There are times when I don’t invest much effort in providing empirical evidence for things that I say are true. Sometimes it’s because I don’t HAVE much evidence, and in those cases I try to make sure I say so. Sometimes it’s because I can’t be bothered and I figure if you want evidence, you’ve got as much internet as I have, so go get it.
And sometimes it’s because it’s something taken so for granted among people who do that kind of work that I forget that other folks might have no idea and not view it as self-evident. The valence/intensity distinction is one of those.
(If you just want to know whether or not this is genuinely a framework in which emotion research is done, all you have to go is Google Scholar search “emotion valence intensity.)
Now, my sister, being evil, introduced me to the new BBC modern-day Sherlock series. It’s only three episodes and the last is a cliffhanger and I’m left waiting until fucking DECEMBER before i know how it ends. Which makes me nutsy. Anyway. It reminded of this:
When I was in junior high, I had a t-shirt that said, “I abhor the dull routine of existence; I crave for mental exaltation.” My three favorite things about the shirt: (1) it’s a Sherlock Holmes quote; (2) it uses a semi-colon; and (3) it uses the verb “to crave” in the intransive case. (I mentioned in my last post that I was a social bottomfeeder, right?)
Also it’s true for me, the quote.
Why is it true for me? Because of science!
Briefly, VALENCE is about approach/avoidance, which is the foundation of incentive motivation and personality. Very roughly speaking (which is to say that there are important ways in which the following statement is wrong) negative valence emotions like fear and hatred are avoidance emotions, inhibitors, or products of what the nerds call the Behavioral Inhibition System (BIS). Positive valence emotions like joy are approach emotions, rewards, or, in nerd-speak, products of the Behavioral Activation System (BAS). BIS/BAS. Sound familiar? Regular readers will recall SIS/SES, the dual control model of sexual response. SIS is inhibitory, SES is excitatory.
Just as with SIS/SES, people vary in the INTENSITY of their BIS and BAS. See, there’s valence – essentially brakes and gas – and then there’s intensity, or the sensitivity of the two mechanisms to environmental stimuli. See?
There are some important details I’m skipping here, but people who are high on BAS may be novelty seeking or sensation seeking or fun seeking, depending on which version of this framework you’re using. These are the folks who seek, as you might guess, novelty, sensations, fun. They try new things; abhor the dull routine of existence. They tend toward eveningness rather than morningness, they’re prone to depression, substance abuse, and some eating disorders, and I think they might also be inclined toward arhythmicity – i.e., they’re less likely to have naturally stable body rhythms and have to put some effort into keep their body clocks regulated.
The same is true for SIS and SES – those who are high on SES are increased risk for sexual compulsivity, sexual risk taking, and, generally, high risk sexual behavior. And yeah, it turns out SIS and SES are very likely separate (but linked?) mechanisms from the more general BIS and BAS. Your sexual personality does not predict your basic personality. I find this intriguing, but that’s another post.
What specifically a person craves varies widely, so it took me a long time to recognize myself in this group: I hardly drink, I hate roller coasters, I am unwilling to try unfamiliar food, I don’t even like talking to strangers; I am, in short, quite boring.
But then this weekend I realized that my idea of a good time was reading articles about the relationship between BIS, BAS, perfectionism, and sub-clinical worry. I don’t take risks with my body, but I’ll go out on ANY intellectual limb, explore any theory. I inhale books like I inhale nitrogen, I absorb the experiences of my students and colleagues. New information is my drug of choice.
Surely we all crave something, but let it be known that some folks really do have a different scale of appetite. The high-BAS’ers among us want NEW things, have a hard time resisting temptation, and experience life at a different volume than other folks. It ain’t easy. If you ever find yourself thinking about someone, “Why can’t they just CONTROL themselves?!” remember BIS and BAS. Some people’s psychological gas pedals are more sensitive than others.