Humans regulate their behavior instinctively via a number of autonomic processes, hormones, and the like, all of which evolved to crave worth in the eyes of others.


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Join the conversation! There are now 13 comments on this chapter's page 56. Natural Regulation: Worth, Social Hormones, Conscience. What are your thoughts?
  1. Saying that people want worth gives you the same problems as claiming that people act to maximize utility: What exactly is “worth”? How do you measure it? Does worth have any significance besides being the thing that people maximize? You aren’t giving the “blood” theory enough credit. There is evidence that both humans and animals follow Hamilton’s rule. | NIH link | Silverchair link |

    So I think that what is really driving the desire for worth, money, and everything else is the desire to maximize our inclusive fitness.

    • You are absolutely right that I am not giving kin selection as much credit as others do. Because in humans our bonding is less about recognizing biological kin by their scent and pheromones etc., and more about learning by experience who is on our side. And because we are not stuck with biological kin recognition, we will see that what COUNTS as “our side” is going to change as society grows larger and more complex. As will the ways in which we learn who is on our side. That will be an important topic in the coming pages, so I won’t spoil it by saying more now.

      As for worth, I am not talking about self-worth or “me” utility. I am talking about worth in the eyes of others — being valued by others as someone worthy of their cooperation, trust, loyalty, love… worthy of their support as “one of us.” HOW people decide you’re worthy has already been suggested in the preceding pages, but will be the explicit subject of the next page. So I hope I do a good job of it!

      As for how one measures worth, it’s emotional and thus not readily quantifiable. How do you measure how much you are loved? Nevertheless, your brain is keenly attuned to the social signals that indicate whether or not the people around you accept you. And we’ve evolved some sophisticated processing circuitry to interpret that data, make sense of it, and respond appropriately, very little of which is conscious.

      Self-awareness of whether you’re meeting social expectations seems to be localized in the pregenual anterior cingulate cortex (pACC). It’s kind of like pre-emptively feeling about yourself the way your brain imagines others would feel about you. A form of empathy, simulating how others must feel, tweaked to a recursive meta level with your own thoughts and deeds as the reference. The Worth-O-Meter involves the pACC and other places in the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC). The MPFC is heavily involved in simulation and daydreaming and planning, and it imagines how others would morally judge you. When you perceive socially significant inputs, your MPFC makes the judgment call, and alerts the relevant brain regions that need to act on it. If positive rewards are in order, for example, it notifies the striatum. If negative restraints, then the insula. Interestingly (and I don’t think I mentioned this), your Worth-O-Meter processes respond much more strongly when you think others can see you. And they respond MOST strongly when the people who can see you aren’t strangers or mere acquaintances, but are people whose opinion matters to you. These processes develop throughout childhood, with a major burst in adolescence, when your sensitivity to social status goes from rudimentary to rocket fuel practically overnight. Remember being mortified and hyper-self-aware in your early teens? That was your brain suddenly turning your Worth-O-Meter into overdrive. It makes sense that it would happen then—just as with getting more adventurous, you couldn’t hide behind mommy’s skirts any more but had to go out and function as an autonomous adult.

      Self-regulation, subverting personal utility and self-serving urges that conflict with pro-social behavior, also involves the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC). Especially the right-DLPFC. That wad of neurons plays a big part in moral decisionmaking, choosing between options, navigating through complex social situations, and inferring the intentions of others. It also plays a role in your working-memory buffer. (Thanks, DLFPC!) In a normally-socialized brain, the DLFPC weights its decisions with a preference for inter-personal fairness over personal gain or utility. Which is hardly surprising in such a social animal. It’s the bit that stays your hand and says DON’T take the largest piece of cake, DON’T lie cheat or steal, DON’T take advantage of others. It would be inappropriate, it would be wrong—it may not even let your conscious thoughts see the inappropriate choice as an option.

      If your unconscious processes are good at subverting your private wants, we say you have good impulse control. As if your conscious mind has any say in the matter. It means you are well-socialized, civilized, and worthy of our acceptance. If you have bad impulse control, there’s something wrong with you. You’re antisocial, uncivilized, even criminal, and likely to be excluded.

      You have a very cool circuit between your superior colliculus, pulvinar, and superior temporal sulcus (SC-Pul-STS) that reads people’s facial expressions and interprets their social meaning. These expressions are themselves almost entirely autonomic, and controlled by social processing circuits without any conscious input whatsoever (you ever try to blush on purpose?). We have an astonishing range of emotional responses displaying very subtle and precise reactions, far more than other social mammals, and we’ve got the processing power to interpret them at once. The SC-Pul-STS is also very good at telling when someone’s faking an expression. It pays special attention to facial expressions that indicate approval or disapproval, whether what you are doing is acceptable or worthy. Your pACC also gets involved in detecting and signaling internal emotional states, especially those important for social bonding, like laughter and crying, embarrassment, etc. Your anterior insula both feels and registers disgust, your amygdala both feels and senses fear… Social regulation is a whole-brain job!

      This isn’t the place to go into great detail, but it’s a really cool subject, and still very much an area of active research. I mean, I wrote my outline for this section more than a year ago, and just between then and now new studies have continued to be published that have made me go back and tweak things (even though most of it will never get used in the comic). I started studying up on neuroscience back in 2008, when fMRI was being touted as a lie detector in criminal cases, and in just the eleven years since then, researchers in the field have made astonishing discoveries. Neuroscience is continuously challenging the more philosophical aspects of psychology, anthropology, economics, sociology, and the law. My profession even has a specialty called “neurolaw.” And… I forget where I was going with this. I’m rambling again, aren’t I. I’d better get back to work.

      • What would you say is probably different about or within the brain of someone who experiences no or extremely little emotional pain when rejected by others in any way, including from being dumped, but does care about behaving ethically (by his own standards), and finds fulfillment in helping others?

        • Neurolaw is a growing field, believe it or not. Anthropology is something you should have gotten in undergrad before going to law school (along with History, Economics, Philosophy…)

          • The question I’m asked, I’m actually interested in it. (I see how the original question may not have seemed serious.) What might cause an unusually high capacity for tolerating social rejection? Could it just be a high pain tolerance, or something unusual about serotonin receptors or levels, or something else?

            • As is much of the stuff that’s being presented in this comic, the answer to your question is an area of current research. Here’s something to get you started: [Link]

  2. What does it mean to be “on our side”? If it means having a tendency to give us the hormones that make us happy or increase our inclusive fitness, then we are back to the utility maximization and kin-selection theories. If worth in the eyes of others is what we really want, and worth in the eyes of others involves suppressing or subverting our private wants, then are those private wants not what we really want? If so, what are they? I agree with you that we have a desire to be seen favorably by people we care about, and that that involves suppressing or denying certain other desires. I just think that the desire to be seen favorably and the desires that conflict with it are both rooted in inclusive fitness.

  3. mike stone says

    Your argument is compelling, but I’ll be interested in seeing how you reconcile self-regulation with the inherently hard problems of cliques (small mutually self-reinforcing social groups that optimize their behavior to the benefit of themselves at the expense of others), competing interests (two individuals or cliques want the same thing that can’t be shared), and information lag (I thought my action was helpful or neutral, but learned later that it did harm).

    I can’t find a citation at the moment, but remember a study that showed two normal people, each abdicating moral responsibility for their actions to another, could function as a single sociopath.

    Specifically, one person had control of a button that administered electric shock to a test subject. Another person had the authority to say when the first one should push the button. The button-pushers fell into a “just doing what I was told” mindset, assigning responsibility for the shocks to the decision-makers. The decision-makers fell into a “my hands are clean” mindset, and assigned responsibility for the shocks to the button-pushers.

  4. Kereth Midknight says

    Wander away and forget to check in this comic for half a year or more, right in the middle of a bunch of uptight delegates discussion constitutional law, then I come back to a page of topless ladies, illegal drugs, firey hormone icons dropping f-bombs and pictures of people having sex. Had to double check I was in the right place. . .

  5. B.J. says

    I do wonder, however, how far the whole thing holds together after the Bronze Age and the development of agriculture, when human organization changes to favor large, strong males who specialize in violence, and there’s increasing ability and incentive to prevent voluntary disassociation from the group (by which I mean the rise of slavery), both of which allow antisocial dicks much greater chances of survival.

    …Or am I getting a couple strips ahead of us here?

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