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– Managing demands (HOS 2)

How we manage the demands on us has been a pre-occupation since the day I came to the realisation that a lot of what runs through my own mind can be explained in terms of what psychologists call the management of ‘cognitive load’ or ‘mental workload’. We all, to some extent, ‘manage’ what we think about, but we rarely reflect on exactly how we do it.

Sometimes there are so many things that need to be thought about (and acted upon) that it is overwhelming, and some management of attention is needed, just to get through the day and maintain performance. If you need convincing that workload can affect performance then consider the research on distractions when driving. (A more comprehensive analysis on ‘the distracted mind’ can be found at the end of this posting).

YouTube Video, The distracted mind, TEDPartners, December 2013, 1:39 minutes

At other times you find yourself twiddling your thumbs, as if waiting for something to happen, or a thought to occur that will trigger action. We sometimes cease to be in the grip of circumstances and our minds can run free.

If you keep asking the question ‘why?’ about anything that you do, you eventually arrive at a small number of answers. If we leave aside metaphysical answers like ‘because it is the will of God’ for the moment, these are generally ‘to keep safe’ or ‘to be efficient’. On the way to these fundamental, and intimately related to them, is ‘to optimize cognitive load’. Not to do so, compromises both safety and efficiency.

To be overwhelmed with the need to act and, therefore, the thinking this necessitates in the evaluation of choices that are the precursors of action, leads to anxiety and anxiety interferes with the capacity to make good choices. To be under-whelmed leads to boredom and lethargy, a lack of caring about choice and the tendency to procrastinate.

It seems that to perform well we need an optimal level of arousal or stimulation.

Youtube Video, Performance and Arousal – Part 1of 3: Inverted U Hypothesis, HumberEDU, January 2015, 5:05 minutes

In the longer term, to be ‘psychologically healthy’ we need optimal levels of arousal ‘on average’ over a period of time.

Being constantly overwhelmed leads from stress, to anxiety and onwards to depression. It can even lead to an early death.

TED Video, The science of cells that never get old’ – Elizabeth Blackburn, TED, April 2017, 18:46 minutes

Being constantly underwhelmed also leads to depression via a different route. How much load we can take depends on our resources – both cognitive and otherwise. We can draw on reserves of energy and a stock of strategies, such as prioritizing, for managing mental workload. If the demands on us are too great and we have some external resources, like somebody else that can provide advice or direction, or the money to pay for it, then we can use those to lessen the load. Whenever we draw on our own capacities and resources we can both enhance and deplete them. Like exercising a muscle, regular and moderate use can strengthen but prolonged and heavy use will tire or deplete them. When we draw on external resources, like money or favours, their use tends to deplete them.

Measurement of Load

So how can we measure the amount of load a person is carrying. This is going to be tricky as some people have more resource and capacity (both internal and external) than others, so observing their activity may not be a very accurate measure of load. If you are very practiced or skilled at something it is much easier to do than if you are learning it for the first time. Also, some people are simply less bothered about whether they achieve what they have to do (or want to do) than others. Even the same person can ‘re-calibrate’, so for example, if pressure of work is causing stress, they can re-assess how much it matters that they get the job done. Some capacities replenish with rest, so something may be easy at one time but harder, say at the end of a long day.

In fact, there are so many factors, some interacting, that any measure, say of stress, through looking at the chemicals in the blood or the amount of sweating on the skin is difficult to attribute to a particular cause.

The capacity of our thinking processes is limited. We can really only focus on one difficult task at once. We even stop doing whatever we were doing (even an automatic task like walking) when formulating the response to a difficult question.

BBC Radio 4, The Human Zoo, Series 1 Episode 1, First Broadcast about 2014, 28 minutes
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01r0gj4

We can use our thinking capacity to further our intentions but we so often get caught up in the distractions of everyday life that none is left for addressing the important issues.

The Personal Agenda

Another way of looking at it is to consider it from the point of view of each person’s agenda and how they deal with it. This is as if you ask a person to write down a ‘to do’ list which has everything they could think of on it. We all do this from time to time, especially when there is too much going on in our heads and we need to set everything out and see what is important.
I will construct such a list for myself now:


  • Continue with what I am writing
  • Get ready for my friend who is coming for coffee
  • Figure out how to pay my bills this month
  • Check with my son that he has chosen his GCSE options
  • Tell my other friends what time I will meet them tonight
  • Check that everything is OK with my house at home (as I am away at the moment)

Each of these agenda items is a demand on my attention. It is as if each intention competes with the others to get my focus. They each shout their demands, and whichever is shouting loudest at the time, wins. Maybe not for long. If I realise that I can put something off until later, it can quickly be dismissed and slip back down the agenda.

But the above list is a particular type that is just concerned with a few short-term goals – it’s the things that are on my mind today. I could add:


  • Progress my project to landscape the garden
  • Think through how to handle a difficult relationship

Or some even longer term, more aspirational and less defined goals

  • Work out how I will help starving children in Africa
  • Maintain and enhance my wellbeing

The extended agenda still misses out a whole host of things that ‘go without saying’ such as looking after my children, activities that are defined during the course of going to work, making sure I eat and sleep regularly, and all tasks that are performed on ‘autopilot’ such as changing gear when driving. It also misses out things that I would do ‘if the opportunity arose’ but which I do not explicitly set out to do.

What characterizes the items that form the agenda? They are all intentions of one sort or another but they can be classified in various ways. Many concern obligations – either to family, friends, employers or society more generally. Some are entirely self-motivated. Some have significant consequences if they are not acted upon, especially the obligations, whereas others matter less. Some need immediate attention while others are not so time critical. Some are easy to implement while others require some considerable training, preparation or the sustained execution of a detailed plan. Some are one-offs while others are recurring, either regularly or in response to circumstances. This variation tends to mask the common characteristic that they are all drivers of thought and behaviour.

Intentions bridge between and include both motives and goals. Generally we can think of motives as the inputs and goals as the outputs (although either can be either). Both the motives and the goals of an intention can be vague. In fact, an intention can exist without you knowing either why or what it is to achieve. You can copy somebody else’s intention in ignorance of motive and goal. In the sense of intention as only a pre-disposition to act, you need not be aware of an intention. Often you don’t know how you will act until the occasion demands.

Agenda Management

Given that there are perhaps hundreds or even thousands of intentions large or small, all subsisting in the same individual, what determines what a person does at any particular point in time. It all depends on priority and circumstance. Priority will push items to the top of the list and circumstance often determines when and how they drive thought and behaviour.

Priority

Priority itself is not a simple idea. There are many factors affecting priority including emotion, certainty of outcome and timing. These factors tend to interact. I may feel strongly that I must help starving children in Africa and although I know that every moment I delay may mean a life lost, I cannot be certain that my actions will make a difference or that I may think of a more effective plan at a later time. When I have just seen a programme on TV about Africa I may be highly motivated, but a day later, I may have become distracted by the need to deal with what now appear to be more urgent issues where I can be more certain of the outcome.

Priority and Emotion

It is as if my emotional reaction to the current content of my experience is constantly jiggling the priorities on my agenda of intentions. As the time approaches for my friend to arrive I start to feel increasingly uncomfortable that I have not cleared up. Events may occur that ‘grab’ my attention and shoot priorities to the top of the agenda. If I am surprised by something I turn my attention to it. Similarly, if I feel threatened. Whereas, when I am relaxed my mind can wander to matters inside my head – perhaps my personal agenda. If I am depressed my overall capacity to attend to and progress intentions is reduced.

Emotions steer our attention. They determine priority. Attention is focused on the highest priority item. Emotion, priority, and attentions are intimately related. Changing emotions continuously wash across intentions, reordering their priority. They modulate the priorities of the intentions of the now.

Emotion provides the motive force that drives attention to whatever it is that you are attending to. If you are working out something complicated in your head, it is the emotion associated with wanting to know the answer that provides the motive force to turn the cogs. This applies even when the intention is to think through something rationally. When in the flow of rational thought (say in doing a mental arithmetic problem) it is emotion that motivates it.

There is a host of literature on emotional memory (i.e. how emotions, especially traumatic ones, are laid down in memory). There is also a large literature on how memories may be re-constructed, often inaccurately, rather than retrieved. The following illustrates both emotional memory of traumatic events and the frequent inaccuracies of re-construction:

TED Video, Emotional Memory: Shawn Hayes at TEDxSacramento 2012, TEDx Talks, March 2013, 8:10 minutes

It is well established that the context in which a memory is laid down effects the circumstances in which the memory is retried. For example, being in a particular place, or experiencing a particular smell or taste may trigger the retrieval of memories specific to the place and smell. The context supplies the cue or key to ’unlocking’ the memory. However, there is comparatively little literature on how emotions trigger memories although there has been research on ‘mood-dependent memory’ (MDM) e.g.

Eric Eich, Dawn Macaulay, and Lee Ryan (1994), Mood Dependent Memory for Events of the Personal Past, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 1994, Vol. 123, No. 2, 201-215

http://www.communicationcache.com/uploads/1/0/8/8/10887248/mood_dependent_memory_for_events_of_the_personal_past.pdf

It seems plausible that emotions act as keys or triggers that prime particular memories, thoughts and intentions. In fact, the research indicates that mood dependent memory is more salient in relation to internal phenomena (e.g. thoughts) than external ones (such as place). Sadness steers my attention to sad things and the intentions I associate with the object(s) of my sadness. Indifference will steer my attention away from whatever I am indifferent about and release attention for something more emotionally charged. Love and hate might equally steer attention to its objects. Injustice will steer attention to ascertaining blame. The task of identifying who or what to blame can be as much an intention as any other.

Priority and Time – The Significance of Now

Intentions formulated and executable in ‘the now’, assume greater priority than those formulated in the past, or those that may only have consequences in the future.

The now is of special significance because that is where attention is focused. Past intentions slip down the list like old messages in an email inbox. You focus on the latest delivery – the now.

The special significance of ‘the now’ is increasingly recognised, not just as a fact of life but as something to become increasingly conscious of and savoured.

‪Youtube Video, The Enjoyment of Being with Eckhart Tolle author of THE POWER OF NOW, New World Library, July 2013, 4:35 minutes

Indeed the whole movement of mindfulness, with its focus on ‘the now’ and conscious experience, has grown up as approach to the management of stress and the development of mental strategies.

‪Youtube Video, The Science of Mindfulness, Professor Mark Williams, OxfordMindfulness, December 2011, 3:34 minutes

Priority and Time in Agenda Management

If I am angry now then my propensity will be high to act on that anger now if I am able to. Tomorrow I will have cooled off and other intentions will have assumed priority. Tomorrow I may not have ready access to the object of my anger. On the other hand, if tomorrow an opportunity arises by chance (without me having created it), then perhaps I will seize it and act on the anger then. As in crime, we are driven by the motive, the means and the opportunity.

Many intentions recur – the intentions to eat, drink, sleep, and seek social interaction all have a cyclical pattern and act to maintain a steady state or a state that falls within certain boundaries (homeostasis). It may be that you need to revive an old intention whether or not it is cyclically recurring. Revival of an intention pushes it back up the list (towards the now) and when some homeostatic system (like hunger and eating) get out of balance a recurring intention is pushed back up the list.

Intentions that impact the near future also take priority over intentions that affect the far future. So, it is easier to make a cup of tea than sit down and write your will (except when death is in the near future). We exponentially discount the future. 1 minute, 1 hour and 1 day, 1 week, 1 month, 1 season and 1 year are equally far apart. What happens in the next minute is as important as what will happen in the next year.

Intentions Interact

However, from the point of view of establishing the principles of a control mechanism that determines our actions at any point there are other complications and considerations. Often our intentions are incompatible or compete with each other. I cannot vent my anger and fulfil an intention not to hurt anybody. I cannot eat and stay thin. I cannot both go to work tomorrow and stay home to look after my sick child. Therefore, some intentions inhibit others leading to a further jiggling of the priorities.

Prioritising what is Easy

A major determinant of what we actually do is what is easiest to do. So actions that are well learned or matters of habit get done without a second thought but intentions that are complicated or difficult to achieve are constantly pushed down the stack, however important they are. Easy actions consume less resource. If they are sufficiently difficult and also sufficiently important we become pre-occupied by thinking about them but are unable to act.

Daniel Kahneman in his book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ sets out much of the experimental evidence that shows how in thought we tend towards the easy options.

Youtube Video, Cognitive ease, confirmation bias, endownment effect – Thinking, Fast and Slow (Part 2), Fight Mediocrity, June 2015, 5:50 minutes

How often do we get up in the morning with the firm resolve to do a particular thing and then become distracted during the day by what seem to be more immediate demands or attractive alternatives? It is as if our intentions are being constantly pushed around by circumstances and our reactions to them and all that gets done are the easy things – where by chance the motive, the means, and the opportunity all fortuitously concur in time.

Staying on task is difficult. It requires a single-minded focus of attention and a resistance to distraction. It is sometimes said that ‘focus’ is what differentiates successful people from others, and while that may be true in the achievement of a particular goal, it is at the expense of paying attention to other competing intentions.

Implications for The Human Operating System

The above account demonstrates how as people we interleave multiple tasks in real time, partly in response to what is going on around us and partly in response to our internal agenda items. We do this with limited resources, depleting and restoring capacities as we go. What differentiates us from computers is the way in which priorities are continuously and globally changing such that attention is re-directed in real time to high priority items (such as threats and the unexpected). Part of this is in response to our ability to retrieve relevant memories cued by the external world and our internal states, reflect on (and inhibit) our own thinking and thinking processes and to run through and evaluate mental simulations of possible futures.

Summary


  • In order to perform effectively we need to manage the demands on us
  • Having too much, or too little, to do and think about can lead to stress in the short term and depression, if it goes on for too long.
  • We have limited resources and capacities which can become depleted but that can also be restored (e.g. with rest)
  • Measuring the amount of load a person is under is not simple as people have different resources, abilities and capacities
  • Whether or not we write it down or say it, we all have an implicit list of intentions
  • We prioritise the items on this list in a variety of ways
  • Circumstances, our emotional reactions and timing are all crucial factors in determining priority
  • We also tend to prioritise things that are easy to do (i.e. do not use up effort, time or other resources)
  • Being able to manage priorities and interleaving our intentions in response to circumstances and opportunity, is a key aspect of the human operating system

This Blog Post: ‘Human Operating System 2 – Managing Demands’ introduces how we deal with the complex web of intentions (our own and those externally imposed) that form part of our complex daily lives

Next Up: ‘Policy Regulates Behaviour’ shows that not all intentions are equal. Some intentions regulate others, in both the individual and society.

Further Information

Youtube Vide, The Distracted Mind, UCI Open, April 2013, 1:12:37 hours

– It’s like this

We are all deluded. And for the most part we don’t know it. We often feel as though we have control over our own decisions and destiny, but how true is it?  It’s a bit like what US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, famously said in February 2002 about the ‘known knowns’, the ‘known unknowns’ and the ‘unknown unknowns’.

Youtube video, Donald Rumsfeld Unknown Unknowns !, Ali, August 2009, 34 seconds


 

The significance for ROBOT ETHICS: If people can only act on the basis of what they know, then it is easy to see the implications for artificial Autonomous Intelligent Agents (A/ISs) like robots, that ‘know’ so much less. They may act with the same confidence as people, who have a bias to thinking that what they know and their interpretation of the world, is the only way to see it. Understanding the ‘goggles’ through which people see the world, how they learn, how they classify, how they form concepts and how they validate and communicate knowledge is fundamental to embedding ethical self-regulation into A/ISs.

 


How can a brain that is deluded even get an inkling that it is?  For the most part, the individual finds it very difficult.  Interestingly, it is often those who are most confident that they are right who are most wrong (and dangerously, who we most trust). The 2002 Nobel Prize winner, Daniel Kahneman has spent a lifetime studying the systematic biases in our thinking.  Here is what he says about confidence:

Youtube video, Daniel Kahneman: The Trouble with Confidence, Big Think, February 2012, 2:56 minutes

The fact is, that when it comes to our own interpretations of the world, there is very little that either you or I can absolutely know as demonstrated by René Descartes in 1637It has long been know that we have deficiencies in our abilities to understand and interpret the world, and indeed, it can be argued that the whole system of education is motivated by the need to help individuals make more informed and more rational decisions (although it can be equally argued that education and training in particular, is a sausage factory in the service of employers whose interests may not align with those of the individual).


 

The significance for ROBOT ETHICS: Whilst people may have some idea that there are things they do not know, this is generally untrue of most computer programs. Young children start to develop ethical ideas (e.g. a sense of fairness) from an early age. Then it takes years of schooling and good parenting to get to the point where, as an adult, the law assumes you have full responsibility for your actions. This highlights the huge gap between an adult human’s understanding of ethics and what A/ISs are likely to understand for the foreseeable future.

 


First Principles

The debate about whether we should act by reason or by our intuitions and emotions is not new. The classic work on this is Kant’s ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ published in 1781. This is a masterpiece of epistemological analysis covering science, mathematics, the psychology of mind and belief based on faith and emotion. Kant distinguishes between truth by definition, truth by inference and truth by faith, setting out the main strands of debate for centuries to come. Here is a short, clear presentation of this work.

Introduction to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (Part 1 of 4), teach philosophy, September 2013, 4:52 minutes


Beliefs

From an individual’s point of view, by a process of cross validation between different sources of evidence (people we trust,  the media and society generally, our own reasoned thinking, sometimes scientific research and our feelings), we are continuously challenged to construct a consistent view about the world and about ourselves. We feel a need to create at least some kind of semi-coherent account. It’s a primary mechanism of reducing anxiety.  It keeps us orientated and safe. We need to account for it personally, and in this sense we are all ‘personal’ scientists, sifting the evidence and coming to our own conclusions.  We also need to account for it as a society, which is why we engage in science and research to build a robust body of knowledge to guide us.

George Kelly, in 1955, set out ‘personal construct theory’ to describe this from the perspective of the individual – see, for example this straight-forward account of constructivism which also, interestingly, proposes how to reconcile it with Christianity – a belief system based on an entirely different premise, methodology and pedigree):

 

But for the most part there are inconsistencies – between what we thought would happen and what actually did happen, between how we felt and how we thought, between how we thought and what we did, between how we thought somebody would react and how they did react, between our theories about the world and the evidence. Some of the time things are pretty well what we expect but almost as frequently, things don’t hang together, they just don’t add up.   This drives us on a continuous search for patterns and consistency.  We need to make sense of it all:

Youtube Video, Cognitive dissonance (Dissonant & Justified), Brad Wray, April 2011,4:31 minutes

 

But it turns out that really, as Kahneman demonstrates, we are not particularly good scientists after all.  Yes, we have to grapple with the problems of interpreting evidence.  Yes, we have to try and understand the world in order to reduce our own anxieties and make it a safer place.  But, no, we do not do this particularly systematically or rationally.  We are lazy and we are also as much artists as we are scientists. In fact, what we are is ‘story tellers’. We make up stories about how the world works – for ourselves and for others.


 

The significance for ROBOT ETHICS: The implications for A/ISs is that they must learn to see the world in a manner that is similar (or at least understandable) to the people around them. Also, they must have mechanisms to deal with ambiguous inputs and uncertain knowledge, because not much is straightforward when it comes to processing at the abstract level of ethics. Dealing with contradictory evidence by denial, forgetting and ignoring, as people often do, may not be the way we would like A/ISs to deal with ethical issues.

 


Stories

Sifting evidence is not the only way that we come to ‘know’. There is another method that, in many ways, is a lot more efficient and used just as often. This is to believe what somebody else says. So instead of having to understand and reconcile all the evidence yourself you can, as it were, delegate the responsibility to somebody you trust. This could be an expert, or a friend, or a God. After all, what does it matter whether what you (or anybody else) believe is true or not, so long as your needs are being met. If somebody (or something) repeatedly comes up with the goods, you learn to trust them and when you trust, you can breathe a sigh of relief – you no longer have to make the effort to evaluate the evidence yourself. The source of information is often just as important as the information itself. Despite the inconsistencies we believe the stories of those we trust, and if others trust us, they believe our stories.

Stories provide the explanations for what has happened and stories help us understand and predict what will happen.  Our anxiety is most relieved by ‘a good story’. And while the story needs to have some resemblance to the evidence, and like in court can be challenged and cross-examined, what seems to matter most is that it is a ‘good’ story.  And to be a ‘good’ story it must be interesting, revealing, surprising and challenging.  Its consistency is just one factor.  In fact, there can be many different stories, or accounts, of precisely the same incident or event – each account from a different perspective; interpreting, weighing and presenting the evidence from a different viewpoint or through a different value system.  The ‘truth’ is not just how well the story accounts for the evidence but is also to do with a correspondence between the interpretive framework of the listener and that of the teller:

YouTube Video, The danger of a single story | Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, TED, October 2009, 19:16 minutes

Both as individuals and as societies, we often deny, gloss over and suppress the inconsistencies.  They can be conveniently forgotten or repressed long enough for something else to demand our attention and pre-occupy us.  But also sometimes, for the sake of a ‘better’ story (often one that better reflects the biases in our own value system), the inconsistencies and the evidence about ourselves and the human condition fight back.  Inconsistencies can re-emerge to create nagging doubts, and over time we start to wonder – is our story really true?


 

The significance for ROBOT ETHICS:Just like people, A/ISs will have to learn who to trust, identify and resolve inconsistencies in belief, and how to construct a variety of accounts of the world and their own decision making processes in order to explain themselves and generally communicate in forms that are understandable to people. Like in human dialogue, these accounts will need to bring out certain facets of it’s own beliefs, and afford certain interpretations, depending on the intent of the A/IS and taking into account a knowledge of the person or people it is in dialogue with. Unlike, in human dialogue, the intent of the A/IS must be to enhance the wellbeing of the people it serves (except when their intent is malicious with respect to other people), and to communicate transparently with this intent in mind.

 


Some Epistemological Assumptions

In these blog postings, I try not to take for granted any particular story about how we are and how we relate to each other? What really lies behind our motivations, decisions and choices?  Is it the story that classical economists tell us about rational people in a world of perfect information?  Is it the story neuroscientists tell us about how the brain works?  Is it the story about the constant struggle between the id and the super-ego told to us by Freud?  Is it the story that the advertising industry tell us about what we need for a more fulfilled life?  Or is it the story that cognitive psychologists tell us about how we process information?  Which account tells the best story?  Can these different accounts be reconciled?

The epistemological view taken in this blog is eclectic, constructivist and pragmatic. As we interact with the world, we each individually experience patterns, receive feedback, make distinctions, learn to reflect, and make and test hypotheses. The distinctions we make, become the default constructs through which we interpret the world and the labels we use to analyse, describe, reason about and communicate. Our beliefs are propositions expressed in terms of these learned distinctions and are validated via a variety of mechanisms, that themselves develop over time and can change in response to circumstances.

We are confronted with a constant stream of contradictions between ‘evidence’ obtained from different sources – from our senses, from other people, our feelings, our reasoning and so on. These surprise us as they conflict with default interpretations. When the contradictions matter, (e.g. when they are glaringly obvious, interfere with our intent, or create dilemmas with respect to some decision), we are motivated to achieve consistency. This we call ‘making sense of the world’, ‘seeking meaning’ or ‘agreeing’ (in the case of establishing consistency with others). We use many different mechanisms for dealing with inconsistencies – including testing hypotheses, reasoning, intuition and emotion, ignoring and denying.

In our own reflections and in interactions with others, we are constantly constructing mini-belief systems (i.e. stories that help orientate, predict and explain to ourselves and others). These mini-belief systems are shaped and modulated by our values (i.e. beliefs about what is good and bad) and are generally constructed as mechanisms for achieving our current intentions and future intentions. These in turn affect how we act on the world.


 

The significance for ROBOT ETHICS:To embed ethical self-regulation in artificial Autonomous, Intelligent Systems (A/ISs) will require an understanding of how people learn, interpret, reflect and act on the world and may require a similar decision-making architecture. This is partly for the A/IS’s own ‘operating system’ but also so that it can model how the people around them operate so that it can engage with them ethically and effectively.

 


This Blog Post: ‘It’s Like This’ sets the epistemological framework for what follows in later posts. It’s the underlying assumptions about how we know, justify and explain what we know – both as individuals and in society.