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I whinge, therefore I am

We must understand emotion, says Mark Stevenson

I am irrational. And, I’m afraid, so are you. All of us are, including, those supposed beacons of rationality, scientists.

I’ve seen enough scientists crying into their beer/white wine because of a boy/girl to know that, shock! scientists fall in love. They also get drunk, sometimes sneak a peak at their horoscopes and buy records by The Pet Shop Boys – all, let’s face it, irrational acts.

George Church, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School recently told me, ‘You can move mountains with emotion, but with rational thought you just get people to change the channel.’ The problem with emotions is that not only do we have them, we get had by them - and we let ourselves.

My response to this fact, when trying to enthuse people about the opportunities of science and technology, is to run with it, but I try to run in the opposite direction to a good deal of the popular press and Hollywood (two institutions that know that emotion outsells hard truth by a knockout).

Emotion sells

There is a popular perception that bad news sells. My own experience tells me this is half true. Actually, emotional news sells. In researching An Optimist’s Tour of the Future I discovered things that made me feel impossibly happy, and when I shared these with my friends they too were infected with a sense of joy. ‘Why isn’t this front page news?!’ some asked. For every apocalyptic prediction of our future, there is a balancing optimistic and uplifting one. For every Terminator (Hollywood) there’s a Cynthia Breazeal (MIT) making teddy bear robots that can comfort sick children and act as early learning aids.

My worry is that the future we’re being sold (and are beginning to accept) is that of a damage limitation exercise, instead of a renaissance. This doesn’t help, for instance, in the project to combat global warming.  I fear our psyches and institutions becoming riddled with cynicism (and I find it more prevalent in the UK than many other countries). We do not collectively hope for a better future. As the old Chinese proverb reminds us, ‘If we don’t change direction soon, we’ll end up where we’re going.’ Cynicism is seen as ‘rational’, ‘sensible’, ‘pragmatic’. I’m arguing it is the exact opposite. But we’re infected. Me too.  I say ‘enough’. 

Win naysayers round

My answer (and it’s a common one) is to recast all that cynicism as valuable ‘critical friendship’. Every time I’m up against a naysayer, it’s easier to win them around by saying something like, ‘that’s such a good question,’ or, ‘what you’ve said is enormously important,’ and soon they’ll begin to answer their own objections, often with a sense of achievement. Why? Because they’re emotional creatures and, like you and me, love to be told how smart they are. If emotions can shift people to predict the apocalypse, they can certainly shift them work for the renaissance. Which side then do we want to fight for?

The difficult bit, of course, is rooting out the nay-saying and cynicism in yourself, but the rewards are manifold. Optimism, tied to empiricism is a killer competitive advantage.

Scientists, of course, know this. Very few who discovered anything of value wandered into their laboratories each morning and said, ‘Well, there’s no point in me doing this, it’ll probably come to nothing, so I’ll just go the pub and whinge.’

The irony is that the ‘optimist empiricists’ (scientists) have been losing out to the ‘cynical emotionalists’. It’s time to use an empirical understanding of emotion to turn the tables.

But you knew that already didn’t you, you clever thing? 

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Mark Stevenson
Mark Stevenson is a comedy writer, director of learning consultancy and ‘live science’ communication agency An Optimist’s Tour of the Future is released in the UK by Profile in Spring 2011. You can follow Mark at
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