Saturday, 30 April 2022

Review: Expressly Human (June 2022)

 From The Philosopher June 2022 CX No. 1 Spring 2022

Charlie Chaplin, being taught sign language by Granville Redmond, who was deaf from birth. 

Expressly Human? Theorising emotional expressions as the key to communication

Consider the ‘Silent Movie Problem’: a world in which everything seems the same, yet people interact without language. In fact, in silent movies, invariably a little bit of speech does take place, maybe in the form of decorative speech bubbles presented as still images but the point is that an awful lot of human activity seems to be possible to represent without anyone needing to speak.

And the problem is not just theoretical. A hundred thousand years ago, it is assumed that there were humans, indeed some kind of human societies, yet apparently no one used words because, well, language had not been invented yet. So how would society function without language is a great question – and not just for philosophers.

Paradoxically, it seems that being silent is part of human nature, yet now human beings - even young children, actually, particularly young children! - talk incessantly. But maybe the notion of being silent is a bit misleading. In their book, Mark Changizi  and Tim Barber point out that there are all sorts of ways to communicate apart from a formal language: hey, have you talked to a dog recently? Animals communicate how they are feeling - angry, hungry, afraid. The argument here is that there is evidence that communication via emotional expressions goes back hundreds of millions of years - maybe even to some invertebrates.

The idea is that emotional expressions are the starting point for communication “nature’s first language”. Mark Changizi  and Tim Barber offer hopefully that this insight is a kind of Rosetta Stone that enables us to decode human behaviour. 

The core of their argument is that: 

the content of such communication and negotiation is basically emotional;

          emotional expressions are a kind of negotiation,  a haggle babble;

communication used to be effected through acts and gestures;

acts and gestures have now been transferred to words. 

However, for spoken language, communication rarely never comes just as words, but is always also packaged with intonation, prosody, and not to mention facial expressions, gestures and so on. Which points towards another objection, though, that Mark and Tim’s approach assumes a precision to both the words and the underlying emotions that is not there. After all, aren’t semiotic codes arbitrary? In parts of the Pacific, the signal for ‘Yes’ is a raising of the eyebrows, while in Turkey it definitely means ‘No’. In Iran, Greece, Russia, Sardinia, and parts of West Africa the thumbs up sign, that sends so positive a message in other lands, is a very rude gesture…

Mark Changizi is a cognitive scientist, while Tim Barber is a mathematician with a long interest in “diagnosing the algorithms that underlie the uniquely human capacity for abstract reasoning”.  (Henceforth, per the style of the book, I’ll just call them Mark and Tim.) Anyway, their starting point is that humans are locked in competition for resources. The problem with such competition is, that in the absence of words, “jaw-jaw” as Churchill once put it, there will be war. 

Language allows for negotiation. Negotiators may seek what is in some sense the fair outcome, the right outcome, but if there is a difference of opinion on that, then the shadow of force is there. But “how do we negotiate a compromise without language”, the authors ask, with the rather awkward example chosen, throughout the book, the division of a zucchini bread. Mark and Tim’s theory is that emotional expressions fill this gap.

For example, negotiations involve an element of barter, of poker even  - your offer needs to be matched by some movement from the other party. Pride corresponds to feeling confident, and humility to the opposite. (Hmmm… that’s now what Jesus said.)

And when in a negotiation, the more someone pushes against something you believe in, the stronger your resistance comes to the pushing. This is where  the compromise zone emerges, whereas, in a fight, the more aggressive actor may destroy resistance, in negotiations “there is a specific compromise that’s the fair one given the two parties’ beliefs”. Now they add an interesting twist to the argument, saying that any route to a fair compromise needs to allow the parties to correct the other’s claims. Rather than each party expressing only their own confidence level, each party must also indicate their opinion about the other’s confidence level. “Each party ends up having to say two things, not just one.” In this way:

“Once corrections are allowed, it becomes a back-and-forth, where the parties take turns. It becomes a conversation. A discussion.“

Another intriguing idea, here, is that when one side of a negotiation suggests reasons why the other person is wrong… they actually enlarge the space for agreement. On the other hand, as the authors also remark, “Cooperation, sharing, and working together account for the lion’s share of our interactions, and these elements are not aggressive”, with the result that we actually spend a lot of time in life behaving like the Disney chipmunks and insisting politely “No, you go first!”

Throughout the text, numerous mathematically inspired figures are offered to illustrate “the internal emotions for defense” imagined in the zucchini bread dispute. But I’m not sure the graphics clarify the issue. Not the ‘shield facing toward Tim for defense and away from Tim’ (with Mark placed physically nearer to Tim), nor even the ‘Great Tree of Expressions’, with “space for eighty-one emotional expressions within it”. As to this last, Mark and Tim offer hopefully that the cartoon faces “tap into some perceptual kernel of truth, which is why they at least somewhat convey an emotional expression approximating the depicted meaning.

Part of the problem surely lies in attempting to illustrate a concept that is not in itself clear. What’s the theory behind these icons? The idea is that, by using simple icons with things like ‘V eyebrows’ for confident (proud) and ‘upside down V eyebrows’ for not-so-confident (humble), and the same for the other three dimensions (i.e., for ‘your-confidence’, and also for the horizontal and vertical axes of ‘acknowledgment space’),  a simple facial expression icon can be offered for each of the 81 face-combinations in the full four dimensional space. Yes, it does get complicated.

At one point, Mark and Tim explain that one of the most commonly used spaces for visualising emotions is James Russell’s “circumplex structure”. However, they don’t explain that the term, which seems to be, broadly, that ‘a circumplex’ is a pictorial represention of a concept with some aspect of circularity, although they note that “Russell believed that emotions were built out of a combination of two dimensions: pleasure-displeasure (valence) and activation-deactivation (arousal)”. 

Fortunately (for me anyway) the mathematical divisions and distinctions occasionally give way to a more fluid narrative style. The authors explain that their theory “is actually not very complicated”.  Instead, “the beauty of it is that its rich tapestry of emotional expressions come from the barest minimum of ingredients: a pinch of belief (certainties), a teaspoon of correcting each other (responses), confirmation receipts to taste (acknowledgments), and a loaf of precious zucchini bread (the resource being negotiated).”

And they insist that the key elements of negotiation are already known to us all intuitively. One complicating factor though, they suggest, is dishonesty, and the problem of how social creatures deal with it. “The solution, or partial solution, as we will see, is one of the most exciting and deep things about emotional expressions. It fundamentally alters how we think about our daily expressive selves.” The solution to dishonesty is to introduce the notion of ‘social capital’.

“Social capital (or reputation) is the energy of the social world.”

Mark and Tim say that social capital performs a role analogous to springs in conventional mechanics. Or to be more precise, social capital acts just like an energy term. And it’s the human will that acts like a spring in the ‘boingy’ sense.

“We’ve been playing the Poker Game of Life for millions of years! We have the expressions, the bets, the springy machinery. All of it. Emotional expressions have bets hidden inside them. In a sense, you already know this because you totally appreciate that you can get humiliated, and more so the more you trash-talk during a disagreement. Each of those “trash-talks”—a variety of emotionally expressing yourself—amounts to a bet of social capital. The zingier the trash-talk (including the use of curse words!), the bigger the bet. And if your opponent is the one who got humiliated, you know in your bones that you just got “awarded” social capital. You can almost feel yourself raking all the reputation chips over to your corner of the table.” 

But back to the ‘Silent Movie Problem’ - of how to have social life without language. As they end their discussion, the authors assert that this problem is illusory: not least because: “Whether visual, auditory, or whatever, emotional expressions are constantly reverberating between social animals.” The important thing to bear in mind is that:

“When we say someone is smart—and especially in normal, everyday conversation—we often mean they are witty, funny, sharp, clever, entertaining, political, cagey, crafty, shrewd, sly, wary, wily, devious, sneaky, circumspect, cunning, tricky, biting, stinging, confident, popular, or a blast. These “smart”-associated terms have social implications . . . about how smartly we control and conduct ourselves among all the complex cooperative and competitive interactions with family, friends, enemies, and strangers. Our everyday use of “intelligent” usually concerns social intelligence.”

And that’s why, today, Mark and Tim think, social media has this great need to track reputations. In the final chapter, the authors broaden the debate and I think here the book makes a particularly useful contribution. But this one is not in the area of the philosophy of language but rather in the area of the philosophy of science, picking up points raised by Thomas Kuhn fifty years ago about how knowledge is really constructed in the sciences.  

“You might think that science is about hypotheses and predictions and experiments and controls and analyses and statistics and confidence, but the real “genius” that makes science work is that it’s a decentralized network of scientists. Over time, some scientists rise in reputation by virtue of being able to show true and interesting things. They accordingly get more influence; others are more likely to listen to their claims. And some scientists lower in reputation, either by saying boring things or by repeatedly making claims that are false or incoherent.”

The result is that:

“At the end of the day, scientists don’t believe other scientists’ claims because they carefully slogged through all the data and did all the analyses. There are too many papers and too little time. We simply believe what they say, in some part because of some reputation they have garnered.“

And so, what started out as a theory of “emotional expressions” becomes, at the close, part of a wider debate about the social construction of scientific knowledge.  

Reviewed by Martin Cohen

Expressly Human 

By Mark Changizi and Tim Barber 

BenBella Books 2022

ISBN 9781637740484