Charlie Kurth’s new book The Anxious Mind is just out with MIT Press, and we’re pleased to have him aboard today to talk a bit about it. Please join in on the conversation! Take it away, Charlie!
I’m delighted to have the opportunity to contribute!
A central theme in my research is the idea that progress on questions in ethics, moral psychology, and emotion theory can be productively informed by empirical inquiry in the social and cognitive sciences. This strategy is at the heart of my recent book The Anxious Mind: An Investigation into the Varieties and Virtues of Anxiety(MIT 2018). Below, I say a little about the book and where my current research is heading.
In my book, I try to enrich our understanding of anxiety by exploring two questions. What is anxiety and how might it be valuable? While I take these questions to be independently interesting, I also see them as intimately connected: understanding what anxiety is helps us understand what value it has.
Getting into some details, consider the first project—investigating what anxiety is. We talk of ‘anxiety’ as if the label picks out something distinct. But does it? There is reason for doubt. We use ‘anxiety’ in a variety of ways: as a label for both social worries and hardwired responses to potential threats—not to mention existential angst and clinical disorders. So what, if anything, unifies this motley crew?
In taking on this question, I develop an empirically informed account of anxiety, what I call the ‘biocognitive model’. As the name suggests, the biocognitive model takes anxiety to be the product of two mechanisms (Levenson et al. 2007; Sripada & Stich 2004). First, there is a biologically hardwired “core” system: an affect program that sensitizes us to uncertainty about potential threats/challenges and that prompts actions aimed at addressing the uncertainty at hand (e.g., risk minimization efforts, information gathering). Second, there is a more flexible, cognitive, and culturally influenced “control” system that gives shape to both our sense of what’s problematically uncertain and how we subsequently respond.
The biocognitive account of anxiety brings two payoffs. First, by making a case for an anxiety affect program, it quiets worries that there’s nothing that unifies the core of our anxiety talk. Second, seeing that the anxiety affect program is shaped by a cognitive control system provides a framework for specifying different types of anxiety and doing so in a principled manner. Of particular note here is what I call ‘practical anxiety,’ an unappreciated variety of anxiety that not only helps individuals identify situations where they face difficult choices, but also engages epistemic behaviors (e.g., deliberation, reflection, information gathering) that can help them determine what the correct thing to do is.
Turning to the question of anxiety’s value, my core project is to reorient thinking about the role of emotions in ethics. More specifically, I argue that the current focus on backward-looking moral emotions like guilt and shame leaves us with a picture that is badly incomplete. To get a better understanding of emotions’ place in moral life, we must also take note of the important role that more forward-looking emotions—anxiety in particular—play in moral thought and action.
On this front, my central focus is on practical anxiety. By working principally to orient us toward questions about what we should do, rather than what we have done, practical anxiety can promote better moral and practical decision making. As such, it’s an emotion that plays an important role in agency, virtue, and moral progress. To draw this out, I look to a set of historical case studies where we see practical anxiety being felt by moral exemplars—individuals like Nelson Mandela, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, John Woolman, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Consider an example. In his autobiography, Nelson Mandela talks at length about the unease he felt as a result of being both a father and a freedom fighter. Moreover, in these passages, he also explains how his anxiety led him to reflect on “whether one was ever justified in neglecting the welfare of one’s own family in order to fight for the welfare of others” (1994: 212).
As a tool for understanding practical anxiety’s value, Mandela’s experiences are telling in several respects. First, we see Mandela’s anxiety functioning as an alarm—one that draws his attention to his important, but clashing, values. Second, we also see that the anxiety Mandela feels prompts him to reflect on his priorities: is advancing the cause worth the costs to his family life that it will surely bring? Thus, in the Mandela example, we see anxiety bringing a valuable sensitivity and responsiveness to a complex, morally-fraught situation.
Moreover, the Mandela case draws out that anxiety isn’t a merely instrumentally valuable emotion—an important regulating device that signals conflict and prompts reassessment. It’s also an emotion of moral (or aretaic) importance. Notice, for instance, that Mandela’s anxiety about his competing values underlies our assessment of him: were he not anxious about this conflict, our admiration of him as a moral exemplar would diminish.
But while the Mandela example suggests anxiety is a valuable emotion, one might nonetheless worry that this impression is just the result of a cherry-picked example. My response is two-fold. First, I argue that what we see—and admire—in people like Mandela is an important, emotionally-backed form of moral concern: one that (via anger) inclines us to defend what we value when it is threatened and that (via practical anxiety) makes us sensitive to uncertainty about what to do and what to value.
Second, I draw on empirical work to show that practical anxiety works as the Mandela cases suggests it does. For instance, experimental findings indicate that anxiety about difficult decisions and conflicting values not only tends to bring open-minded inquiry, but also improves one’s understanding of the issues at hand (MacKuen et al. 2010; Valentino et al. 2008).
Alas, few of us are like Mandela. This raises a further question about what, if anything, we can do to shape our anxiety for the better. Building on insights from virtue theory and cognitive science, I highlight some ways that we can enhance our ability to feel anxiety at the right time and in the right way.
Here we find, for instance, that we’re better able to shape our emotions to the extent that we can identify and understand the emotions we are experiencing: if I can recognize that the agitation I’m feeling is anger, not disgust or anxiety, I’ll be better able to understand how my feelings will affect my thoughts and actions. This, in turn, will better enable me to direct my anger in beneficial ways. Moreover, the ability to engage in this kind of emotion identification, and to use this understanding to direct emotions in positive ways, is skill-like—a capacity we can learn to deploy more effectively (Kashdan et al. 2015, Barrett 2017, Sherman 1989).
In the context of anxiety, cultivation techniques like emotion identification and understanding are particularly interesting. After all, an implication of the biocognitive model is that practical anxiety should not be understood as everyday anxiety with distinctive content. Rather, it should be understood as a distinct type of anxiety. This has two implications.
First, it suggests that certain varieties of anxiety—practical anxiety in particular—may be more valuable than others (e.g., social anxiety, performance anxiety). Second, it suggests that cultivation strategies like the above—strategies that work by focusing us on the distinctive features of particular emotions—should be well equipped to help us shape our anxieties for the better. On this front, work in social and clinical psychology provides cause for optimism (e.g., Hofmann & Smits 2008; Abramowitz 2001).
This last set of issues regarding emotion cultivation is the focus of a set of projects that I’m currently working on. My central thought here is that philosophical debates about the value of (say) disgust, compassion, and anxiety are tied in significant ways to empirical questions about how these emotions operate and what, if anything, we can do to shape them for the better. But this empirical work suggests that some emotions are more susceptible to cultivation than others. I believe that this fact about our moral psychology has important—and revisionary—implications for our understanding of agency and virtue.
Abramowitz, J. S. (2001). Treatment of scrupulous obsessions and compulsions using exposure and response prevention: A case report. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 8, 79–85.
Barrett,. L. (2017). How emotions are made. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Hofmann, S., & Smits, J. (2008). Cognitive-behavioral therapy for adult anxiety disorders. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 69, 621–632.
Kashdan, T. et al. (2015). Unpacking Emotion Differentiation. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24, 10-16/
Levenson, R., Soto, J., & Pole, N. (2007). Emotion, biology, and culture. In S. Kitayama & D. Cohen (Eds.), Handbook of cultural psychology (pp. 780–796). New York: Guilford Press.
Mandela, N. (1994). Long walk to freedom. Boston: Back Bay Books.
MacKuen, et al. (2010). Civil engagements. American Journal of Political Science, 54, 440–458.
Sherman, N. (1989). The fabric of character. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Sripada, C., & Stich, S. (2004). Evolution, culture, and the irrationality of the emotions. In D. Evans & P. Cruse (Eds.), Emotion, evolution and rationality (pp. 133–158). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Valentino, N., et al. (2008). Is a worried citizen a good citizen?. Political Psychology, 29, 247–273.