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Review of "Strong Feelings"

By Jon Elster
MIT Press, 2000
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Nov 10th 2001
Strong FeelingsIn this book, Elster gives an account of emotions, addiction, and human choice. He is known for his admirably clear work on the social sciences and the dynamics behind people's irrational behavior. Strong Feelings is based on a series of lectures, and so has a directness and simplicity that much literature in this field lacks.

It's high time that a thinker of the caliber of Elster applied himself to the issue of addiction. There is a vast amount of empirical work on addiction in psychology, sociology, and even neuroscience. But there has been little good work on how to make sense of all the data and what it means for our understanding of addicts. Elster has in recent years edited several books on addiction, as well as written this one and another on emotions; Addiction, Getting Hooked, Alchemies of the Mind.

Much of this work is synthesizing and summarizing. He does not engage in the often fruitless philosophical enterprise of finding precise definitions of emotions. Rather, he looks for useful generalizations. He is a scientist at heart, but he realizes that science cannot tell us everything about the human mind, and so he is ready to get information and ideas where he can, including anecdote, introspection, and novels. He is not uncritical of scientific theories either; while he sees the importance of animal studies, he does not pretend that they can be simplistically extended to understand humans; nor does he think that the speculations of evolutionary psychology about the purpose of various emotions are convincing.

His own classification of emotions is quick and dirty. For example, he defined shame as "a negative emotion triggered by a belief about one's own character," and guilt as "a negative emotion triggered by a belief about one's own action." (21). The difference between shame and guilt here does not correspond with dictionary definitions or ordinary usage, and it's very unclear how they either would compare with embarrassment. Similarly, he defines sympathy as "a positive emotion caused by the deserved good of someone else," and pity as "a negative emotion caused by the undeserved misfortune of someone else" (22). Again, these definitions are only loosely connected with ordinary usage. But little hangs on these definitions: the names are just placeholders for whatever emotional state has the causal role specified in Elster's definitions. Nothing Elster says rules out the possibility of far more sophisticated definitions for emotions such as shame that might do far better at capturing ordinary usage.

Elster discusses some of the characteristics that are purportedly essential for emotions, such as

  • qualitative feel
  • sudden onset
  • unbiddgen occurence
  • brief duration
  • triggered by a cognitive state
and so on. He finds some of these have are somewhat important criteria, while others are not. His method is somewhat Aristotelian: to discuss methodically what others have said on the subject, to assess what they have said, and then to come to his own views.

Elster provides a parallel discussion for addiction. He leaves it an open question whether addiction is essentially a physiological phenomenon, or whether it can be largely or solely psychological, and thus leaves it open whether addiction must always be to a substance or whether it can be to an activity or an emotion. Nevertheless, he makes addiction to substances his primary focus. He discusses the phenomenological features and the causal features of addiction, with a commanding understanding of the scientific research, which is especially important for the causal side. He distinguishes primary effects of drugs of abuse on the body, the feedback effects, the feedforward effects, and sensitization.

Moving on, Elster devotes a chapter to examining the relation between culture, emotions, and addiction. Again, he is summarizing a great deal of information in a short space. In this chapter, as in the previous ones, there is not much to take issue with, since his aim is to present the existing data in a balanced, integrated, and simple way. He acknowledges a diversity of views within the social sciences and gently shows their strengths and weaknesses.

It is in chapter five, where he comes to the issue of personal choice and its role in addictive behavior, that he starts to face difficult philosophical issues. It's here that Elster's approach of making stipulative definitions and broad generalizations may run into trouble, because this does not fit well with the necessary hair-splitting of philosophy. Thankfully, Elster shows a sensitivity to the philosophical issues that leaves open the possibility that his argument may be compelling. He opens saying that addiction often involves actions made with rational or minimal choice, but there may be some cases of actions without choice.

Choice implies sensitivity to expected rewards and punishments (135). Elster says that some actions may be performed with no choice, but nevertheless such actions would still normally be voluntary -- "a deliberate bodily movement for the purpose of obtaining some goal" (136). He contrasts this with a piece of reflex behavior or a mere event. This signals a potential worry, because it sounds self-contradictory to say that a voluntary action can be made without choice.

Here Elster discusses an article by Gary Watson, ("Disordered Appetites" in Addiction) in which Watson argues that the concept of action without choice makes no real sense. Watson compares the compulsion of one person by another to the compulsion in addiction. Neither is an irresistible desire like being pushed by a boulder. In addiction, practical reason is corrupted, or seduced, rather than overpowered.

Elster suggests that we can still make sense of the concept of an irresistible desire. His suggestion is that addicts may become so preoccupied by their addiction that they are unable to pay attention to alternative actions and long-term consequences. The craving makes some options and consequences "disappear from the cognitive horizon of the agent." (138). Elster says that even though this account is coherent, it is not clear if it is instantiated.

Another account of what is going in addiction is in terms of "a temporarily enhanced rate of time discounting." Here the agent remains aware of the available options, but is less sensitive to temporarily distant rewards. Again, he thinks this could be part of the explanation, but it is unclear whether it could provide a complete explanation of addiction. Elster speculates that the issue could possibly be resolved by neurophysiological evidence, "which will not be forthcoming soon." (139). As a result of the difficulty of knowing, he proposes "that we characterize behavior as reward-insensitive if current experimental techniques cannot show the contrary." (140).

Elster's treatment of addiction raises important issues. First, his suggestion that we can give an account of irresistible desires in terms of a narrowing of the cognitive horizon seems very odd. To suggest that one can explain addiction at least partly in terms of a narrowed cognitive horizon is itself quite plausible, but that is very different from the the standard understanding of explaining the addict's actions as a result of powerful cravings. Elster's proposal does not rescue irresistible desires, but rather replaces it with something different.

Second, given the difficulty of working out which mechanisms of addiction are operating, it is puzzling why we should assume in the absence of experimental evidence that they are ones that make our choices reward-insensitive, rather than simply admit our ignorance. So, while Elster has given an interesting discussion of how we could act without choice, it is not completely satisfying.

He moves on to the case of minimal and rational choice, which are reward sensitive. Elster argues that rationality is subjective in a rather weak sense, that which option is the rational choice depends on the available to the agent: Elster insists that "people make the most out of what they have, including their beliefs and their preferences." (145). This makes room for the idea that addict's addictive behavior can be rational. So, for example, if an addict's preference is to discount future consequences of her actions, then her action is in accord with her preference. Their preference may not be our preference, but it does not follow that it is irrational, according to Elster. But if an agent who previously did admit the importance of future consequences of her actions changes her policy under the influence of some craving, Elster argues that this would be irrational.

Elster moves on to the relation between emotions and choice, and is firm in his contention that emotions generally come unbidden. Nevertheless, it is possible to control one's emotions in some ways, such as placing oneself in contexts where one can avoid or provoke emotions, or by recalling certain evocative events.

Emotions also affect one's choices. They can possibly trigger instinctual behavior (maybe fear is an example), action without choice (fear again, and possibly anger), or reduced rationality, by distorting one's understanding of a situation. Emotions can leave practical reasoning unhindered, and they might even help in some circumstances, although Elster is skeptical about this last idea.

Elster's section on addiction and choice goes through some of the issues quickly. He cites the evidence that shows that addicts can often control their behavior, given incentives, and alcoholism, for instance, decreases when the price of alcohol increases. This makes the idea that addictive behavior is caused by irresistible desires seem implausible.

It is clear that addictive cravings can reduce people's rationality; what is less clear is how rationality is affected. Elster sets out the idea of hyperbolic discounting of future rewards, favored by George Ainslie as an explanation of addiction. The basic idea is that distant rewards, although greater, get less weight in people's assessment than immediate rewards, and so addicts will choose pleasure now over the benefits of abstaining that they would experience later. Another important effect is cue-dependence, where a person is likely to value a reward that he can experience over one that is presented more abstractly. Both of these lead to preference reversal in agents.

Elster distinguishes between different varieties of weakness of will, using the work of Davidson, Aristotle, and David Pears. He also refers to the "cold" and "hot" mistakes in belief-formation identified by social psychologists, and summarized in books such s R. Dawes' Rational Choice in an Uncertain World and J. Baron's Thinking and Deciding. Different kinds of addicts and irrational agents display different kinds of distortions in their practical reasoning.

There are also issues of how to explain why people become addicts in the first place and how they manage to quit or cut back. Again, Elster sets out different models, and discusses their strengths and weaknesses. All of this summarizes well-known material and does not address more theoretical or philosophical debate. Notably, he disagrees with the work of Becker & Murphy, and Becker's later book, Accounting for Tastes, where it is argued that addiction is rational. Elster agrees that some addiction can be explained as a result of human practical reasoning, but, contra Becker, he emphasizes the distortions that occur in that reasoning.

The final short chapter does a fair amount of summarizing of the previous ones. He does point out that the philosophical issue of the possibility or irresistible desires makes little practical difference -- presumably because we have no way to test when a desire is irresistible; what is clear that "emotions and cravings can induce an agent to disregard alternatives and consequences much more than he would under other circumstances." (198-9).

He is skeptical of an argument by LeDoux in The Emotional Brain that the shrinking of the cognitive horizon purported to explain addiction may be an evolutionary adaptation to help us respond to danger. Indeed, it is a strength of Elster's approach that while he is not in principle opposed to evolutionary psychology, he views its wild speculation with a great deal of caution.

In all, Strong Feelings is an important book for philosophers because it is likely to bring more philosophers into the debate about how best to explain addictive behavior. But Elster's discussion of irresistible desires is disappointingly short, and he says nothing about the moral issue of the responsibility of addicts for their actions. Most of what Elster writes about emotion does not directly intersect with the philosophical discussion of the nature of emotion. Elster is clear that cognitive states have strong causal influences on emotions, but he does not discuss whether emotions are in themselves at least partly cognitive states. So philosophers will have to use the book as a starting point and a guide to the empirical literature.

© 2001 Christian Perring. First Serial Rights.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry. He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can play a greater role in public life. He is available to give talks on many philosophical or controversial issues in mental health.