isn’t OK when it is an animal is doing it either.  Say, a dog.

Personal responsibility

Dogs clearly have a reduced level of personal responsibility.  Our society has a lot of complex rules that we don’t know how to explain to them; we don’t know that they would be capable of following the rules even if we could.  When a dog poops, it doesn’t have to pick it up – we do.  We have responsibility for them. It is written into law that we must prevent them from being “aggressive, or dangerously out of control”.  In more egalitarian terms which might extend to a combined human/animal morality, we are acting as their representative for situations in which they are not capable of representing themselves.

Extended phenotype

When we define ourselves, we think not just of our own physical body, but the sum of all of the things we do or cause to be.  If a person leaves a trap in a field, and it kills somebody, they killed that person even though they weren’t physically there.  Similarly, a parent may take at least some responsibility for the actions of their children; they have imbibed them with some of their knowledge and being (for good or ill, by chance or design).  The phenotype is our biological self; the extended phenotype is our effect on the world.  We have responsibility for both, when it is within our power to understand how we influence the world.

That means, when your dog is aggressive to me, and you permit this, then you are being aggressive to me.  Certainly this is true in reverse; if I were to kick your dog you would take it as a personal attack on yourself.  Aggression is not acceptable behaviour.  At the best you should expect disdain in return for not raising the dispute beyond aggressive displays.  Yet, when dogs are involved, many (not all or even most) owners are completely oblivious to the disregard they have shown for our societal pacts against aggression.  Indeed, they expect me to be polite, even cheery, as they point out that little fluffy doesn’t bite, he’s just chasing the bike, its nothing personal.

Its personal.  If your dog is aggressive to me, you are aggressive to me. You have both the power, and the responsibility, to prevent the situation, and yet chose not to do it.

A dog has responsibility for itself to the limits of its ability.  They clearly can understand physical and verbal communication, they know that actions have consequences, even if not fully understood.  But where their understanding ends, our responsibility begins.  They are our extended phenotype and for good or bad, we are our dogs are they are us.

In other words, distributed processing sucks.  If you cannot trust your “other” fluffy bodied brain to follow your intentions, then you will need  physical intervention for coordinated action. Or in other, other words, if your dog attacks people, put it on a lead!


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Blondes are not more angry than Brunettes, but pretty people are

January 23, 2010 at 7:06 pm (thinking) (, , , , , , )

Reports have recently appeared that

Blondes are more aggressive than brunettes.

This news has appeared over the interwebs, from the BBC (since modified, but the evidence is still there) to the Daily Mail (from where the headline above hails).  And not too surprisingly, it is simply not true.  Which is sad, because the truth is probably more interesting.

In a study called “Formidability and the logic of human anger” researches from the University of Washington, in a peer-reviewed paper, showed that one of the main factors in how angry we are is how “formidable” we believe ourselves to be.  For men, this is predicted by strength; for women, it is predicted by attractiveness.  So attractive women really are more angry.  (But blondes are not more attractive than Brunettes, so the Daily Mail Headline is wrong).  Additionally, it isn’t just how attractive or strong we actually are that matters, but how we perceive ourselves.  Attractive and strong people have a higher sense of entitlement and are likely to get angry over smaller things because of this.

This is interesting for several reasons.  Firstly, it indicates an evolutionary motivation for anger and aggressiveness, based on whether people will do what we say if we make a “threat” (which is what an angry response is).  The more we can physically hurt them, refuse them things they want, or influence others to hurt them, the more likely we are to be successful with a threat.  So this study helps us understand why people get angry, which may help us overcome getting angry in the wrong circumstances.  Men primarily use strength to force their way, but women can both use strength (to a lesser degree), manipulation of men to exert strength, and removal of their favour.

Secondly, the results are in opposition to many leading theories about anger.  People who are strong and attractive usually have easier lives than their less attractive competition; anger is not usually explainable by hard experiences in childhood, for example.  It is interesting that we can both believe this theory and the above descriptions of threats, which are somewhat contradictory (although I’m sure both could be partially true).

Thirdly, the study looked at people’s opinion on their nation going to war.  How angry people get at a personal level, and their strength or attractiveness, all predict how likely you are to support a war.  This result seems the most bizarre to me; that a logical decision on a huge international conflict can be influenced by how pretty you are is a frightening thought.  Yet it makes sense if we again consider the evolutionary context.  In a small group conflict, those most able to win a fight are more likely to pick one; and that is the attractive strong people.  If our decision to support a war is influenced by our own personal level of aggression, then it all drops in to place; we feel able to go to war if we ourselves feel powerful.  We are more cautious if we have little personal power.

Of course, the usual caveats should be supplied here.  Correlation is not causation; people are not inevitably driven by their genetics.  Angry people are not always pretty or strong, and gentle people are not always weak and ugly!  What we have here is simply an extra piece of the jigsaw, one that makes a lot of sense if we look to our primeval roots for explanation.  Like most emotional behaviours, anger has pretty much lost its place in the modern world and the evolutionary forces driving it are going to be either absent, or more likely, preventing the most angry amongst us from being successful.

Pretty interesting, no?

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