On The Relationship-building Proclivities of Human Nature

The Guardian recently published an excellent article by Frans de Waal, What animals can teach us about politics. In the spirit of cognitive productivity, I’d like to relate this to a couple of theories of human nature that lend credence to de Waal’s analysis.

Aubé’s commitment theory of human nature

Consider Michel Aubé’s commitment theory of “emotion”. Aube claims that motivational systems are geared towards managing resources. (For instance, thirst deals with managing fluid levels, and hence fluids as physical resources.) We are largely social animals. We depend on others for the essential evolutionary requirements of all species, namely survival and reproduction. Our family, friends, and tribes help us meet our other needs (manage our other resources.) Aubé argues that emotions are the human motivational system that help us manage each other.

However, we cannot directly manage each other. So, despite the established expression “human resources”, humans are not resources per se. They are autonomous agents (title of my Ph.D. thesis.) However, we can influence each other indirectly. Commitments are the proxies, the abstract but real resources of human relationships. Commitments then are the resources that humans exchange to influence each other.

Commitments, however, cannot be obtained willy nilly. Commitments are exchanged in the context of fruitful human relationships. Relationships are (or at least can be) the breeding grounds for commitments.

Now, to get back to The Guardian article, according to Aubé, emotions are the motivational systems that developed in humans to manage commitments in particular, and relationships in general. He has analyzed many emotions, arguing that at the core of emotional episodes, commitments are at play. More specifically, emotions are mechanisms that foster and protect relationships so that commitments can fruitfully be exchanged.

Consider anger. Anger occurs when someone violates a commitment. The commitment may be implicit or explicit. The role of anger is not punitive or destructive. It is actually to repair the relationship!

It is a very enlightning mental exercise to apply Aubé’s theory to other emotions: jealousy, happiness, sadness, etc. One discovers that in every case, there lie behind the scenes mechanisms that monitor and seek to promote commitments, and breeding grounds for commitments.

According to Aubé, some emotions can degenerate when the agent loses the implicit focus on the relationship, and focuses on the individual instead. Rage is a case in point. According to Aubé, rage is focused on the individual (hurting or destroying the individual as an end in itself); it does not try to build the relationship. Another example, according to Aubé, is guilt vs. shame. Guilt as an emotion is meant to repair relationships, whereas shame is directed at the individual, which is not helpful.

I personally would not identify these mechanisms with “emotion” per se. I don’t think we should argue about what emotions really are. Whether you want to call these mechanisms “emotion” or not is mostly a matter of convention. Arguing about what “emotion” ought to mean, scientifically, has been a waste of time. (It has interfered with scientific relationships, and cooperation is at the heart of science. More support for Aubé’s theory 😉 .) More generally, I don’t think “emotion” should be considered a technical scientific term or concept.

Aside. That’s why I introduced the term “perturbance“. Aaron Sloman was calling his brilliant concept “emotion”, but since no one can agree on what emotion is, few people followed up on his highly interesting concept. I said, let’s call it “perturbance” and remain focused on the theory. End-aside.

So I prefer to refer to Aubé’s theory as a theory of human nature (or of human motivation, or mind) rather than a theory of emotion. Whatever the label, the fact is that a surprisingly large part of human activity (and hence motivation and information processing) revolves around commitments.

Aubé’s theory is, in my opinion, one of the most important recent contributions to psychology. But hardly any psychology researcher knows about it. I do not accept Aubé’s entire theory, however it does represent an important advance. It is one of many potential “sleeping beauties” that have influenced my understanding and work.

Aubé’s theory provides the most interesting, systematic psychological basis for de Waal’s argument that I know of. So, if Frans de Waal’s article strikes you as interesting, I recommend Aubé’s articles. (They are referenced elsewhere on my website. I will also summarize Aubé’s theory in my own book on emotions. I refer to it in my recent paper on perturbance.)

Michel Aubé, a Canadian from Quebec, is now retired.

Robert Heinlein’s “Our Noble, Essential Decency”

Another related view that I would recommend reading is Our Noble, Essential Decency by Robert Heinlein. It was published the 1950s version of This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women Goodreads. It was also included in the 2006 edition of that book.

Heinlein, Aubé, and de Waal are on the same page.

de Waal’s book

I have applied my “!read” (“to read”) Pinboard tag to Frans de Waal’s book, Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves.

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Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest. Author of Cognitive Productivity . Cognitive productivity consultant and public speaker. Adjunct Professor of Education & Adjunct Professor of Cognitive Science, Simon Fraser University Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp. See About Me for more information.

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