Thursday, May 7, 2009

#71 - "Born to Be Good" by Dacher Keltner

I have always been fascinated by people, their personalities, and what makes them act the way they do. For a brief moment, I even contemplated majoring in Psychology in college, but in Intro to Psych (my first and only foray into academic psychology), I learned about all those cruel, early psychological experiments where researchers messed with people, shocked dogs, and slowly drowned rats. Sure, those experiments aren’t “ethical” anymore, but I couldn’t handle the clinical attitude that seemed to glory in dissecting and experimenting with people’s fucked-up lives.

Yet I haven’t lost my interest in people and what makes them tick. So, I was immediately curious when I happened to see Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life (2009) by Dacher Keltner on display at the bookstore. According to the blurb on the back cover: “Born to Be Good presents a masterful account of how positive emotions—including love, compassion, and awe—lie at the core of human nature and shape our everyday behavior.” And as a repeat sucker for misleading book blurbs, I immediately put it on hold at the library (I guess I’m just not sucker enough to buy the book).


To be fair, the above blurb was not exactly misleading. Keltner, a Psychology professor at Berkeley, examines seven different emotions (or actions), including: embarrassment, the smile, laughter, teasing, touching, love, compassion, and awe. He observes where these emotions and actions come from in our evolutionary history as well as how they positively affect our relationships and lives today. And with the constant streams of ├╝ber-negative and scare-tactic media today, I was happy to see something that focused on the positive. Keltner begins his book with a discussion of the Confucian concept of jen, a “complex mixture of kindness, humanity, and respect that transpires between people.” If you look at life as a jen ratio, positive relations between people such as a smile or hug, etc. would go in the numerator while negative relations like a bout of road rage would count in the denominator. Keltner argues that we need a higher jen ratio: more positive experiences and fewer negative ones.


I like behavior and psychology. I liked that Keltner was focusing on the positive, and I probably would like Keltner as a person, but I was disappointed in this book. Although I dread contributing to a more negative jen ratio here, I didn't learn much from reading this book, and I often found it boring and annoying. One of the main problems I had was that it seemed to lack focus and it felt sloppy. Keltner jumped around from philosophy (Confucius) to some behavioral studies, to quoting literature—none of which I found convincing or enlightening.


I would also have appreciated some better definitions. Keltner says that he’s discussing emotion, but smile, laughter, tease, and touch are not emotions. And then his definition of awe—when it finally came—was so uninformative I would have given up on the book right then if I hadn’t already been in the last chapter. “Prototypical experiences of awe involve perceived vastness, anything that is experienced as being much larger than the self or the self’s typical frame of reference.” I was okay with that part, but then… “[v]astness becomes awe-inspiring when it requires accommodation—the process by which we update and change our core beliefs.” No examples or further discussion! And then there was some talk about how awe often connotes dread and respectful fear, which made me wonder whether it was a positive emotion at all. Keltner also mentioned pride a number of times as a positive emotion, but again with no definition and no discussion of what I would consider some negative aspects of pride—I mean, isn’t pride a deadly sin?


Even when Keltner was focused on the topics I considered to be more interesting—how these emotions affect our lives and relationships—I was disappointed. Besides a number of interesting anecdotes and studies, what I took away from this book was: smiling and laughing make people happy. Happy people naturally smile and laugh more. I didn’t need to read a book to know that. And despite his optimistic subject, it was kind of depressing; Keltner seems to say that happiness is innate, dependent mainly upon personality and chemistry. So, if I’m unhappy now, I guess I’ve got a lot to look forward to in the future.


Random complaint: The chapter on teasing states, “[c]himpanzees dangle their tails, tickling noses and eyes, to provoke response in slumbering or distracted chimps nearby.” Chimpanzees don’t have tails!


Keltner’s lack of explanations, definitions, and discussion about his subject consistently turned me off. For instance, Keltner used the many pickup basketball games he’s attended without seeing a fight to “prove” that the “violent physicality of basketball is transformed by touch…[t]he language of touch in the pickup game neutralizes the aggressive intent of these actions.” First, I know someone who got in a fight and was almost kicked out of the gym because of it. Not to mention that every competitive soccer team I’ve heard of usually ends their games with fights of some kind, and there’s just as much touching in soccer as basketball. Marriage partners touch each other all the time and still manage to fight; it doesn’t even make sense that touching someone makes it less likely that you’ll fight them. I would suggest that there isn’t much fighting in pickup basketball mainly because of the general social stigma against fighting; but then the teams are also usually pretty random—leading to less team pride; and the games usually don’t mean much of anything—people aren’t pushing themselves to the limit to win.


There were numerous instances like the one above where I thought Keltner failed to look at and analyze the whole picture. I had some big problems with his compassion experiments, but I’ve already complained enough. I felt as though Keltner has a view of the world and he then tried to shoehorn everything he knew and liked to fit in with his theory, whether it was psychological experiments, personal experience, favorite literature, or his own personal philosophy of life, but it felt disjointed and strained.

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