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Monday, December 17, 2007

Dinosaurs and society

Why do people get loud when they get upset? I do it -- I know that. I don't think I'd be off-base by suggesting that most people have done it at least once in their lives. (In fact, I imagine most people do it quite a bit.) But really, why get loud?

From a strictly logical (as in Spock-logical) viewpoint, getting louder rarely accomplishes the effect of being better listened to. Human nature is such that people listen less when yelled at. (And why is that? I dunno, but I'm not going into that right now.) So, logically, if people raise their voices when upset to be better heard (and therefore better listened to), they're performing the wrong behaviour for the desired effect.

I see two other options: A) random effect of adrenaline on the vocal apparatus; and B) purposeful but outdated effect on the interaction between communicating beings.

For the first option, we could suggest that being upset (and therefore excited) causes the voice to raise almost automatically, in a manner similar to how taking a deep breath causes the chest to expand, or perhaps more appropriately, to how being hit on the knee with a little rubber hammer causes the leg to kick. (That was one of my favourite parts about checkups when I was kid, the whole reflex hammer-on-the-knee test thing.) Basically, as an uncontrolled side effect of the extra adrenaline released into your system when you're upset, your voice gets louder.

For the second option, we have to look at possible reasons why, from a socio-evolutionary perspective, getting louder when we get upset might have been useful. I can see a couple.

There's the possibility that, at the primal level (when talking was used for only the basest communication, and society as a whole was so primitive that it barely justified being called as such), if a conversation got out of hand, the best response was a show of force -- but not a major one. No kicking, no hitting, no beating of chests or thumping the ground -- nothing like that so early into the conflict, but instead a raising of the voice to challenge the offender, scare off the interloper, etc. Certainly there are plenty of mammals (especially the more socially advanced ones) who use their voices in just such a manner: dogs going from a low growl to a viscious barking, cats graduating from a warning moan to the kind of nasty squalling noise that'll wake you up at three in the morning when two toms are squaring off over turf rights.

The other possibility is that getting louder is just a simple cue to indicate the speaker is feeling stronger emotions. Sure, we get loud when we get upset, but we also tend to get loud when we're happy, or when we're in pain, or when we've screwed with our emotion-response system by imbibing alcohol. (Whoo! Party!) So, getting loud just tells the listener (and others around us) that we're feeling strong emotions -- the question remains, though, about why this kind of information might be advantageous.

I'm sure there are a number of other plausible rationales, for raising your voice when you're upset, in the same vein. Maybe it's to attract more attention, bringing more people into the conversation to produce some kind of consensus, or perhaps to produce a feedback-like dampening effect, whereby a person's inhibition against loudness increases in direct proportion to the number of people in sight.

Definitely, all of this is speculation. If I stand by my socio-evolutionary model (which is the one that makes the most sense to me for the time being), then I'll have to assume that there used to be a good reason, but that reason has been left behind by the rapid pace of social change, and is now outmoded -- a social dinosaur, so to speak.

In fact, I think I like that idea for its poetic balance, if nothing else. Roaring like a dinosaur is a dinosaur's behaviour.


(It would appear there's some fun to be had pretending to be a dinosaur. I guess Calvin was right on.)

Raaah! Rwwwaaahhhhhh!



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