13 May 2002  Research & Ideas

Bringing the Master Passions to Work

Ambition, envy, self-deception. These "master passions" are everywhere, say HBS professor Nitin Nohria and the University of Toronto's Mihnea C. Moldoveanu, co-authors of Master Passions: Emotion, Narrative, and the Development of Culture. In this excerpt, they describe what master passions mean for you.


If passions are the masters of reason—as David Hume (1960) believed—then they have done a remarkable job at getting us to believe in their benign nature—their outright subservience to reason. Deception and self-deception are as critical to the narratives that the emotions wield as blood is to a tragedy. Critical also is the fear of being "caught"—in one's "true colors," one's real emotional state. Falling prey to one's passions—wearing one's heart on one's sleeve—is often considered imprudent, dangerous, and inconsiderate—a flaw. At all costs, the passions in our culture stand ever in need of repression, suppression, or the therapeutic influence of reason. What we cannot explain must often remain hidden. Hence, the student of passions should take the stance of a detective or a spy, seeking to expose the tranquilizing mechanisms of the "reasonable temperament."

The workings of what we now call reason spring from a primitive emotion—our anxiety at being alive and thrust toward an end past which we cannot see with any of our senses. The impulse to explain is the impulse to freeze the elusive moment into an immovable concept. But for conceptual maps that shape our perceptions, we would be free—and on our own—to face the unknown that lurks from behind every leaf and every smile. But for the justifications that ground these conceptual maps into other ideas, we would be free—and on our own, again—in doubting the maps that give the mind comfort in the fact that the world is intelligible, predictable, and known. But for the logic that underlies these explanations, we would be free to doubt the very foundations of any explanatory act.

The master passions orchestrate their own disappearing acts.
— Mihnea C. Moldoveanu and Nitin Nohria

The fact that logic is timeless—untensed—is not a coincidence: It is the tenselessness of logical explanations that makes them attractive to a mind so impressed with its own temporality. The impulse to explain and to give accounts is also the telltale sign of the desire to impress by expressing—to control other minds through erudition, wit, and eloquence. We can seize others "by their minds" with our justificatory strategies. We get them to see the world "our way," and we can hope to thus tame the unknown that lurks in other minds and to harness these minds for our ends. Impeccable justification is the hallmark of successful persuasion.

Much of modern science bears the mark of the ambitious who needs to conquer other minds through far-reaching "theories of everything." He aims to conquer in mind-space what Alexander the Great, Napoleon I, and Adolf Hitler tried to conquer in world-space—"the world." "I want the world," we hear sexy heroines declare to their anxious lovers in popular movies. "The world" is a popular subject of desire: Many of us want "the world" most of the time. And passions that come to rule our lives and shape our construal of reality—such as ambition and envy—are born of our inability to achieve the world, a fact that makes some turn either bitterly destructive, delusively constructive, or hotly maniacal.

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"I am a maniacal 'toon,"' screams Dr. Doom in Steven Spielberg's Who Framed Roger Rabbit. His eyes are red and sinister and pop out of his head. His dream is to build the modern highway, with restaurants and gasoline stations pouring their contents into millions of gas- and food-guzzling Americans speeding along. He would like to wire his will into the lives of millions—by creating a structure that will constrain their behaviors according to his wishes. He is the ambitious demon of our age—one whose incarnation in the Carnegies and Rockefellers and Morgans of the American century has produced the infrastructure underlying the "everyday" in North America today. The lust for "cosmic power"—popularized but not exorcised by the evil genie in Disney's Aladdin—is alive, well, and ever present in the everyday: Just look closely at your boss, wife, husband, and mother in their domineering moments. But we've become increasingly better at disguising this lust: "Do you want your eggs fried or boiled?" we ask, instead of first making it clear that the poor creature must have eggs, no matter what his or her wishes might be.

"Destruction—aught with evil bent—that is my proper element," says Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Mephistopheles. His will—to repay "spite with spite," as John Milton would put it—draws its breath from the passions of envy and jealousy. Destruction wreaks envy upon matter—sometimes stoking it, sometimes exorcising it. So Mephistopheles destroys. He cannot create—even though he is a genius. He can dream of great fires but cannot, like his creator, invent the spark that causes a fire. Nor can he cause causation to "happen." Instead of looking inward to see the flaw, the shortcoming, the difference between himself and God, he curses and rebels; he leaks profanities wherever his athletic body takes him. And it usually takes him toward the beautiful and the damned—those who crave recognition and respect from others and are willing to give up their authenticity to receive it. Gratefully the mighty evil one obliges them, fondles their entrails with the pleasures of satisfied vanity in exchange for further considerations. He is the envious demon of our age—the great inspirer of the people who brought us the Gulag labor camps and the Communist heaven.

Master passions—passions that create our world and are in turn proliferated by these very creations—are ubiquitous. But ubiquity is a privilege that accrues to those who can make themselves invisible. So the master passions orchestrate their own disappearing acts. To be successful, they must be invisible. They help us create the myths and stories that will render them invisible. "The greatest trick the devil has perpetrated," says Kevin Spacey's character in The Usual Suspects, "is to convince people there is no such thing as the devil."

The master passions thus can erect their own smoke screens. When in their grip, we get to choose between deception and self-deception. Either you truly believe that you are firing your friend for the good of the firm, or—if not—you might realize that you are doing it so you can have greater power within the organization, and you must lie to him about the true motive of your behavior. Self-deception is often the easier and more comfortable path.

Excerpted with permission from Master Passions: Emotion, Narrative, and the Development of Culture, MIT Press, 2002.

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Mihnea C. Moldoveanu is an assistant professor at the University of Toronto.