In Flagrante

16 juli 2010 | In Emotion theory Psychology TV | Comments?

Being caught at something involves more than just surprising someone with the unexpectedness of what occurs. Being caught involves doing something that means something: the act in question is taken as symptomatic of a general tendency, or as part of some larger activity, and this is what somehow rushes into the mind of the observer at the critical moment. In the paradigmatic case, the act one is caught in is the act of sex, and the sex in question represents (and instantiates) an illicit liaison, an act of betrayal of some implied or explicit contract you’ve got with your significant other.

(Side note: It is normally wise to take this contract as read, unless all parties thinks it’s OK, and even if they think its OK, make really sure that it’s actually, properly OK, because ”uncommon arrangements” (the title of Katie Ropers excellent little book on the topic) doesn’t often turn out great. Being conventional means behaving according to what has, for most people, turned out to be workable conditions. Being unconventional has potential benefits but also potential drawbacks such as failed relationships and death. Like most ”intellectuals”, I think, I’ve been fascinated by the possibility of this sort of unconventionality. Nabokov, always the most joyful killer of joys, pointed out that infidelity is the most conventional form of being unconventional. The interest is not so much the benefit of the lifestyle as such(even if a sex-life unlimited by convention may seem appealing), as in working out the kinks and examining the factors that makes it so difficult and so prone to failure. To exaggerate a bit, I think that the ”open relationship problem” might be for psychology and sociology, what ”Why can’t I fly?” is for the study of gravity. The  fact that the solution of that problem turned out to be less soaringly exhilarating and more material-dependent than we might have hoped, should be a lesson to us all).

The emotional response to catching someone at it is not brought about merely by the act itself, but by what it represents. It may be hard to see anything intrinsically wrong, but there are clear risks (STD’s, unwanted pregnancies, undermining of the mentioned contract and of future trust, a revealed general tendency to cheat etc.) and predictable reactions (a feeling of being inferior or unsatisfying as a partner, perhaps of betrayal as one has put in a lot of work to keep the relationship in a certain shape, and it turns out it isn’t.) Even if the cheating part is confident that none of these things would occur, being in the sort of optimistic and excited state flirting or seductions usually induces, he or she may underestimate the risks unwittingly, and fail to take certain dispositions of the cheated partner into account. ”What conceivable reason” the cheater may honestly think ”can there be not to have sex with this person?” and completely miss that virtually no act is limited by what happens while it takes place. Consequences and representations and shifts in larger belief sets (yours and the other parties’) are likely to be disregarded.

The paradigmatic quick response of the cheater caught is to blurt out ”it is not what you think”, which is precisely an attempt to stop the picture/story forming from the perceived event, and to steer it into more innocent territory. This rarely seem to work. Which is kind of odd, in a way. Somehow, very few scenarios – including cases where an enormous amount of work has been put into a strong and lasting relationship – is sufficient to make this event negligible, or to make the first reaction be ”this must be some sort of mistake”. It’s as if the suspicion has been there all along, just waiting for confirmation. The construction to which one reacts, and which warrant the strength and lasting effects of the emotional reaction, can’t very well be the product of that particular event. Indeed, the reaction is bound to be influenced not only by the alternative storylines one has about ones life, but also by various more or less artistic representations of events like it. In fact, if you ever catch anyone engaged in illicit liaisons, and in particular if she or he says ”it’s not what you think” the best way to vent your anger might be to bring on a lawsuit for copyright infringement.

The normal reaction is made sensible, however, by the fact that the deception implied means precisely that a large amount of previous held beliefs must be questioned at once, and the first thing to be doubted is what comes out of the deceiving party’s mouth.

Other things may, of course, be like this to. Sex is very important, but contingently so. If I really care about our conversations, have a vague feeling that they are not now as good as they used to be, and find you having a very spiritual conversation indeed with someone else, I may react in the same way. I can be caught playing a game of tennis (after claiming inability or reluctance to do so), plotting a revolution or planning a crime or a birthday party, and the reaction and the picture/story emerging in your head depends, of course, on our previous relations and arrangements.

”Being caught in the act” is interesting also because it’s similar to an other celebrated event, namely the phenomena of insight. An insight is typically a short cognitive event, a moment where a whole theory somehow presents itself, or a solution, that may be very complex, appear as if at once. Usually, this is something the mechanisms and outlines of which where in place already, but perhaps the credence, the degree of belief, was not and here we have some form of kink worked out or the crucial bit of evidence that was missing revealed.

As philosophers, I think, we often find ourselves in a position not unlike that of the cheater caught in the act: We claim something that is counter-intuitive and people won’t listen for the justification/reasoning. Because when listening to a philosopher, people often find that they trust their previous beliefs more than they trust their ability not to be fooled by a philosophical argument.  It’s like when we meet a magician. We decide not to trust our senses, because we know magicians are adept at deceive those senses. Bertrand Russell, notorious for his uncommon arrangements, used to say that the way to do philosophy is to work ideas the other way round: to start with something so trivial as to not seem worth mentioning, and to reason ones way into something so paradoxical that no one will believe it.

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