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The next time you feel angry at a friend who has let you down, or grateful toward one whose generosity has surprised you, consider this: you may really be bargaining for better treatment from that person in the future. According to a controversial new theory, our emotions have evolved as tools to manipulate others into cooperating with us.
...All this suggests that anger and gratitude – and perhaps other emotions, too – may be tools for turning up a partner's mental cooperation control dial, says Tooby's colleague Aaron Sell. You get angry not when someone hurts you, but when their actions betray a setting of their cooperation dial that is lower than you expect, and your anger is both a threat to turn down your own dial and an inducement to them to turn theirs up. You show gratitude not when someone benefits you, but when their dial is set higher than you expect, and this signals that you plan to turn yours up in response.
Tooby and his colleagues think that our anger or gratitude reflect our judgement of how much the other person is sacrificing enough for us – and whether they will continue to do so in future.
For instance, you might feel angry towards a friend who broke a dinner date to watch a TV programme, but not at one who did so to take his child to the hospital. Tooby points out that the harm to you is the same in each case, but the first friend's behaviour indicates his low regard for your interests – triggering anger – while the second friend's does not.