Kristján Kristjánsson, Deputy Director in the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues and Professor of Character Education and Virtue Ethics at the University of Birmingham, is the author of Virtuous Emotions, forthcoming in May 2018, Oxford University Press.
Heather C. Lench, Associate Professor & Department Head, Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Texas A&M University, is an editor on the volume Functions of Emotion, Springer, in January 2018.
“A thing must be loved before it is loveable,” G. K. Chesterton once said. Many of us want to know how we can become better people. We want to know how we can help our children and our students to become better people. Indeed, philosophers since Plato and Aristotle have been interested in how it is that people become virtuous, perhaps because, as Julia Annas puts it, “We cannot understand what virtue is without coming to understand how we acquire it.” And although philosophers have largely ignored Chesterton’s insight, he appears to have been exactly right, even prophetic.
Recent psychology suggests that an enormous factor in moral development—perhaps the great factor—is attachment. ‘Attachment’ is a fancy word for enduring love, the sort we see between parents and children, and in marriages and close friendships. None of us would want to live without such love. Few of us have ever lacked it completely, and the times we’re made to go without enough of it are oppressively painful, like going without sunlight or fresh air.
All of this is taken onboard by attachment theory, a research program in developmental psychology that aims at explaining the nature and significance of human attachments. One of the major claims of attachment theory is that, through their early experiences with a caregiver, infants form an internal “map” of what they can expect from others. If, for instance, the caregiver is warm and attentive, the infant will write this down on his map. He will then use his map to go about future socializing. He will expect others to be warm and attentive. He will trust that, if he shows his needs to them, they will care. He will be, as the experts say, “securely attached”.
If, on the other hand, the caregiver is a lousy bum, the infant will expect others to be lousy bums. Perhaps he will decide that he had better rely on himself to get his needs met. He will be “insecurely attached”.
Of course, both the writing of the map and the using of it are unconscious processes, only entering consciousness as a whiff of anxiety here or a sigh of relief there. And this may sound like so much Freudian mysticism. But the “map” here is really just a stored mental representation, and it is by now commonplace that the brain unconsciously creates mental representations of how things are, that it uses these to make predictions, and that it begins to do so no later than when we come screaming into the world.
Children who are securely attached have more of the stuff that virtues are made of. It is alarming, in fact. In a study from Jude Cassidy’s lab, for example, researchers interviewed children using puppets (they say it’s for the kids). They ask the children questions that elicit self-reflection. They code their answers in one of three ways:
Perfect: No negative comments about the self at all.
Negative: Globally negative remarks about the self.
Flexible: Globally positive remarks about the self, mixed with specific negative remarks.
What they found? Securely attached children were more likely to talk about themselves in the flexible way. What this seems to suggest is that being securely attached means you are better able to love and respect yourself while admitting to specific ways you could improve.
It’s worth underlining this. Consider how important this ability is to personal growth. Indeed, one of the great challenges of human life is finding a way to admit one’s gruesome imperfections without being crushed by the shame of it. One meets many people who deal with this by only embracing one side of the dilemma. One tells the truth, and is crushed. Or one avoids the crushing but only through self-deceit. The trick is to tell the truth, the whole damn thing, without sentencing yourself to life without parole. (An analogous challenge arises when it comes to our love for others: How do we love them when we discover their vileness?)
The Cassidy study only scratches the surface. Here is a list of eleven other virtue-related areas where the securely attached are better off:
In light of this stunning list, it appears Chesterton was right: A thing must be loved before it is loveable. We must be loved before we are loveable. As Steinbeck writes, “underneath their topmost layers of frailty men want to be good and want to be loved. Indeed, most of their vices are attempted short cuts to love.”
One of the most sublime scenes in Peter Pan has Wendy telling the lost boys how she and her brothers came to the Neverland. The boys are concerned, though. Won’t their parents miss them? This is her response:
“If you knew how great is a mother’s love,” Wendy told them triumphantly, “you would have no fear. … You see,” Wendy said complacently, “our heroine knew that the mother would always leave the window open for her children to fly back by; so they stayed away for years and had a lovely time.”
Wendy, too, is prophetic. The world can be for us a Neverland, a place of enchantment and wonder, where good things run wild, only if we know there is someone who has left the window open for us.
There is a thorn in all this, given the many people who endure a fraught childhood followed by a lonely adulthood. Aristotle thought that it was through practicing the virtues that we acquire them. “We become just by doing just actions,” he says. Recently, Julia Annas has taken this up, drawing an analogy with learning the piano:
I need first to work out consciously what is the right thing to do and then get used to doing it over and over again. This goes on from learning notes to learning scales and arpeggios and then learning how to play sonatas. As I become a skilled piano player … I can play sonatas and other pieces in a way that, as with driving, proceeds without conscious thinking.
Annas thinks acquiring virtues is like this, a view we might call the skill model. There is something right about the skill model, but something it leaves out as well. If you want to become virtuous, the research we’ve seen here suggests, not the practicing of the virtues, but the healing of the attachments. This is something done in therapy and by working towards healthy intimate relationships. Learning the virtues is like learning the piano, but many of us are playing with hands that have been broken and mangled. We do not need practice. We need rehab.
Annas, J., (2011), Intelligent Virtue, Oxford University Press.
Bowlby, J., (1980), Attachment and Loss, Vol. 3: Loss, Sadness, and Depression, New
York: Basic Books.
Cassidy, J., (1988), “Child-Mother Attachment and the Self in Six-Year-Olds”, Child
Development 59(1): 121-134.
Chesterton, G. K., (1909), Orthodoxy, New York: John Lane Company; London: John
Lane, The Bodley Head.
Clark, S., and D. Symons, (2000), “A Longitudinal Study of Mother-Child Relationships
and Theory of Mind in the Preschool Period”, Social Development 9(1): 3-23.
Colman, R., and R. Thompson, (2002), “Attachment Security and the Problem-Solving
Behaviors of Mothers and Children”, Merrill-Palmer Quarterly 48(4): 337-359.
Dykas, M., and J. Cassidy, (2011), “Attachment and the Processing of Social
Information across the Life Span: Theory and Evidence”, Psychological Bulletin
Fivush, R., Haden, C., and E. Reese, (2006), “Elaborating on Elaborations: Role of
Maternal Reminiscing Style in Cognitive and Socioemotional Development”,
Child Development 77(6): 1568-1588.
Goodvin, R., S. Meyer, R. Thompson, and R. Hayes, (2008), “Self-Understanding in
Early Childhood: Associations with Child Attachment Security and Maternal
Negative Affect”, Attachment and Human Development 10: 433-450.
Harcourt, E., (2013), “Attachment Theory, Character, and Naturalism”, Ethics in
Contemporary Perspective, Julia Peters (ed.), New York: Routledge.
Kobak, R., Cole, H., Ferenz-Gillies, R., Fleming, W., and W. Gamble, (1993),
“Attachment and Emotion Regulation during Mother-Teen Problem Solving: A Control Theory Analysis”, Child Development 64(1): 231-245.
Laible, D., and R. Thompson, (2000), “Mother-Child Discourse, Attachment Security,
Shared Positive Affect, and Early Conscience Development”, Child Development 71(5): 1424-40.
Laible, D., and R. Thompson, (1998), “Attachment and Emotional Understanding in
Brian Ballard recently earned his doctorate from the philosophy department at the University of Pittsburgh. His work address the nature of emotion and its role in the good life, and he was a participant in the 2016 summer seminar “Virtue & Happiness” for the Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life project.
We’re presenting a short series of abstracts of the work-in-progress our scholars presented and discussed at their June 2017 Working Group Meeting.
Robert C. Roberts is Professor of Ethics and Emotion Theory at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, and joint Chair with the Royal Institute of Philosophy. Michael Spezio is Associate Professor of Psychology & Neuroscience and head of the Laboratory for Inquiry into Valuation and Emotion (LIVE) at Scripps College in Claremont, CA.
After living for a significant period in l’Arche communities, people often experience a change of self-other concept. It is a character change in which, from conceiving self-other in a way that is typical for modern secular societies, members’ experience of self in relation to others is transformed under the reign of what we call humble love. Both before and after the transformation, the experience of self-other has the character of concern-based construal, but the terms of the two kinds of construal are mutually contrary. Following Jean Vanier, we call the ethos guiding the first self-other style of construal “the Normal” (he writes of “the tyranny of the Normal”). The leading concepts on which this ethos turns are success, competence, competition, advancement, achievement, power, superior-inferior, rival, reputation/recognition/ acclaim, and the like, as criteria for the evaluation of persons. Here the self is seen as in relation to the other/ others, but the relations are distancing, alienating, ones of rivalry, differential competence, superior achievement, competition for power, winner and loser, etc. The relations are not those within a community, in the strict sense, but rather within a social arena of agonistic differentiation. By contrast, the terms of self-other construals that are fostered by long-term living in l’Arche are characterized by commonality, mutuality, and reconciliation: brother/sister, friend, helper, colleague, forgiveness, love. Humble love combines two highly congruent and complementary virtues: humility and charity. The tyranny of the Normal erects “walls” that impede the mutuality construals of self-other that are characteristic of love. Humility, which dissipates or undermines the distancing, alienating self-other construals, brings down these walls, making way for the genuine communion of love with its characteristic self-other construals.
We’re presenting a short series of abstracts of the work-in-progress our scholars will present and discuss at their June 2017 Working Group Meeting. Heather C. Lenchis Associate Professor and Associate Head in the Department of Psychology at Texas A&M University and scholar with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.
People try to make decisions that will improve their lives and make them happy, and to do so, they rely on affective forecasts–predictions about how future outcomes will make them feel. The greater the emotional impact people expect a future outcome to have, the more effort and resources they invest in attaining or avoiding it. Understandably then, inaccuracy in affective forecasting has been identified as a major obstacle to making good decisions. Decades of research suggest that people are poor at predicting how they will feel and commonly overestimate the impact that future events will have on their emotions. Although the simplicity of this idea is intuitively attractive, recent studies have revealed that people are actually very good at forecasting some features of their emotional reaction. This investigation tested a new theoretical model that explains past inconsistent results demonstrating that sometimes people overestimate, sometimes underestimate, and are sometimes accurate in their forecasts. The investigation clearly differentiates forecasts of emotional intensity, frequency, and duration for the first time in the real-world setting of a controversial presidential election. Participants accurately forecast the intensity of their reaction, but overestimated how frequently they would feel emotions about the election and how much their mood would be impacted by the election. Consistent with our theoretical model, bias in forecasts of emotion were predicted by cognitive features. Overestimating the importance of the election resulted in overestimating the intensity of responses; overestimating the frequency of thinking about the election resulted in overestimating the frequency of responses; and overestimating the relevance of the election to personal goals predicted overestimating the impact of the election on mood. By allowing researchers to achieve greater precision about the features of emotion being predicted, this study clarifies when and why people overestimate, underestimate, and accurately predict their emotional reactions. Addressing this question is essential, not only for a theoretical understanding of how people think about their futures, but also for understanding how to intervene to improve decisions.
The results inform interventions designed to improve decision-making in applied domains including health, public policy, education, and economics. People making important decisions–such as whether to undergo surgery, listen to public health warnings, or pursue a specific career– will be better informed if they can accurately predict how the outcomes of their decisions will make them feel. Thus, interventions that improve forecasting are critically important for helping people make informed choices with implications for the length and quality of their lives.
*This is a collaborative project with Linda J. Levine, and is funded by the National Science Foundation (#1451297)
*A similar abstract was submitted for the December 2016 meeting; however, discussion of these primary findings was delayed in favor of presenting several serendipitous results given the surprising outcome of the election.
Last week, 4 of our scholars—Howard Nusbaum, David Carr, John Haldane, and Robert C. Roberts–and our 2 Principal Investigators, Jennifer Frey and Candace Vogler, all participated in a conference on Character, Wisdom, and Virtue held January 5, 6, and 7, 2017 at Oriel College, Oxford, UK, sponsored by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham, UK. We are pleased to feature their abstracts and papers here on the Virtue Blog for the next few days, with many thanks to the Jubilee Centre. http://jubileecentre.ac.uk
Robert C. Roberts is Professor of Ethics and Emotion Theory at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, and has a joint Chair with the Royal Institute of Philosophy. Professor Roberts received his Ph.D from Yale University in 1974 and has taught at Western Kentucky University (1973–1984), Wheaton College (1984–2000), and Baylor University (2000–2015), where he retains Resident Scholar status in the Institute for Studies of Religion. He has received research grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and Notre Dame’s Center for Philosophy of Religion. He is currently a recipient, with Michael Spezio, of a grant from the Self, Motivation, and Virtue Project at the Institute for the Study of Human Flourishing at the University of Oklahoma, for a study of “Humility in Loving Encounter.”
Below you will find his short abstract, followed by a link to the larger paper discussed at the conference, “Emotions and Practical Wisdom.”
ABSTRACT: “Emotions and Practical Wisdom”
Practical wisdom connects with emotions in at least three ways. First, the perceptions most perfectly characteristic of practical wisdom, whether spontaneous intuitions or results of deliberation, are either emotions or virtual emotions. Second, practical wisdom is a power of judging emotions — one’s own and other people’s. In relation to one’s own emotions, it is an ability to recognize one’s emotions as morally fit or unfit and to understand what is right or wrong about them. As to others’ emotions, practical wisdom turns largely on sympathy, which in turn depends on a breadth of emotional dispositions in oneself and good powers for assessing emotions. Third, practical wisdom is understanding of what to do to correct morally adverse emotions and to confirm oneself in morally appropriate ones, and the motivation to do so.
Click the link below to hear our scholar and psychologist Heather C. Lench discuss her research in how our emotions impact our thoughts about our futures and daily events, and how the conversations she’s having at our working group meetings have given her new ideas about emotions.
This post is part of a series of interviews with our incoming class for the “Virtue & Happiness” 2016 Summer Seminar. Father Jason Welle, OFM of the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington, D.C. is a doctoralstudent at Georgetown University in Theology and Religious Studies, with a focus on Christianity and Islam.
Valerie Wallace: Where are you from?
Jason Welle: I grew up in Albany, Minnesota, a small farming town in the central part of the state. After completing a B.A. at St. Olaf College and an M.T.S. at the University of Notre Dame, I joined the Assumption BVM Province of Franciscan Friars, centered in Wisconsin. I currently live in Washington, D.C., where I’m completing a doctorate at Georgetown University. In the fall I will begin a visiting professorship at the Pontifical Institute for the Study of Arabic and Islam in Rome.
VW: Tell me about your research.
JW: Georgetown’s doctoral program focuses on religious pluralism; my subject areas are Christianity and Islam. I’m interested in Muslim-Christian relations broadly-speaking, especially in the middle ages and in connection with the Franciscan tradition. My dissertation focuses on medieval Ṣūfism, specifically on the concept of companionship in the writings of the Ṣūfī master ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Sulamī (d. 412/1021). In short, I chose this because I am interested in how people become better people. Medieval Ṣūfīs had an acute sense for the way our friendships shape our relationship with God and our growth in the spiritual life. My dissertation engages the theoretical work of Alasdair MacIntyre, arguing that he offers helpful resources to reconsider notions of virtue, character, and the role of a community’s practices within an Islamic context.
VW: What are you most looking forward to about this summer’s Virtue and Happiness seminar?
JW: I’m thrilled by the diversity of the participants. While we all have an interest in virtue and character, I know that the different approaches to those themes will spark questions about my work that I had not anticipated. Specifically, the seminar will help me advance one research project on which I’ve done some initial work: the role of emotions in the thought of Bernard Lonergan. I intend to bring Lonergan’s framework into conversation with Martha Nussbaum’s research on “negative emotions” like shame and anger, looking at the way these can impede proper cognition. The section of the seminar with Owen Flanagan on destructive emotions will assist me in developing my thoughts on this for publication.
VW: What are your non-academic interests?
JW: I remain gratefully active in sacramental ministry, celebrating masses and hearing confessions at our shrine church in Washington. I am a pilgrim guide in the Holy Land and travel there once or twice a year to lead groups. My brother Scott turned me into a marathoner; I train year-round and we run a full marathon together, shoulder-to-shoulder, at least once a year. Outside of Christmas and Holy Week, this is one of my greatest joys.