Category: Philosophy

The carrot and the stick: behaviours based on negative and positive emotions

The carrot and the stick: behaviours based on negative and positive emotions

A lot of our human behaviour is motivated by negative emotions, or “sticks”, such as guilt, fear, shame, or entitlement.
These behaviours wouldn’t exist if they weren’t “useful” (in an evolutionary psychology sense), just like many other heuristics (or “biases” in the negative sense).
However, just because things may be useful (instrumental in achieving specific goals) it doesn’t meant that they’re necessarily optimal for human flourishing.
If you’ve trained an animal in recent years you’ll probably have noticed that many animal behaviorist focus on carrots more than sticks.
Instead of removing these emotions entirely I’ve tried to “hack” some of them to use them as tools. One example is my Beeminder goals which I use my fear of losing money and shame of failure to force my future self to do things that it won’t necessarily feel like doing in the moment but will like having had done later (such as writing this as part of my 50 words a day commitment).
I wonder if it’s possible to optimize for the flourishing of sentient beings without using negative emotions as one of the tools?
I hope so. It’s worth trying to use them less at least.
Thanks to Malcolm Ocean for sparking this line of thought in our conversation the other day. Also, go read his blog.
What's that embedded in my toast?

What's that embedded in my toast?

I’m so lucky.

In fact, it could all be summed up in this very moment. Let me describe it for you… in detail.

Right now I’m eating two slices of toast.

One has homemade marmalade spread thick on it.

This marmalade was given to me this morning by my loving grandmother who is lucky enough to have learned her skills in the kitchen, have the appliances and electricity to make tasty foods, and lucky enough to have close friends and family to make things for, knowing that it will be appreciated.

I was lucky enough to visit my grandparents this morning because I’m lucky enough to have Sundays off, I am lucky enough to own a bike (that’s older than I am!), fit and healthy enough to ride said bike, live in a place with quality roads that I can ride it on and where it’s generally very safe to ride.

I was able to visit my grandparents because I’m lucky enough to still have them around in good health, I was able to have a wonderfully interesting conversation with them because they’re both still sharp and spent their lives caring enough to think deeply about the world so that their thoughts and ideas are still captivating.

The other slice is spread thick with homemade peanut butter.

The peanuts were only four dollars at Coles and my beautiful wife was lucky enough to pick up a second-hand NutriBullet cheap from someone who was lucky enough that they could afford to buy it fully price. We could pay for both because we’re lucky gainfully employed in jobs that we enjoy.

I was lucky enough to be able to make the peanut butter in less than a minute because of the energy, engineering, science, economics, investment and physical labour that was all embedded into the process of getting me peanuts, a blender and electricity. I was lucky enough to get this all at such a low cost of my time, money and effort.

Oh, and to add icing to the cake a beautiful day.

I could go on to talk about the $3 sourdough bread, the toaster, the roof over my head and all of the luck right back to my lucky draw in the ovarian lottery but I’ll stop with one final point.

It is undeniable that there are a lot of things in the world that could be better and that fact gives me a healthy dissatisfaction and a desire to share my luck in life. However, in this very moment I’m acutely aware of how lucky I am and hope that I am lucky enough to remain mindful of that fact in as many of the moments left during my short time on earth.

So what is embedded in my toast? A whole lot of luck.