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Passions within Reason is a remarkably prescient and insightful book, drawing upon behavioral research of the decade leading to its publication (1988). It is also a rather subtle book. Even though I used in in a college course I taught in 1989, I do not believe I really understood it until I reread it very recently.
Frank asks: why to people help others, and retaliate against others who harm them, even when they can expect no future personal, material gain from so doing? His answer is that there are emotional rewards to helping those who deserve our aid and hurting others who deserve our ire. Our behavior towards others is regulated by the passions: empathy, spite, shame, remorse, guilt, compassion, and the other social emotions.
He then asks: why are those who behave in this emotional way not displaced (e.g., by having more offspring, or by acquiring more earthly possessions) by others who are purely selfish, and who help and hurt only when a dispassionate calculation indicates that it is in their material interest to do so? He answers this by noting that our emotions "precommit" us to keeping our promises and carrying out our threats, so that we gain in the long run by not being able (or willing) to make the dispassionate calculation. We gain because others will trust our promises and respect our threats. Frank calls the the "commitment model."
This idea that it is "rational" to be "emotional" is, of course, a commonplace today, and has been popularized by neuroscientist Alberto Damasio's fine book, Descartes' Error, and more recently, philosopher Martha Nussbaum's UPheavals of Thought. Experiments using behavioral game theory more than amply confirm the centrality of emotions in decision-making even in the company of strangers (see papers on prosocial emotions on my web site: [...]
A thornier question is: why can a purely selfish type (otherwise known as a sociopath) not simply mimic the behavior of a committed altruist when it suits his purposes, and not otherwise? If this were possible, and there were no other counteracting tendencies, sociopaths would surely drive out committed altruists. Here Frank is less convincing. He says simply that it is very hard to fake the emotions, just as it is difficult for a small bullfrog to fake his size by mimicking the deep-throated croaks of his larger bretheren. This is true, but some people do this very successfully. Why do they not prosper? Moreover, there is no obvious developmental constraint in humans opposing the evolution of excellent emotional cheats.
Perhaps the payoffs to faking commitment are not that high. Surely this would explain why it is "difficult to fake emotions": they payoff to doing is low or negative, so the capacity for faking has not evolved to a high level in humans. More recent research, using models of gene-culture coevolution, indicate that this may well be the case. See, for instance, Herbert Gintis, "The Hitchhiker's Guide to Altruism: Genes, Culture, and the Internalization of Norms", Journal of Theoretical Biology 220,4 (2003):407-418, and Robert Boyd, Herbert Gintis, Samuel Bowles and Peter J. Richerson, "Evolution of Altruistic Punishment", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 100,6 [mar] (2003):3531-3535.