THERE’S a lot of talk about algorithms these days - mainly in connection with internet search engines and software platforms like Facebook. But an algorithm is nothing more than a series of steps set up to solve a problem or to reach a particular outcome.
A recipe is a classic algorithm. If you follow all the steps in a recipe for macaroni cheese, the end result should be a perfect macaroni cheese.
In his book Homo Deus Yuval Noah Harari argues that emotions are the algorithms that have helped humanity survive the process of natural selection.
Fear, for instance, is the algorithm that recognises danger and alters our physiology so that we can run, or fight, like hell without putting too much thought into it. Those who manage to get themselves out of harm’s way survive to contribute to the gene pool. So in terms of natural selection fear is a good thing, while being fearless might just get you killed.
Emotions now labelled as negative - anger, jealousy, lust, envy, anxiety - evolved because they conferred some advantage in the process of natural selection.
In a prehistoric tribal society where males competed for mating rights, a man might have had to fight for his place in the pecking order or he might have been consumed with jealousy over the attention somebody was paying to his partner. If his purpose in life was to contribute to the gene pool, such anger and jealousy were aids to that purpose - they drove him to confront the challenge and solve the problem.
Harari calls emotions ‘algorithms’ because they are, quite literally, automated processes: as a species, we have evolved to feel before we think.
The trouble is that in the ‘civilised’ society of 2019, we expect people to think before they feel. We prize emotional intelligence; we admire restraint; we idolise the ‘fearless’ hero. And our prisons are full of people who failed to control emotions like rage, lust and envy.
The dichotomy we live with is that homo sapiens is an emotional species in a society that sees some emotions as beneficial - love, joy, happiness - and others as barbaric. Society expects people to control their ‘negative’ emotions, and for the most part they do (sometimes at a cost to their own mental health). It also encourages us to feel the positive emotions, because - as a rule - they benefit society.
Civilisation is homo sapiens’ attempt to control and direct our species’ own instinctive drives, which is odd when you think about it. We have evolved to build skyscrapers and rockets, but we haven’t evolved enough to distance ourselves from the way in which our prehistoric ancestors behaved.
This line of thinking emerged out of a meeting with an old friend who, it seemed to me, was full of regret and spent a lot of time thinking about the past.
Regret is an odd emotion, don’t you think? At one level it’s quite useful - it’s part of the way in which we learn from experience: I did something bad and that makes me feel sad - and since I don’t want to feel sad, I won’t do that again or I’ll do it differently next time. Lesson learned.
It also helps with the choices we make. Regret can be experienced in advance as a behavioural intervention. So, if you buy that new car you can’t really afford, will you regret it in six months time? If you answer ‘yes’, you know what the sensible choice is - even if you don’t take your own advice.
Even marketeers use regret to boost sales - it’s known as the ‘regret appeal’: how will you feel if you don’t take advantage of this limited time offer right now … that kind of thing.
But regret can be poisonous when it’s about the things you can no longer change. Ruminating over a failed relationship, a bad career choice or poor lifestyle choices is only helpful if there is something you can do about it in the present; if you can’t, tough luck pal, it’s done - get over it.
As that noted philosopher, Mick Jagger, said: “The past is a great place and I don’t want to erase it or regret it, but I don’t want to be a prisoner of it either.”
I was chatting to this friend about a soft-hearted business decision I once made that ultimately cost me a lot of money. He said: “You must regret that very much.”
When I told him that I didn’t, he was shocked. “You must do,” he insisted. “No,” I said, “it was the choice I made, and it was in line with my values, and I don’t regret it at all. Would I do it again? Probably not, I’ve learned that lesson. But there is simply no point in regretting something you can’t change.”
And, anyway, we don’t know what would have happened if I had made a different decision - perhaps the outcome would have been worse.
Thinking through the conversation later, I realised that I have few regrets - too few to mention, as Sinatra sang - and that I don’t spend much time dwelling on the past. After all, the present is all we have - and mine is quite interesting, thank you. If it’s alright with you, I think I’ll stay right here in the moment.
* This reminds me of a wonderful intro to a feature, written by a journalist in his 90s: “People ask me whether, at my age, I have any regrets. Of course I do … I just can’t remember them.”