Saturday, 4 April 2009

Confounding Expectations

I’ve been reading Daniel Dennett’s excellent Consciousness Explained in which he makes the thought provoking observation that the brain is a future predicting device. This is sort of obvious when one considers that once life has evolved the ability to propel itself, it will be advantageous to predict its own course, so a whole load of *expectations* of events will be established by the brain to assist; there’s a tree ahead, so the brain plots a path around it.

It seems to me that these expectations of what *should* happen play a part in one or two of our most common human emotions. Occasionally an ‘expectation gap’ occurs, that generates a response in us. In the video above, Lee and Herring wittily deconstruct a common element of basic jokes - the lazy comedy slag template for a joke incorporating the confounding of expectations – and that confounding (confoundation?) is an element in a lot of humour. The comic suggests one or two things that our brains take on board to create a scenario, and the pay-off comes when the comic explodes that scenario. I quite like this clip because it demonstrates that the *expectation* is important; just doing something inappropriate in an unusual scenario isn’t necessarily amusing, but for some reason it is more amusing after one has been led to think the situation is different. I don’t know why!

I think I see expectations in music appreciation too; we are all familiar with the way that a song fixes itself into our minds after a few plays (if it’s good). We can listen to the song ‘in our heads’, but it’s better to hear it again. There is surely an element in which expectation satisfaction (of the expected words and tunes fixed in the mind) makes this process feel good to us. In fact, hearing a live version of the song, with different tempo, and arrangement, perhaps the odd bum note, can grate against the expected version in our heads. We experience an expectation gap. But a few listens to the new version can often replace the old one, and one can come to prefer it, bum notes included, thus eliminating that expectation gap.

I also see an element to this in moral thinking. One occasionally hears the theist ask the non-believer ‘Haven’t you ever sinned?’, or ‘Are you without sin?’. It’s a very revealing question, I think. The theist is adamant that he *has* sinned, but what does that mean? When confronted with a situation requiring a course of action, everyone establishes a notion of ‘what they should do’. This normative moral construct is then used to drive one’s course of action. Sometimes one fails to follow that (apparently) prescribed course of action, and this produces an uncomfortable feeling within us; our *expectations* have not been met. Once again we suffer an expectation gap, and the theist is inclined to assign guilt to this uncomfortable feeling.

(Of course, whether or not one has sinned is pretty irrelevant to the anti-Pelagian Christian denominations. For them, everyone is sinful, even before they’ve had a chance to do anything! I’ve often thought this means that real time sinning has no ill effect for them – ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’)

But the normative construct causing this expectation gap is a result of one’s genetic, evolved altruism, culture and education. All these elements are variable, so any ‘sin’ is variable. In fact, the individual’s prescription could be wrong (may well be wrong), so the feeling of ‘sin’ could be mistaken. To base one’s 'guilt' on this would be an error, but we see this amongst the religious all the time. And conversely we see with psychopaths that it’s possible not to feel *any guilt*, even when clearly doing wrong. So to base one’s worldview on this doubtful construct is not wise. We need to establish a normative ethic through reason and negotiation with others. No-one can ever establish such things reliably in isolation.

Well, this is layman speculation, obviously; do all mammals (animals?) create these expectations, and expectation gaps? They must to a certain extent, I suppose, but presumably not with the degree of sophistication of the human mind. Otherwise one would expect chimpanzees to point and laugh if they saw a human slip on a banana. Or perhaps they do?


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