Affective Death Spirals

Many, many, many are the flaws in hu­man rea­son­ing which lead us to over­es­ti­mate how well our be­loved the­ory ex­plains the facts. The phlo­gis­ton the­ory of chem­istry could ex­plain just about any­thing, so long as it didn’t have to pre­dict it in ad­vance. And the more phe­nom­ena you use your fa­vored the­ory to ex­plain, the truer your fa­vored the­ory seems—has it not been con­firmed by these many ob­ser­va­tions? As the the­ory seems truer, you will be more likely to ques­tion ev­i­dence that con­flicts with it. As the fa­vored the­ory seems more gen­eral, you will seek to use it in more ex­pla­na­tions.

If you know any­one who be­lieves that Belgium se­cretly con­trols the US bank­ing sys­tem, or that they can use an in­visi­ble blue spirit force to de­tect available park­ing spaces, that’s prob­a­bly how they got started.

(Just keep an eye out, and you’ll ob­serve much that seems to con­firm this the­ory . . .)

This pos­i­tive feed­back cy­cle of cre­dulity and con­fir­ma­tion is in­deed fear­some, and re­spon­si­ble for much er­ror, both in sci­ence and in ev­ery­day life.

But it’s noth­ing com­pared to the death spiral that be­gins with a charge of pos­i­tive af­fect—a thought that feels re­ally good.

A new poli­ti­cal sys­tem that can save the world. A great leader, strong and no­ble and wise. An amaz­ing tonic that can cure up­set stom­achs and can­cer.

Heck, why not go for all three? A great cause needs a great leader. A great leader should be able to brew up a mag­i­cal tonic or two.

The halo effect is that any per­ceived pos­i­tive char­ac­ter­is­tic (such as at­trac­tive­ness or strength) in­creases per­cep­tion of any other pos­i­tive char­ac­ter­is­tic (such as in­tel­li­gence or courage). Even when it makes no sense, or less than no sense.

Pos­i­tive char­ac­ter­is­tics en­hance per­cep­tion of ev­ery other pos­i­tive char­ac­ter­is­tic? That sounds a lot like how a fis­sion­ing ura­nium atom sends out neu­trons that fis­sion other ura­nium atoms.

Weak pos­i­tive af­fect is sub­crit­i­cal; it doesn’t spiral out of con­trol. An at­trac­tive per­son seems more hon­est, which, per­haps, makes them seem more at­trac­tive; but the effec­tive neu­tron mul­ti­pli­ca­tion fac­tor is less than one. Me­taphor­i­cally speak­ing. The res­o­nance con­fuses things a lit­tle, but then dies out.

With in­tense pos­i­tive af­fect at­tached to the Great Thingy, the res­o­nance touches ev­ery­where. A be­liev­ing Com­mu­nist sees the wis­dom of Marx in ev­ery ham­burger bought at McDon­ald’s; in ev­ery pro­mo­tion they’re de­nied that would have gone to them in a true worker’s par­adise; in ev­ery elec­tion that doesn’t go to their taste; in ev­ery news­pa­per ar­ti­cle “slanted in the wrong di­rec­tion.” Every time they use the Great Idea to in­ter­pret an­other event, the Great Idea is con­firmed all the more. It feels bet­ter—pos­i­tive re­in­force­ment—and of course, when some­thing feels good, that, alas, makes us want to be­lieve it all the more.

When the Great Thingy feels good enough to make you seek out new op­por­tu­ni­ties to feel even bet­ter about the Great Thingy, ap­ply­ing it to in­ter­pret new events ev­ery day, the res­o­nance of pos­i­tive af­fect is like a cham­ber full of mouse­traps loaded with ping-pong balls.

You could call it a “happy at­trac­tor,” “overly pos­i­tive feed­back,” a “praise locked loop,” or “fun­pa­per.” Per­son­ally I pre­fer the term “af­fec­tive death spiral.”

Com­ing up next: How to re­sist an af­fec­tive death spiral.1

1Hint: It’s not by re­fus­ing to ever ad­mire any­thing again, nor by keep­ing the things you ad­mire in safe lit­tle re­stricted mag­is­te­ria.