Emotions as a solution to the problem of mechanism coordination

There is a tendency to see emotion in opposition to cognition, as the molasses that gums up the gearwheels of thought. A related approach identifies emotion with a phenomenological feeling state (one that often interferes with “cold cognition”–so-called rational thought processes).

It is true that many emotions have characteristics feeling states, but research does not have to start with phenomenology (which has been a difficult topic to pursue in psychology). Indeed, the study of vision leapt forward when scientists tabled the study of visual phenomenology, and pursued the study of the computations that cause visual experiences.

There should be a computational description associated with anything the brain does, including its emotion states. It seemed to us that the same research strategy that worked for vision could work for emotions. We have written about this in the following two papers:

Cosmides, L. & Tooby, J. (2000). Evolutionary psychology and the emotions. In M. Lewis & J. M. Haviland-Jones (Eds.), Handbook of Emotions, 2nd Edition. (pp. 91-115.) NY: Guilford. PDF MS (MS is the manuscript; it is easier to read but lacks the page numbers of the final version in the pdf file)

Tooby, J. & Cosmides, L. (1990). The past explains the present: Emotional adaptations and the structure of ancestral environmentsEthology and Sociobiology, 11, 375-424. PDF (This paper also discusses why measuring reproductive success in modern environments does not test evolutionary hypotheses, and why there is no guarantee that people’s behavior will be fitness-maximizing in the present.)

Emotions as a solution to the problem of mechanism coordination

An evolutionary psychological perspective leads one to view the mind as a crowded zoo of evolved, domain-specific programs. Each is functionally specialized for solving a different adaptive problem that arose during hominid evolutionary history, such as face recognition, foraging, mate choice, heart rate regulation, sleep management, or predator vigilance, and each is activated by a different set of cues from the environment.

But the existence of all these microprograms itself creates an adaptive problem: Programs that are individually designed to solve specific adaptive problems could, if simultaneously activated, deliver outputs that conflict with one another, interfering with or nullifying each other’s functional products.

For example, sleep and flight from a predator require mutually inconsistent actions, computations, and physiological states. It is difficult to sleep when your heart and mind are racing with fear, and this is no accident: disastrous consequences would ensue if proprioceptive cues were activating sleep programs at the same time that the sight of a stalking lion was activating ones designed for predator evasion.

To avoid such consequences, the mind must be equipped with superordinate programs that override some programs when others are activated (e.g., a program that deactivates sleep programs when predator evasion subroutines are activated).

Furthermore, many adaptive problems are best solved by the simultaneous activation of many different components of the cognitive architecture, such that each component assumes one of several alternative states (e.g., predator avoidance may require simultaneous shifts in both heart rate and auditory acuity). Again, a superordinate program is needed that coordinates these components, snapping each into the right configuration at the right time.

We have proposed that emotions are such programs (Cosmides & Tooby, 2000b; Tooby & Cosmides, 1990b; Tooby, 1985). To behave functionally according to evolutionary standards, the mind’s many subprograms need to be orchestrated so that their joint product at any given time is functionally coordinated, rather than cacophonous and self-defeating. This coordination is accomplished by a set of superordinate programs: the emotions.

On this view, emotions are adaptations that have arisen in response to the adaptive problem of mechanism orchestration. This implies that the exploration of the statistical structure of ancestral situations and their relationship to the mind’s battery of functionally specialized programs is central to mapping the emotions. This is because the most useful (or least harmful) deployment of programs at any given time will depend critically on the exact nature of the confronting situation.

Ancestrally recurrent situations

How did emotions arise and assume their distinctive structures? Fighting, falling in love, escaping predators, confronting sexual infidelity, experiencing a failure-driven loss in status, responding to the death of a family member (and so on) each involved conditions, contingencies, situations, or event-types that recurred innumerable times in hominid evolutionary history.

Repeated encounters with each kind of situation selected for adaptations that guided information-processing, behavior and the body adaptively through the clusters of conditions, demands, and contingencies that characterized that particular class of situation. This could be accomplished by engineering superordinate programs, each of which jointly mobilizes other programs, in a configuration that is well-engineered for solving the adaptive problems that arose in those situations.

According to this theoretical framework, an emotion is a superordinate program whose function is to direct the activities and interactions of many subprograms. This includes computational systems governing perception, attention, inference, learning, memory, goal choice, motivational priorities, categorization and conceptual frameworks, physiological reactions (such as heart rate, endocrine function, immune function, gamete release), reflexes, behavioral decision rules, motor systems, communication processes, energy level and effort allocation, affective coloration of events and stimuli, and the recalibration of probability estimates, situation assessments, values, and regulatory variables (e.g., self-esteem, estimations of relative formidability, relative value of alternative goal states, efficacy discount rate).

Each emotion would be selected to deploy computational and physiological mechanisms in a way that, when averaged over individuals and generations, would have led to the most fitness-promoting subsequent lifetime outcome given that ancestral situation-type.

This coordinated adjustment and entrainment of mechanisms is a mode of operation for the entire psychological architecture, and serves as the basis for a precise computational and functional definition of each emotion state. Each emotion entrains various other adaptive programs—deactivating some, activating others, and adjusting the modifiable parameters of still others—so that the whole system operates in a particularly harmonious and efficacious way when the individual is confronting certain kinds of triggering conditions or situations.

The conditions or situations that selected for emotions are those that

(1) recurred ancestrally;

(2) could not be negotiated successfully unless there was a superordinate level of program coordination (i.e., circumstances in which the independent operation of programs caused no conflicts would not have selected for an emotion program, and would lead to emotionally neutral states of mind);

(3) had a rich and reliable repeated structure;

(4) had recognizable cues signaling their presence; and

(5) in which an error would have resulted in large fitness costs.

When a condition or situation of an evolutionarily recognizable kind is detected, a signal is sent out from the emotion program that activates the specific constellation of subprograms appropriate to solving the type of adaptive problems that were regularly embedded in that situation, and deactivates programs whose operation might interfere with solving those types of adaptive problem. Programs directed to remain active may be cued to enter subroutines that are specific to that emotion mode, and that were tailored by natural selection to solve the problems inherent in the triggering situation with special efficiency.

An emotion is not reducible to any one category of effects, such as effects on physiology, feeling states, facial expressions, cognitive appraisals, or behavioral inclinations, because it involves evolved instructions for all of them together, as well as other mechanisms distributed throughout the human mental and physical architecture.

Computations, not homunculi

All cognitive programs – including superordinate programs of this kind – are sometimes mistaken for “homunculi”, that is, entities endowed with “free will”. A homunculus scans the environment and freely chooses successful actions in a way that is not systematic enough to be implemented by a program. It is the task of cognitive psychologists to replace theories that implicitly posit such an impossible entity with theories that can be implemented as fixed programs with open parameters.

Emotion programs, for example, have a front end that is designed to detect evolutionarily reliable cues that a situation exists (whether or not these cues reliably signal the presence of that situation in the modern world); when triggered, they entrain a specific set of subprograms: those that natural selection “chose” as most useful for solving the problems that situation posed in ancestral environments. Just as a computer can have a hierarchy of programs, some of which control the activation of others, the human mind can as well. Far from being internal free agents, these programs have an unchanging structure regardless of the needs of the individual or her circumstances, because they were designed to create states that worked well in ancestral situations, regardless of their consequences in the present.