Bryan Caplan  

The Meaning of Mood

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Tyler Cowen often inveighs against the Fallacy of Mood Affiliation:

It seems to me that people are first choosing a mood or attitude, and then finding the disparate views which match to that mood and, to themselves, justifying those views by the mood.  I call this the "fallacy of mood affiliation," and it is one of the most underreported fallacies in human reasoning.  (In the context of economic growth debates, the underlying mood is often "optimism" or "pessimism" per se and then a bunch of ought-to-be-independent views fall out from the chosen mood.)

Mood affiliation is indeed a pervasive intellectual problem.  But Tyler misses half the story.  Yes, the desire to feel any specific mood can lead people into error.  At the same time, however, some moods are symptoms of error, and others are symptoms of accuracy. 

When someone expresses his views with a calm mood, you consider him more reliable than when he expresses his views with an hysterical mood.  We give more credence to someone who discusses alleged war crimes somberly than if he does so flippantly.  As far as I can tell, this is justified.  One of the main reasons I've never bothered to investigate Holocaust denial is that the Holocaust deniers I've encountered think that genocide is hilarious. 

Now consider my favorite passage from Alex Epstein's The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels:

[A] proper reaction to a major danger from fossil fuels would be sorrow. Think about it: If the energy that runs our civilization has a tragic flaw, that is a terribly sad thing. It would be even worse, say, than if wireless technology caused brain cancer. The appropriate attitude would be gratitude toward the fossil fuel companies for what they had done for us, combined with recognition that we would have to suffer a lot in the years ahead, combined with the commitment to the best technologies that I mentioned earlier [hydro and nuclear].

While Tyler might accuse Epstein of fallacious mood affiliation, Epstein makes a deep point.  Namely: A reasonable person who was convinced that fossil fuels posed a major danger would feel a specific package of moods:

1. Sadness that a crucial resource has terrible side effects.

2. Gratitude for all the wonders the resource brought us in the past.

3. Resignation that mankind must forego many of these wonders.

4. Determination to salvage as many wonders as possible by using the best available substitutes for fossil fuels.

When an opponent of fossil fuels evinces none of these moods, it strongly suggests he isn't reasonable.  It doesn't mean he's wrong, but we should definitely be suspicious of whatever comes out of his mouth.  If virtually every opponent of fossil fuels lacks these moods, similarly, it strongly suggests that the whole movement is unreasonable.  It doesn't mean the movement's wrong, but we should definitely be suspicious of its central tenets.  The same goes for any other position: You can learn a lot by comparing the mood reasonable proponents would hold to the mood actual proponents do hold.

Of course, if you have the expertise and time to directly evaluate someone's claims, you don't need to use their moods to triangulate their credibility.  Then you'd just review the facts and forget the moods.  Otherwise, though, mood is a valuable clue.  Appropriate mood suggests credibility.  Credibility suggests truth.  It's a fallible heuristic, but we all use it and we're wise to do so.

Question: What's the best relevant psychological research on the correlation between mood and accuracy?




COMMENTS (19 to date)
lemmy caution writes:


1. Sadness that the crucial resource of chattel slavery has terrible side effects.

2. Gratitude for all the wonders that chattel slavery brought us in the past.

3. Resignation that mankind must forego many of these wonders.

4. Determination to salvage as many wonders as possible by using the best available substitutes for chattel slavery.

--

Is that really how social change occurs?

David H. writes:

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Hazel Meade writes:

@lemmy - Chattel slavery was inherently evil and deserved to be opposed for reasons independent of it's terrible side effects.
So are you saying that fossil fuels are inherently evil and deserve to be opposed for reasons that are independent of global warming? If so, what might those reasons be?

@Bryan Caplan,
Very good. It's decidedly too convenient that the policies advocated by climate activists manage to line up with the political agenda of the socialist left. Your point 4 is particularly telling - climate activists absurdly continue to oppose nuclear, and instead advocate for some sort of massive energy rationing program. They are much more interested in "changing our lifestyles" to some sort of utopian agrarian communism than in actually solving the problem in the context of a modern capitalist society.

XVO writes:

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Navin Kumar writes:

@lemmy caution

Slavery was inherently bad.

Fossil fuels are bad only because of the negative effects they have. Absent these effects, there would be no reason to oppose them.

Paul writes:

Top of mind, *Depressive Realism* seems to partially answer your question on "relevant psychological research on the correlation between mood and accuracy?"

There's a wikipedia article on the ways depression impacts accuracy. It seems to be a countervailing bias, rather than a straightforward line to unbiased truth. From the article: "Although depressed individuals make accurate judgments about having no control in situations where they in fact have no control, this appraisal also carries over to situations where they do have control, suggesting that the depressed perspective is not more accurate overall."

libert writes:

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Dan Miller writes:

I think that 1, 3 and 4 are quite common in the environmentalist community (and that 2 would be a bizarre reaction, especially in the face of an organized movement that denies any significant harms from the use of fossil fuels).

M Larsen writes:

I don't think it's true that views expressed in a calm mood are always considered more reliable. If someone is calm about telling me the house is on fire, I'd take them less seriously, not more.

It seems to me that since we've known about the dangers of fossil fuels for decades now, a reasonable person would have long since moved on past their sadness, gratitude and resignation about the loss of the resource. The correct package of moods now seems to me to be yes, determination to salvage the wonders of the resource, but equally valid moods should include outrage, frustration, and possibly hysteria given the magnitude of the potential danger and loss and our seeming inability to face the challenge.

I mean, if all the people who are in a position to directly evaluate the facts are visibly frightened to the point of hysteria, are you wise to also be very afraid, or to discount them because they sound so scared?

Hazel Meade writes:

@M Larson:
Personally, I don't see climate activsts exhibiting much of a determination to salvage the wonders of modern society by using the best available substitute energy supplies. That's one of Bryan's points - they keep opposing viable alternatives like nuclear and (to an extent) hydro power, and insisting that we have to solve the problem using only wind and solar.

If someone ran up to you hysterially screaming that your house was on a fire, but then insisted that you must put it out using only buckets of water even though a fire hose is readily available, you might start taking them less seriously.

Dan Miller writes:

@Hazel Meade:
I think you make an error when you simply assume that nuclear is obviously the best way to preserve modern levels of energy use. Personally, I'm not anti-nuclear; but at this point, solar, wind and efficiency efforts are all cheaper ways to reduce carbon emissions than building additional power. If this weren't the case, we'd be building a lot more nuke plants--enviros aren't even strong enough to stop the construction of coal plants (it was low natural gas prices that did that, at least in the US)--so it's a stretch to claim that they could halt nuclear power if it was a clearly more economical option.

Ryan Miller writes:

I think these are a little more independent than you assume, because they don't give enough credence to philosophy. The prevailing philosophical outlook of the left is something like "Rousseau was mostly right" (Left here does not mean "Democratic"--many Democrats are technocrats, but they aren't actively pushing the party further to the left).

If so, the evidence of carbon-induced climate change becomes one further piece of evidence that "Rousseau was mostly right" and because people with that view were *already* suspicious of fossil fuel companies and their effects on other grounds (mundane pollution, destruction of the environment, injuries to workers, control of the economy by concerns with large returns to scale, etcetc), they don't react the way that someone without those priors would react to the discovery of carbon-induced climate change, because in a way it wasn't a surprise to them.

Ergo, the mood of such a person doesn't tell you much of anything beyond what your priors on their philosophy told you. They think they've found one more reason why they're right. They have an incentive to do that, so they're less reliable than someone who doesn't, but that doesn't provide any evidence that they aren't right.

M Larsen writes:

@Hazel Meade

If someone hysterically screamed my house was on fire, sure, I would do what it takes to put the fire out.

There are definitely some environmentalists who are not thinking straight and ultimately hurting their cause by being reflexively unsupportive of nuclear power.

But the far bigger challenge is that we've got an entire major party in this country that is just completely pretending the problem doesn't exist. If the mainstream right in this country would acknowledge that we have a real issue and government has an important role to play in solving the problem, I strongly believe there could be quick action to make real progress on improving our chances. If the right got on board, I am confident that the majority of the actually elected left would support nuclear power as an element in reducing emissions to sustainable levels (although it's less clear to me now that it so much more viable than solar and wind given how costly it is).

mk writes:

The weakness in this line of reasoning is that one must have a fairly sophisticated theory of mind in order to predict the interaction between a belief and a nuanced cocktail of emotions which Bryan, quoting Epstein, believes is appropriate.

If you don't have such a minutely predictive theory of mind (proven by independent experiment), the question is how you come up with the proper emotion-cocktail (or emotion-cocktail-distribution, allowing for uncertainty).

I suspect that there wouldn't be much agreement among 100 randomly selected people who are asked to posit the most plausible emotion-cocktail. Or if there is it would be highly reflective of current status quo and thus uninformative.

Put more simply, I just don't buy that you can do what you say you can do with any level of accuracy. And in particular I don't buy Epstein's sorrow-cocktail.

Tyle writes:

I liked Bryan's post, but I agree with mk here - I'm not convinced that we are good enough at predicting the 'correct' moods that we can get much information with this method. This is especially true given the complex political contexts in which social movements often find themselves.

To take the global warming case, for example, lots of environmentalists seem pissed off and resentful. Is this because they are arguing in bad faith? Or is it because their opponents are? I think that this is an example where the moods don't tell us much, because predicting what the moods 'should' be is too difficult.

Hazel Meade writes:

@Ryan Miller

That's exactly right. We can infer from the reactions of climate activists that they have Rousseauian priors. But because we infer they have Rousseauian priors, that makes their judgement about climate change suspect. If they have Rousseauian priors, they are going to be biased in favor of believing that there is a problem and that the problem is worse than perhaps it really is. So again, that leads to treating their level of hysteria with some skepticism.

ThomasH writes:

To frame this as the mood of "opponents of fossil fuels" already skews the result. There are opponents of the harms done by the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere and a desire to prevent and mitigate those harms at a low a cost as possible. In this context I do not see how gratefulness for the good that has come in the past from the combustion of fossil fuels is at all relevant. We make decisions about CO2 (net) emissions on the margin.

@ Hazel Meade

Finding ways for the ultimate "users" of CO2 accumulation to pay for the harm they cause is not a "leftist" principle. If too many of the ways that have been put forward are "leftist," maybe that is because not enough Libertarians have put forward better ways. Frankly, I see nothing "leftist" about a carbon tax with renews going to reduce distortionary kinds of taxes such as the corporate income tax or wage taxation.

byomtov writes:

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Ryan Miller writes:

@ Hazel Meade

But the point is that the reaction of the activists doesn't tell us much about the issue at all. If this were 1990, and there was more activism than evidence, that might be relevant, but now there's tons of evidence and no need to rely on rhetoric.

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