Gosh, is it as long ago as that? I find, on looking it up, that it was in October 2005 that I reviewed Emotion, Evolution, and Rationality, edited by Dylan Evans and Pierre Cruse. And my post attracted zero comments, I see. Perhaps because the book in question is a serious scientific work, not really intended for the layman, and and not easy to get a handle on.
In the introduction to Emotion, Evolution, and Rationality, the editors say that the main theme of the book is that a consensus appears to be emerging among scientists, from a range of disciplines, that emotions are in fact (contrary to what was previously thought) vital to intelligent action.
This new attitude to emotion arises from a consideration of evolution. Those who study evolution are coming round to the view that emotions would not have continued to be a feature of human life unless they were actually helpful to survival.
Recent theories on emotion therefore contrast with the well established tradition in western society, which has almost universally assumed, since ancient times, that emotions are, at best, harmless luxuries, and at worst are outright obstacles to intelligent action. In other words, the received wisdom is that, when making a decision about anything important, you should try to do it in as unemotional a manner as possible.
Ever since reading Emotion, Evolution, and Rationality, I have been meaning to consider its main theme from the point of view of a writer. If scientists are now suggesting that the presence of emotion can actually be helpful in making a good decision, how does this affect writers? When a writer makes a decision about any aspect of writing, is it a good idea for the writer to allow herself to be influenced by emotion, or not?
On reflection, I think that a question as broad as that is likely to lead to the response 'It all depends'. So let us try to be more precise, and consider one practical question, relating to a fairly big decision that is made by quite a large number of writers. We will consider this: Is a decision to write a novel best made with or without the involvement of emotion?
In chapter eight of Emotion, Evolution, and Rationality, Matteo Mameli notes that, even though many scientists now accept that emotions are advantageous to 'ecological' rationality -- which is the ability of an organism to cope successfully with its environment -- it is still often thought that emotions remain destructive of 'practical' rationality, which is an organism's ability to make optimum decisions about how to act.
However, Mameli questions this latter assumption. Furthermore, he puts forward arguments which attempt to show that emotions are just as essential to practical rationality as they are in the ecological context.
In chapter ten, Daniel Nettle also considers the relationship between emotions and deliberative rationality. He comes to the conclusion that, under certain circumstances, being overly optimistic about one's chances of success, or degree of control over a situation, could be adaptive; that is to say, superior, in terms of behavioural decisions, to either pessimism or unbiased neutrality.
I am not concerned here to question Nettle's general conclusions -- not least, because I am not sufficiently familiar with the scientific evidence in this field. Instead, I want to draw apply what he has to say to the context of writing, and to consider whether his broad conclusions still hold good in relation to that one narrow field.
Nettle argues that, influenced by emotion, people systematically overestimate the likelihood of favourable outcomes of future contingencies, and underestimate the negative aspects of any given situation. However, he says, this doesn't matter very much, from the point of view of human evolution as a whole, as there is an asymmetric pattern of costs and benefits. In other words, if I am reading Nettle aright, people may make decisions for unsound (emotional) reasons, but, in general, when the outcome is favourable, the benefits are often great and far outweigh the costs.
Which is all very well. But it's not a lot of use when you and I come to consider specific questions, such as whether to spend several hundred hours writing a novel.
Let us look at Daniel Nettle's argument more closely. Nettle uses the available scientific evidence to show that, when people are questioned about their abilities, they systematically overestimate their own skills; this is called a self-enhancing bias. And you would not have to go far, I humbly suggest, to find examples of it among the writing community.
Secondly, individuals generally have an unjustified level of optimism about the future. They overestimate the likelihood of their having positive future-life events (e.g. a good job, their own home, achieving professional success). Once again, writers are a marvellous source for misplaced optimism.
Third, there is a well known phenomenon labelled the illusion of control. When engaged in games which are heavily influenced by chance, such as dice-rolling and lotteries, people overestimate their chances. In other contexts, they consistently overestimate the effectiveness of their own actions in controlling the flow of events.
Having these three positive illusions, as they are known, seems to be the population norm. So the plain fact of the matter is that, for most people, most of the time, emotions do play a major part in everyday decisions.
Following a great deal of work by academic researchers (the details need not detain us here, since we are laymen), any behavioural decision can be conceptualised as a game. The game has two outcomes: success and failure. And there are two courses of action: to play or not to play.
In writing terms, the question we have settled on is, Do we write a novel or not? Are we going to participate in this novel-writing game or not?
The outcome is either success or failure. What is success? Well, let us be modest and say that we will define success as simply achieving publication by one of the big six publishers (rather than having a smash-hit number one bestseller, which is a lot harder).
The player's optimal response is not to play when she would fail, and to play when she would succeed. Provided, of course, that the costs of playing do not exceed the benefits of winning.
Nettle analyses this situation in algebraic terms. If a player plays and succeeds, she takes the benefit of success (b). If she plays and fails, she accepts the cost of playing (c). Another important factor in the algebra is the probability of success (p).
I won't attempt to go into the algebra here, because I never was much good at that stuff, and besides, we don't need to. The point is that, to make a good decision, you need to have a very clear estimate of the values, or size, of the benefits, the cost, and the probability of success (b, c, and p).
If the benefits of success far outweigh the costs of failure, then the probability of success which is required to justify a rational decision to play is quite small. But where the costs are substantial, and the benefits are modest, and the probability of success is small, then the smart guys do not agree to play.
And this, I suggest, is where, in the writing context, emotion enters into the situation and can cause absolute havoc.
As we have seen, Nettle has summarised the scientific evidence to show that most people, most of the time, cannot think straight anyway. They suffer from the three positive illusions, described above. In the writing context, you and I are already well aware (if we're paying any attention at all) that the positive illusions are present among writers in abundance. And they are there, I suggest, because writers are awash with emotions.
We could spend some time debating (to little effect) whether ambition is an emotion, but we can agree, I think, that most writers are wildly ambitious. (For a discussion of ambition, see my post of 6 September 2006.) And it is surely the case that ambition is fuelled by emotion, or emotions in the plural, some of them not particularly attractive, such as envy, resentment, pride, a sense of inferiority, and even our old friend lust.
If we try, with a conscious effort of will, to step back from the situation and review the evidence objectively, what can we say about the factors b, c, and p in terms of our novel-writing decision?
In summary, based on over fifty years of writing experience, nearly three years of blogging, and a couple of books about writing, my own conclusions are as follows:
The costs are higher than many people think (over-optimism). Writing a novel is going to take several hundred hours of effort. Usually this will have to come from the writer's 'spare time' -- time which she would otherwise spend with family, friends, or developing her main career. The cost of failure is not merely that this time is 'wasted' -- it cannot be retrieved and re-allocated to a more fruitful purpose -- but there is also an emotional penalty attached, in terms of anger and resentment.
The benefits of success are also, I would suggest, more consistently overestimated in the writing world than in most others. Our definition of success was, you will recall, a fairly modest one: publication by a top firm, and little more. The amount of money, fame, and enhanced reputation which result from that are modest indeed. Ask anyone who's been there.
And then there is the probability of achieving success. This is slim. In my books The Truth about Writing and On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile, I have set out the painful facts about this probability in some detail.
Just to rub home the point: I share the general view of Dr Nassim Nicholas Taleb (author of Fooled by Randomness), namely that events in life are much more heavily influenced by chance than most of us care to believe. We are not saying, Taleb and I, that everything is a matter of luck. Far from it. Hard work, talent, perseverance, all these play a part. But they are not sufficient, in and of themselves, to guarantee favourable outcomes.
Thus, when it comes to writing fiction, not only is the probability of success low, but those who do achieve it will largely achieve it as a result of chance, and not as a direct and inevitable result of hard work, talent, and perseverance. In any estimate of the true probability of success in a writing context, this plain and simple fact (it is not a theory) needs to be taken into account.
So. Are we any nearer an answer to our question? Is it a good idea to allow emotions to influence the decision on whether to write a novel?
You must make up your own mind, but personally I think it is a very bad idea to allow emotions any role. And the wise decision, in my view, is not to play this particular game at all.
In which case, you may reasonably ask, why have I written so many novels, and why do I show signs of being likely to continue down that road?
Well, for one thing I don't claim to have been all that smart in my past career decisions. And for another, the decision will change dramatically if you either (i) vary the values of b, c, and p, or (ii) ask a different writing-related question.
For example, if you decide that, for you, the principal benefit of writing a novel is the sense of satisfaction which you obtain from that process, regardless of whether anyone actually gets to read it or not, that has an effect.
And suppose you ask one of more of the following questions:
Is it a good idea to write a non-fiction magazine article about a matter related to your main career (as an accountant or teacher, or whatever)?
Is it a good idea to enter a short story in a competition with a prize of £1,000?
Is it a good idea to publish a collection of poems through Lulu?
You don't need to do much thinking to conclude that, in some of these questions, the costs are markedly reduced, the probability of success may well increase, and the benefits, though different, could be substantial.
The real danger here is that writers will underestimate costs, overestimate benefits, and wildly misjudge the probability of success. For decisions about major projects, such as a novel, such misjudgements can reasonably be described as catastrophic. For relatively minor decisions, the consequences are relatively trivial, but still need to be taken seriously.
Overall, I take the view that the smart thinkers, the ones who are keen to protect their own mental and physical health, will not allow themselves to be unduly influenced by emotion in making decisions about writing.
Whether the decision is major or minor, the smart thinkers will spend a considerable amount of time collecting data relating to costs, benefits, and the probability of success. They will not believe everything they read in the newspapers.
On the whole (if asked, and even if I'm not) I would advise writers to keep all emotion in reserve, to be drawn on during the writing itself -- at least if you're in the fiction or drama business. Otherwise, I suggest that business and career decisions are best made in cold blood, on the basis of as much solid data as you can possibly assemble.
See also: An overview of emotion, 28 September 2006.