Morality is disgusting

Neuroeconomics is a new science which studies what goes on in the brain during decision-making. What is becoming clear is that people don’t make good decisions unless emotion is involved – as it is those that guide us towards the wisest actions to take.

A unexpected example of this shows up in what is called the Ultimatum Game.

Two volunteers are given the chance to split 10 dollars between them
provided the second volunteer agrees with the first one’s offer. Otherwise both get nothing. Now, if pure reason were involved, everybody would accept every deal offered, for even $1 is better than nothing.

But the actual results show this isn’t so. Nearly all offers that were less than $3 were rejected.

More importantly, brain scans taken from the second players showed that, when an unfair deal was offered, the amygdala (emotion) lights up, as does the dorsolateral
prefrontal cortex
(decision-making), and the insula (associated with a reaction to bad smells – i.e. disgust).

There is a clear link between what we see as criminal activity and repulsion. Disgust drives us to distance ourselves from immoral or unfair people even if it costs us personally.

Now, emotion-based decisions like this are traditionally seen as
‘irrational’ by old-style scientists. But neuroeconomics shows us that
Bodymind may have larger purposes in view. And that is to try and teach
some people that – in the long run – exploitation doesn’t pay.

How to make guilt work for you

Guilt, as most of us usually experience it, is not a good place to be. It tortures us, leaves us thinking we might be worthless, traps us in self-doubt, and paralyses our ability to act.

It seems to me that there is still a lot of wrong thinking about guilt and that confusion gets in the way of our being able to do something about it.

The most important error people make is to label Guilt as an emotion. It is in fact a distortion of emotion. The ego distorts emotion by getting obsessive about it instead of taking action and letting it go. When it produces guilt it mixes up emotion with unhelpful ideas like sin, self-blame and self-punishment.

The three major emotions that get distorted in guilt are fear, remorse and disgust. You could be experiencing, one, two, or all three of them at the same time.

Fear is there when there is a possibility that you may be found out. That your career, your relationships, your reputation or your friendships may be in jeopardy. Bodymind may be signalling you either to protect yourself or come clean.

Remorse is really a variation on the emotion of sadness (all the emotions work like this – consider them as having different keys, with sadness modulating into pity, love, empathy, compassion, grief, and remorse). Remorse is your body’s way of telling you that it is time to make amends for your bad behavior. To be more attentive, loving, forgiving, generous or honest with the other party.

Disgust comes up when the action you took is repulsive in some way – potentially harmful to you or to other people. Your body needs you to make a decision and sever yourself from that situation for good.

Headmind distorts these emotions through worry, self-blame and by mixing up our identity with our behaviour. This also gets complicated by religion gone wrong – the myth of sin, divine judgment, and hellfire. This feeds the illusion of free-will: that we have complete control over our actions and can choose what to do. The reality is that we will always do what seems most desirable at the time given our current state of knowledge.

Here is a little process you can do to reverse out of guilt:

1. Identify the moment in time just before you did what you did. Relive that moment again in your visual and auditory imagination. Notice that you are just about to engage in the behavior you associate with guilt.

2. Now go into your body at that moment in time before you ‘decided’ to go ahead with the behavior.

3. Staying in your body in that moment notice that – given the situation, the knowledge you had at that time, and the state you were in, you could not in fact have done anything else. (If you had known any different, remember, you would not have done it).

4. Tell yourself: ‘I make mistakes sometimes but I am not a bad person’

5. Fully realising your limitations in that moment, notice that you didn’t actually have any guilt at that time.

6. Finally, decide what you want to do about your emotions – fear, remorse, or disgust. And take appropriate action.

Can an emotion ever be wrong?

Last week, while I was doing some Reverse Therapy with a client, he asked: ‘Are emotions ever wrong?’ Meaning, is it possible to be angry, scared, sad, etc. over nothing all?

To answer this question we have to understand what an emotion is. Bodymind produces an emotion through cellular communication. Cells in the brain (mostly in the limbic system) pick up information from the environment and trigger other cells to send signals through to the nervous system. The resulting changes in the gut, skin, muscles, lungs and circulation are experienced as a feeling.

An emotion is not a thought (which can be wrong). But neither are emotions irrational – they are what Antonio Damasio calls ‘somatic markers’. That means they mark something out for your attention. In that way they serve the same function as the pain in your foot that tells you your shoes are too tight or the rumbling in your stomach that tells you it is time to eat.

So emotions are cues to action. Now this is where some people can misunderstand emotion – they mistake the inappropriate expression of the emotion (which comes out of wrong work of Headmind) for the emotion itself.

Contrary to common belief your Bodymind does not want you to shout or scream at someone when you notice anger. A quiet assertion of your rights is quite sufficient. Nor does your Body want you to run away (another Headmind cop-out) when you notice fear. Getting your facts straight about the situation you are in, talking to others about your options, and taking one small step to raise confidence is all that is required.

Too often – as with my client – we are conditioned into seeing emotions as ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ because we have watched other people do destructive things when they get emotional. But emotions don’t encourage us to be destructive – just honest.