Friday, November 4, 2011

Impulse and Guilt

There are two human behaviors/emotions that fascinate me: impulse and guilt.  They are at such opposite ends of the emotional spectrum, yet often the later follows the former.

Impulse seems an almost animal quality; by definition it is virtually thoughtless. Sometimes we just get the urge to do something. Often it is to satisfy some particular appetite. But sometimes our impulses seem to have no rhyme or reason whatsoever. "Why did I do that?" we often ask ourselves. And the truth is, there is probably no answer to that question; we just did it - there was no reason. It makes me wonder, why do we have them? Especially the ones that aren't connected to any particular human need (hunger, sex, etc.), why are they there? What purpose do they serve? And why do we find impulses so hard to resist? Do we all have some form of obsessive compulsive disorder?

On the other end of the emotional/behavioral spectrum is guilt. Guilt is both highly rational - we think through what we did, and the implications of those actions; but it is also highly emotional - we feel sorrow or regret. As far as I know, this is a peculiarly human trait. I don't believe animals feel guilt. An intelligent animal, like a dog, will certainly display submission behavior when caught doing something prohibited, but it doesn't really feel bad about digging up your rose bush. It doesn't consider how much you enjoyed those roses, or how much you'll miss them. That tail between the leg just means it knows from the tone of your voice that it's going to get swatted with the newspaper. That's just Pavlovian response. It's been conditioned.

But we've also been conditioned, haven't we? As children we were punished when we did wrong, and like the dog, we developed a sort of reflexive, "Oh no, I'm in trouble" feeling. So to a degree our guilt is learned. But mature guilt also involves empathy. We actually consider how our wrong may have hurt someone else, and we feel bad about it. We put ourselves in that person's place, and feel what they feel. That's something Fido can't do.

I don't think we ever get rid of the conditioned, reflexive guilt. The rational, empathetic side of guilt is just layered over it, making the feeling more complex. But I wonder when that transition from mere conditioned guilt to more complicated, rational guilt takes place? I'm sure some psychologist has figured this out by now, but it was something I was wondering about this morning.

My 19 month old son likes to sit in my lap when I'm working on the computer. Most of the time I don't mind, especially considering I don't get good cuddles as much as his mom does. But here lately he has started having this impulse to put his hands on the computer - slamming his hand down on the keyboard. After repeated warnings, I had to start giving him a spanking when he did it. For the most part, that stopped the behavior. But those impulses are so hard to resist... This morning, he was sitting in my lap while I was checking email, when all of the sudden, he reached his hand out and touched one of the keys. Without me saying a word, he pulled back his hand looked up at me and started crying. It was the first time I've seen him register guilt. I feel sure it was the more reflexive, conditioned variety, but still, the emotion was there. The look on his face said it all - he had no idea why he just did that. I just gave him a hug. I told him, "It's ok son, I know exactly how you feel." Welcome to the human race...

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