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The value we put on our emotions

OSU Research Matters is a bi-weekly look inside the work of Oklahoma State University faculty, staff and students.

How do we value the things that we value? We produce information-processing models of the psychology that supports value computation in humans. We ask questions such as: What is a value, that the mind would have evolved to represent it? What design features does a mind need to be equipped with in order to value things, events, states of affairs, and social partners the human way?

In this episode, Meghan Robinson speaks with Dr. Daniel Sznycer to learn more about the value we put on our emotions.


Dr. Daniel Sznycer
Sznycer Lab
Dr. Daniel Sznycer

SZNYCER: When we help other people, it's usually at a cost to ourselves. And so, these decisions need to be done in a precise fashion in order to be perhaps cost-effective. And this means that there is a variety of factors that might govern or calibrate the degree to which we're willing to help other people.

ROBINSON: Helping people has a price. To assess that price, our brains must summarize all the variables and determine their value compared to our own welfare.

SZNYCER: This sets the maximum cost that you're willing to incur in order to benefit them by one unit. And so with this variable, if they're in need, for example and that takes favor from you to them, that sets the maximum prize, for example, that you're willing to incur for their benefit.

If they need help to study for an exam, are you willing to forego two hours of watching TV, your favorite show, or three hours or 17 hours, or maybe not even one hour?

ROBINSON: There are specialized systems in our brain called emotion systems that help us determine the value of helping someone. They organize lower-level systems like cognition, attention and memory for the purpose of solving a complex problem.

SZNYCER: If they are treating you less well than you think you are entitled to, then the anger system, we believe, is an adaptation or a system that bargains for better treatment. Many of these emotional systems are organized around these social valuation variables. So in shame, for example, if negative information about yourself reaches into other people, people find out negative things about you, they devalue you, and you have a problem because we're social creatures, and we thrive or not, depending on how much other people value you. So there's a number of emotions that have to do with recalibrating or updating these social values in the minds of self and others.

ROBINSON: What are the adaptive functions of shame, pride, gratitude, anger, and other social emotions?

SZNYCER: The function of anger seems to be to bargain for better treatment. When you detect that, the other is treating you less well than you feel entitled to that they should treat you — in shame, it's minimizing information trigger devaluation. In pride, it's to incentivize the actor to attain achievements that are socially valued, and when you achieve those things to advertise those so that other people value you more highly. In gratitude, it seems to be indications that someone values you highly or perhaps even more highly than you anticipated. And so you upregulate how much you value them in turn, and this may lead to the starting or the maintenance of a good cooperative relationship.

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Meghan Robinson is the host of OSU Research Matters and the Multimedia Reporter/ Producer for Inside OSU, the official streaming platform of Oklahoma State University.
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