On Using Fiction and Non-Fiction When Feeling Guilty

At the Vancouver Arts Club on Friday, I attended the emotion-inducing play, Angels in America Part 1: Millennium Approaches. (Its wikipedia page. One of the characters, Louis Ironson, is a Jewish homosexual consumed by anxiety and guilt. Today, I used this character to reflect upon imperfection, the emotions of guilt, and self-directed learning. I wondered in particular how one can use feelings of guilt and fiction/non-fiction to become more effective. This blog post touches briefly on this problem.

Damien Atkins. Photo by David Cooper.

Imperfection, conscientiousness and expertise. We all err from time to time. But highly conscientious people tend to assess their behavior a lot more than others do. If they’re developing expertise, then they have — and tend to apply — effective ways to learn from those assessments— part of what I call “meta-effectiveness”. If they’re not, then they might just beat themselves up without taking (effective) steps to improve themselves.

When reflecting about a particular emotion, such as guilt, one can’t make much progress without a general theory of emotions that does it justice. For this post, I chose Michel Aubé’s theory of emotion, which I’ve discussed on this blog before, because it is quite comprehensive and deals well with social emotions. (Aubé would say that all emotions are social.) His theory is also quite original and compelling.

According to Aubé’s theory (PDF), emotions are a form of motivation. All motivation, according to him, is about managing resources. For instance, hunger has to do with managing food. We can’t control people directly as if they were stuff. Furthermore, in society resources are socially organized (e.g., through rules of ownership and usage). We can, however, influence the behavior of others (and our own) through commitments. Thus, the resources that emotions manage are commitments. Emotions often do this by fostering cooperation and collaboration with certain people. They also operate on the capacity for commitments by creating and regulating attachments.

Guilt. Why do we sometimes feel guilty? Aubé answers: The role of guilt is to remind us of the importance of one or more relationships. We feel guilty in anticipation of an action that would harm the relationship. The feeling helps protect us from harming the relationship (the source of commitments). We feel guilt after doing something that has or might jeopardize a relationship; that is to induce us to repair the relationship, or at least avoid repeating the same error with others. Violating one’s standards is much more likely to lead to emotions of guilt if the behavior has adverse implications for others (i.e., is social). The stronger the actual or potential impact on a relationship, and the more important the relationship, the stronger the emotion of guilt is likely to be. Of course, it’s more complicated than that.

Aside. A comprehensive theory of human emotion should explain the differences between guilt, regret, embarrassment, and shame. Aubé’s theory does. But this post is not a treatise and hence doesn’t.

Let’s come back to Angels in America set in the mid 1980s. Louis Ironson is prone to guilt—a fact he attributes to being Jewish. (However, all major religions accentuate guilt.) His BF becomes desperately ill, due to AIDS. Louis can’t cope with his BF’s condition. He struggles but leaves him at this time of great need. A battle between avoidance emotions and guilt ravages within Louis, putting him over the edge. So powerful is Louis’ guilt that he soon risks his life, shouting to a stranger in a park “infect me!”

The play thus illustrates that guilt can be a very powerful emotion. Guilt even if it does not keep the target behavior in check can get out of control, harming its host. To take another example of a powerful moral emotion from the same play, homosexual gay lawyer, Joe Pitt, could not extricate himself from his marriage to a woman. Any theory of emotion, Aubé’s included, had better be able to cope with the self-destructive effects of emotion.

Guilt for knowledge workers. One can’t properly understand emotions without working through many examples. Normally, emotions of guilt are not of the epic proportions of Angels in America. Nowadays, so many of our communications are via e-mail that it is a common source of guilt. I’m sure we’ve all on occasion felt quite guilty after pressing the “Send” button on an email. However, if you haven’t recently trespassed via an e-mail you wrote, it might be hard for you to remember specific instances. Perhaps you have nagging feelings of guilt with respect to e-mails you never replied to? (Aside: the brain normally can much more easily remember episodes of romantic love. This fact, which Sylwia Hyniewska, Eva Hudlicka and I referred to in a recent paper on emotion is of scientific interest. If you have a moment, try to remember one (different!) episode of each emotion [romantic love and guilt]. Which memory comes back most easily?)

Harnessing Feelings of Guilt with Non-Fiction and Fiction: Deliberately Seeking to Transfer Knowledge

Having claimed that feelings of guilt can be a powerful emotion, the question arises whether one can develop procedures to harness this emotion. Near the top of this post, I alluded to the fact that dynamic (as opposed to stagnant) experts monitor their performance with respect to standards and then adjust. In Cognitive Productivity, I emphasized that expert readers do a much better job of monitoring their comprehension than non-experts. Expert readers perceive knowledge that is new to them as new. They detect when they don’t understand what they are reading. They tend to at least want to correct their misunderstandings (or the author’s poor writing). While these processes don’t typically involve guilt, they do engage some of the same mental mechanisms.

Harvard educational psychologist, David Perkins, emphasized the importance of “transferring” knowledge, which is a fancy word for applying what we (think we have) learned to different domains. He suggests two different mindsets:

  1. Forward reaching transfer. In this mode, when you are learning something (say from a book, TED talk or workshop), you can ask yourself, “What can I do to ensure that I will apply this particular knowledge?”
  2. Backward reaching transfer. In this mode, when you are trying to solve a problem, you ask yourself, “What knowledge have I “acquired” in the past that may be pertinent to the current problem? How could I apply this knowledge?

Often, just before making a blunder alarm bells (“emotion signals) start ringing, more or less loudly, in one’s head saying, “The course of action I am contemplating or preparing is risky”. In the case of guilt, they at least implicitly say, “this course of action might jeopardize a relationship”. But often the situation is complex; there are competing motivators; one doesn’t take sufficient time to reflect, and so error and possibly guilt ensue.

I’ve collected off the top of my head a little list of handy strategies for dealing with situations that might generate guilt.

To this I would add the “Literature Strategy”. Non-fiction can help in many ways. Despite “post truth”, many of our obligations are based on the imperative of being rational, i.e., basing our claims on knowledge and argumentation. (Cognitive Productivity‘s “evaluate” chapter is relevant to this topic.) Practical (“how to”) information is often more obviously pertinent. And normative knowledge is often quite pertinent (that is information directly supposed to regulate behavior —standards, policies, rules of conducts, laws and the like). “Transferring” (applying) each of these forms of knowledge is often more difficult than it seems, and hence requires practice.

Enter fiction and mythical knowledge. Nowadays, “Westerners” tend to treat fiction strictly as entertainment. Go see a film, talk about it, and that’s it. We process so much fiction that it’s impossible to learn much from it. Some traditional societies in contrast systematically and deliberately exploit mythic knowledge. They value their stories, they learn them deeply, and they use them to guide their behavior and to instruct. Most of us would rather spend the evening watching a new film, reading a new novel, etc., than digging deeply into a previous film with a view to learning from it.

Normally, when I suggest to people that we should learn to use fiction more systematically, and learn from it, the answer almost always is something to the effect that I must be out of my mind. We’re no longer in school, after all. Entertainment is for fun.

And yet I think that we would experience fewer negative emotions, including guilt and remorse, and unpleasant objective consequences (such as conflict and discrimination) if we found entertaining ways to learn more deeply from fiction.

It’s difficult to recall stories, let alone recall one that matches the current situation. I assume that in the future AI software will be available to help. An app might accept a description of one’s current dilemma and return a list of pertinent novels, plays and films one has processed previously, with pointers about how they apply. It would need to be aware of fiction we have previously processed. Information from iBookstore, Amazon and Net Flicks, with the appropriate privacy safeguards, could be used for that.

Maybe in the future someone will develop a serious but fun electronic game that trains us to apply fiction we’ve previously experienced. It might describe a scenario in which a character runs away from his responsibility because it is too painful, prompting us to think of similar fiction. Angels in America would be one of the answers. What should the character have done? How does his situation differ? We could touch a link to be reminded of the story. This game would keep alive in our minds the best stories we have processed, helping us use them later, unaided. Presumably, they would also be sensitive to our preferences, allowing us to filter out stories we don’t like.

Do professors of literature, theater or film tend use fiction in their own decision making? This is a question I sometimes ask them. Wouldn’t this make for some interesting studies, and perhaps change how fiction is taught?

The type of AI software I alluded to could also be used by psychotherapists. They would enter a description of the client’s situation, and it would recommend readings they and/or the clients could use. Not beyond Amazon, Google, affective cognitive science (including AI and psychology). (For more on bibliotherapy see Keith Oatley’s The Psychology of the Emotions and the On Fiction website. See my project, Developing Oneself with Fiction and Other Art of Others, for additional readings.)

Learning from fiction requires asking ourselves, while making a decision or after making a bad one, what particular work of fiction that I’ve previously processed would have had something quite relevant to say about this juncture? How could I have used that information?

Of course, not all fiction provides much food for thought. But some of the ones that can keep us thinking the longest, like Angels in America, definitely do.

Cognitive Productivity and the Problem of Transfer

Transfer is the main problem that Cognitive Productivity: Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective addresses. There, I claim that much supposed “learning” from non-fiction does not have the expected benefits, yielding at best entertainment or superficial familiarity with knowledge. That is if one doesn’t take the right steps to ensure that one will apply the knowledge. Cognitive Productivity describes several techniques to help one apply knowledge.

Meta-effectiveness is our ability and motivation to use knowledge — whatever its source — to become more effective. Easier named than understood or implemented.

A Tiny List of Handy Strategies for Dealing with Situations That Might Generate Guilt

Applying knowledge resources is obviously not the complete picture. Here are a few strategies for dealing with moral decisions.

  • Basic utilitarian caution: Does the planned behavior have a significant possibility of causing damage to the person directly involved, to myself, or collateral damage? If the answer is yes, then alter the plan until the answer is no. Of course, one also needs to avoid errors of omission, where failure to act can also lead to damage, but let’s keep the post simple!
  • Basic moral caution: The foregoing strategy also has obvious moral implications, such as to avoid harming people (by omission or commission).
  • Augmented moral caution: Does the planned behavior violate important standards of conduct (deontological ethics).
  • Stoic imperatives. When in doubt, ask what a Stoic would do. It’s hard to go wrong with Stoic rules. Human error often comes from responding emotionally. Stoics seem to have a pretty good idea how to ensure that emotions don’t overly cloud one’s judgment.
  • Surrogate strategy. . What would one of one’s role models do? When facing a decision, I sometimes ask myself, what would my late friend, Ralph Greer have done, or what would Aaron Sloman do.
  • Literature strategy (Described above).

The foregoing are merely general reflections. They are not meant to imply that I am better than average at doing all these computations.

Why This Post?

  • Here at CogZest we’re concerned with learning from fiction and non-fiction using technology in a way that is informed by cognitive science.

  • I will also explore guilt and other emotions in Discontinuities: Love, Art and Mind.

  • My Affective Self-Regulation project deals with redirection of affect. This addresses the practical problem of redirecting one source of motivation (e.g., addiction, hunger) to productive ends. There is in particular a very interesting, somewhat suprising, real life example about which I am developing a theory which, I think, has never previously been analyzed in these terms.

  • The problems matter 🙂 .

Published by

Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest. Author of Cognitive Productivity books. Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp. Adjunct Professor of Education, Simon Fraser University. Why, Where, and What I Write. See About Me for more information.

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