Authentic Emotion and Reliable Action

What is going on when we’re judging the believability of an actor’s performance? Where does this sense of the authenticity, or realness, of feelings come from? In what sense can a feeling be manufactured?

The simple answer is when our big (physical) movements are reliably reflective of our internal felt state — the obfuscated micromovements — we consider our behavior coherent and authentic. We’ve developed all kinds of heuristics that subconsciously seem to classify whether someone’s “outward” presentation of affect is corresponding to what they are probably feeling on the “inside”. But I think there may be something more going on, as well. Not only do we want to know whether someone’s behavior is coherent with their felt sense but also we are interested in how reliably the emotional affect and corresponding action is going to be triggered by similar situations in the future. We are interested in perceived durability or reliability.

The fundamental question which becomes crucial to answer to ensure survival for a social organism is: When I’m in trouble in the future, how likely are you to not only feel compassion but act on it in a meaningful way to help me? This matters because we are all resource constrained. We have finite time, money, and energy. We can’t be there, in any useful sense, for everyone at once. Sometimes the thing we want to do, for some people the easy and natural thing to do, is to feel and show compassion for anyone that seems to need help. But in some sense, and in a way that seems to set off the inauthenticity detector for many people, this seems inauthentic. The detector may be doing useful work here. Even if someone can and frequently does feel compassion all the time for everyone and acts upon it in the moment, you are subconsciously (correctly) realizing that, while providing momentary relief, this person is likely to be unreliable in the future if you require a more substantive intervention than empathy. Whether we like it or not, useful and reliable relationships are necessarily bound together with some amount of specialness, exclusivity, and scarcity. Making it appear otherwise can lead to trouble.

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