Home > Nature vs. nurture > Group identity: a sense? an emotion? a state of mind? is it even real?

Group identity: a sense? an emotion? a state of mind? is it even real?

You’ve probably heard it many times — our biology teacher in grade school was wrong to teach us we only have five senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, and scent. We have many more — though there’s disagreement how many exactly, the number is probably higher than 10 — from some which sit on firmer scientific ground, like the sense of balance or gravity in our inner ear, to some which are murkier and may fall into the myths and legends rubric, like your parents “feeling” when you’ve got yourself in trouble 😉

How about emotions? Many researches have tried to answer this and everyone seems to be in agreement that one can’t enumerate all possible emotions as they’re virtually limitless, but could still distill what is believed to be the set of basic emotions leading to all of the others. However, even the number of basic emotions is disputed and ranges from as low as only 2 (pain and pleasure) to 11 or more (anger, aversion, courage, dejection, desire, despair, fear, hate, hope, love, sadness).

Being interested in human personality and what shapes it, I can’t stop but wonder if we’ve truly explored the effect of the emotions on what most people (including myself) call group identity — the main driver that seems to be shaping individual humans that belong to a given group to behave more alike, thus increasing the group coherence.

To present my thoughts around this, I’d like to step back and think about the sense and the emotions — what are they? — what role they play in humans?

Being an engineer, I like to think in terms of systems, data, workflows, input, output, so my picture of the senses and the emotions would look something like this:

Oops, wrong images 😉 I hope I didn’t scare anyone! 😀

While the images above are illustrative of the fact that what I am trying to describe is much too complex to understand with a single simplified diagram like mine, I still think that it is informative for the topic I want to discuss to think of the senses and the emotions in a simplistic form:

It is probably fair to say that the senses are the “instruments” with which we constantly take measurements from the environment. The measured values are then analysed by our brain, which tries to build a picture of the state of the environment and calls on the various body subsystems to take appropriate actions to ensure we’re in a desired — blissful happiness? 😉 — rather than undesired state.

This is where the emotions fit in the overall picture — they’re an efficient way to move all subsystems into action by triggering an emotional response within the entire system at once as opposed to calling out the different subsystems one by one.

The beauty of the emotions is that they are sent in fast spreading waves of relatively simple neural signals to all parts of the body and the reaction to that signal can be processed entirely unconsciously by each subsystem.

This would explain why researchers are able to predict what action you can take by looking inside your brain before you had time to consciously record the action as the feedback from the action takes significantly longer to get back to the brain and form a conscious thought than the time required for spreading the emotion. A marvelous example of parallel processing devised by the evolution processes I must say! 😉

But humans are surely more than machines entirely driven by senses and emotions triggering unconscious reaction, right? We’re capable of conscious thought and we take deliberate actions which are not triggered by the senses taking measurements from the environment, right?

While the answer is a yes on both questions, I think it is a fuzzy yes at best with lots of gray areas we’re still grappling to understand. We know that evolution is incapable of truly novel solutions built from scratch, which is to say our bodies are a kludge of incremental patches and upgrades of the existing parts we inherited from our ancestors. Gary Marcus illustrates this beautifully in his book Kludge, The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind.

The question that arises then is if our sensing organs and brain capability to generate emotions from the detected senses may have been patched up to work at a conscious level and process more than the basic senses like sight or touch?

Is it possible that we’re using the same old mechanisms we share with the rest of the animal kingdom to sense abstract “phenomena” like, for example, what others think of us?

We surely use language idioms like “I can sense you’re angry at me”, “I can see myself enjoying this forever”, “Your story gave me the chill”, that would suggest that we use sensing for e.g. understanding others’ responses to our behavior, or analyzing what they’re talking to us about, etc.

Surely, the abstract sensing I am talking about can in principle be explained as a higher-level function running on top of the basic senses — e.g. to figure out you’re angry at me I use my sight to analyze your facial expression and sound to detect your tone — so they can’t strictly be treated as senses themselves, but that is exactly my point — our mechanism for making sense of the world is ultimately based on the age-old solution the evolution bestowed upon us and that solution involves the feedback loop with the fast-spreading unconscious emotions triggering actions to bring us into a desired state.

If the ability to detect if someone is angry at us is not processed in the same way as the basic senses are, that would suggest that the feedback loop must be cut, as the basic senses will be generated anyway while we’re detecting angriness, thus leaving the feedback loop in place would trigger emotional responses based on whatever unconscious responses our body subsystems would usually run for such case.

The solution I suspect is in place, then, is to treat the detection of the new abstract “phenomena” we’re capable of coming up, due to our consciousness, as higher-level senses which would be plugged into the feedback loop just as the basic senses are. Given that these senses are different than the basic ones, the system can’t just generate the basic emotions used in the past (pain or pleasure just wouldn’t cut it) so it is probably not too far from the truth to presuppose that evolution patched up the emotions along with the senses and introduced increasingly complex emotions that would still be spread through the system in a great flood.

All fine, our consciousness expanded the basic sets of senses and emotions so the main feedback loop can happily churn actions to keep us into a happy state, right?

Yes, but think further, we’re capable of many more actions than the average chimpanzee and any other animal on this planet! We have language, we have art, we can communicate our emotions to other people instead of jumping around from tree to tree in frustration not knowing how to deal with those emotions.

True, monkeys apparently can express and detect complicated emotions like grief or stress, but the capability in humans is virtually unlimited as we possess wider and more complex range of communication skills (and tools) to express those emotions.

This is where things get really interesting. Our ability to sense emotions in others and react to that sensing with emotions of our own, which we can then communicate back, allows the sense-emotion feedback loops to interact directly with profound results. Again, this interaction probably exists in monkeys and few other animal species, but those interactions look paltry against the interactions in humans — I’m not trying to lift humanity above the rest of the animals, just stating the facts, we’re talking about orders of magnitude difference here. In our species, we can do stuff like sensing emotions in virtual characters in a book and communication our own emotional reaction to that sensing experience to other people, including ourselves! 😉

All this leads me to the question — could this unlimited interaction between the sense-emotion feedback loops in a group of people lead to ever more complex emotions which start to cross the boundaries of a single human mind and exist at group rather than individual level? If that is what happened, then the notion of culture is the ultimate group emotion that has emerged as we started crossing the kinship boundaries and allowed ourselves to gather in bigger groups and tribes with the advent of agriculture (see my speculative article on this topic).

I personally don’t think group emotions have emerged — not yet — but something else equally amazing may be closer to the truth. My suspicion is that the increasing complexity of the new emotions humans started feeling as the feedback loops started using the communication tools at their disposal to interact led to the ultimate emotion – identity! And the sum of all those individual identities, as shaped by the sense-emotion loops interacting between each other in a group of those individuals, gave birth to a new emergent entity – group behavior, i.e. culture – a strong force that led humanity to the technological and social advancements we are experiencing today.

I would not be surprised if the feeling of identity, of belonging to a certain group, is found to be a complex emotion rather than something else that sits on top of lots of emotions in the mix. The identity emotion is so complex that we probably often confuse it with many of the other emotions it is derived from, like pride, optimism, euphoria, hatred, apprehension, etc. What’s more, it is entirely possible that the emotion identity expresses itself as a sense identity at the same time! This way it would strongly reinforce itself by driving the feedback loop into a positive cycle that strengthens the feeling when one senses their own identity.

Just like the identity emotion is complex and easily confused with other emotions, I believe that the identity sense is very complex and easily confused too. This is likely why we often make the mistake to react to different (real or perceived) characteristics we can see in, or find about, an individual — like those listed in the picture above — as if we’re detecting their identity rather than just individual components of the complex set of characteristics that describe them.

I think this is beautifully described by Alden Habacon in his TEDxVancouver 2009 talk where he is describing the impact of the ethnicity on various non-white Canadians with Asian and similar ancestry on the people’s perception about them. Similarly, as I blogged recently, Elif Shafak in her TED Global 2010 talk describes the challenges she’s facing due to certain expectations people have of her as a Turkish woman, while she is trying to promote herself as a fiction writer.

A recent study of emotions found that the set of emotions that are universal recognized across most cultures is very limited (e.g. only six of the tested emotions that could be recognized by Western cultures were recognizable by the culturally isolated semi-nomadic Himba people of Namibia). This suggests that some of the emotions tested are products of socialization and learning rather than innate human capability, which confirms some of my suspicions around the new emotions emerging from the sense-emotion feedback loops interactions.

Sheena Iyengar in her TED Global 2010 talk mentioned something that I believe is relevant to the study results and goes to show how can the sense of identity be shaped and reshaped by culture — the very entity it has enabled to emerge. She’s describing the differences in the perception and expectations around the ability to choose among many products between North Americans, with their long history of capitalism and free market and Eastern Europeans, with their long reign of communism and centralized control over the market and the products offered on it.

Sheena related few stories how Eastern Europeans feel anxiety, fear, rejection, being overwhelmed — they simply couldn’t see themselves as someone who wants unlimited choices, it is against their identity! North Americans on the other side would feel like their personal freedom has been taken away if e.g. the number of available consumer products is reduced — their patriotic feeling about their country would be put at risk as the unlimited choice has been engraved in their identity.

Looking for research on the topic of identity and emotion I found that Harke Bosma and E. Saskia Kunnen are going through the latest research on this very topic in Identity and emotion: development through self-organization. While the volume is no easy read 😦 I was very glad to read that the research have moved from the conceptualization of self and identity as cognitive structures or rigid mental representations to the more dynamic view of emotions shaping or influencing the notion of self and identity: “Several theorist have begun to tackle self and identity from a completely different perspective. Instead of working with an established construct of ‘self’ or ‘identity’ , and trying to relate emotions and context to it, they start from the opposite direction: emotions and context are seen as formative from which self and identity emerge in a self-organizational process”.

My thinking behind this topic was not influenced by this book, or the other few scholarly journals and textbooks I could find — I found out about them while researching for this article. I was influenced, instead, by Judith Rich Harris and her monumental The Nurture Assumption, in which she debunks all myths about the personality development in kids (and reduces the parental influence to virtual zero 😦 ) and proposes a group socialization theory that can explain how the groups we identify with ultimately shape our behavior.

Unfortunately, even though the book caused a great stir back in 1998 when published for the first time, it pains me when I enter a bookstore and see lots of parental advice books that continue along the old tune that the parents are ultimately responsible for how their kids turn out. I appreciate that the accepted wisdom cannot be turned overnight, but I think it is about time to move the research on human personality into the main stream and include the public in the discussion.

This is especially when understanding the pressures shaping our kids — the generation that will have to fix the over-consumed and over-populated world we leave behind — is so crucial for helping them to come up with a common language and understanding that will cross all nations, cultures, localized interests and misplaced patriotic feelings, and allow them to come to agreement how to run a global world in which one identity is prevalent, that of a responsible citizen concerned with sustainable living in a truly global world!

If I allow myself to dream — and in that dream I find my self on the TED stage making a wish 😉 — I would be calling for a global forum where the topics of self and identity, the impact of the emotions to human behavior, the question how personality is shaped from childhood to adulthood, and many related questions are discussed with people from many fields as a first step in getting global attention and organizing various projects that will do the necessary research and implement the acquired knowledge to help our kids in the ultimate war they’re going to fight to implement sustainable living on this planet.

Maybe, to follow the example set with the organization of TEDWomen, scheduled for the end of this year in Washington, DC, a TEDChildren conference should be organized with this topic being one of the main themes, alongside issues like kids’ poverty, illegal labor, education, etc.?


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