Monday, October 17, 2011


Psychology has been very influenced by an approach called behaviourism. Behaviourism took the view that there was no point in trying to understand what goes on inside the mind; it focused exclusively on behaviour that can be externally observed. This leaves us with a problem concerning emotion; following behaviourist principles, we can only study emotion in terms of external behaviours. But is this all there is to anger, for instance – a mass of behaviours? Surely it must be useful to try to look inside, and collect information on what it feels like to be angry, for instance. As well as behaviours, therefore, we must examine feelings; methods used include introspection, where people give accounts of their own feelings. A third element is physiology. Different emotions may be related to different bodily responses. Our autonomic nervous system (ANS) has, for instance, two complementary subsystems: the sympathetic ANS, which arouses us; and the parasympathetic ANS, which brings us calm. These can be measured by skin conductance (as with lie detectors, for instance), or electromyography (EMG).

Could you make a list of all emotions? We might think we know what emotions are, but how do we know that we have a correct or complete list? What about cultural influences, for instance? One approach to this issue is to try to decide which emotions seem to be experienced and described across the world. Lists vary, but many psychologist s agree on a core list of five basic emotions: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, and happiness (with the possible addition of surprise). Ekman has studied across cultures, and together with Oster has found support for a common base by establishing that children show similar emotions worldwide. In terms of names for emotions, Wallbott and Scherer looked at 37 countries, and found definite words for seven key emotions. But a problem with this ‘basic emotions’ approach is that it omits more complex emotions. It also says little about what triggers these emotions, and what social rules govern emotional behaviours.

An alternative approach is to define emotions in terms of how they affect us. In an ingenious approach, Dawson and others asked people how they rated certain objects and events on two scales: firstly valence (i.e. does it make you feel positive or negative?), and secondly arousal (does it make you feel excited or calm?). This enables us to plot on a two-dimensional graph where many objects and events lie. For instance, enjoyable fast driving might be plotted as high on arousal, and high on positive valence. Boring study might be plotted as low on arousal, and low on positive valence. However, this approach doesn’t deal well with multi-valence experiences – we often feel positive and negative at the same time, and may sometimes even feel calm and excited at the same time (as with pleasant anticipation).

You may have noticed that emotions like anger and fear stop you doing what you are doing, and change your attitude or behaviour. Often this signals that something we are trying to achieve may not be achieved. We could say that emotions have a function of making us aware of when our goals may not be met. Following on from this, the emotion may then arouse us in preparation for action – in fact, some arousal is important for proper use of physical resources, as is well-known by sports psychologists. Then, when acting, we can signal to others our emotional state, so they can be aware – as Darwin, for instance, pointed out back in the 1800s.

And there is a special function of emotion in terms of making decisions. It seems that, whenever we experience an event along with an emotion, we store that for future use. Damasio studied this in a gambling context, using biased packs of cards. He discovered that, if we play a reward-based game repeatedly, we can use our emotional responses to develop cues, or ‘somatic markers’, learning which pack of cards is biased in our favour. Probably we use emotions in the same way when we choose our friend preferences. Perhaps each person is like a different pack of cards. We learn through repetition who brings us positive experience, and who brings us negative experience, and begin to show a preference. Most people prefer to make small gains and avoid large losses. This means that we unconsciously choose friends who do not cause us big pain, but bring us little lifts and gifts! However, there may be differences in style, with some unusual, risk-seeking people preferring to engage with people who sometimes bring them big losses, but bring them excitement. Perhaps these people are the relationship equivalent of heavy gamblers!

So emotion can influence our future actions, by giving a positive/negative ‘gut feeling’ to objects and events. Why do we need to feel emotions subjectively? Wouldn’t it be easier not to have to experience the pain? Well, perhaps we need to experience the pain of fear and disgust, for instance, so that we can inhibit, through conscious awareness, future actions which may not have positive results. In other words, if we consciously anticipate by habit, then if we are to modify that conscious habit, we need to consciously feel the modifying, ‘warning’ emotions as well, even if they bring pain.

Emotion affects what we remember. We remember things better if the content and style match our current mood (Bower, 1981). More than this, we recall things better if we are in the same mood as when we put them into memory (Matt et al., 1992). Think about what this means: it means that if we are feeling anxious, we will tend to remember things that we experienced when we were anxious. Teasdale and other psychologists have explored the vicious circle of anxiety/anxious memory/more anxiety that this can cause. Some mindfulness therapy is intended to break this cycle by encouraging us to take control of our awareness/attentional bias.

MacLeod researched attention in an emotional context, and found that we respond faster to neutral areas than threat-related areas of a display. However, anxious patients showed the opposite tendency. Mathews and others have suggested that anxiety makes us too quick to respond to possible threats in our environment, making us hyper-vigilant. And when Eysenck and others presented people with the sound of words with two meanings, high-trait anxious people were biased towards the anxious meaning. So perhaps if we are anxious by nature, we are more likely to reinforce this state with our interpretation of what we see and hear.

Although we don’t agree entirely on a good list of emotions, we have an idea that key emotions are anger, fear, disgust, sadness and happiness. Emotions are useful because they interrupt us when our goals are frustrated; they get us ready for action; they signal our state to others; and they help us make preferential decisions. There is a danger that some negative emotions may reinforce themselves by making us remember, and attend to, events that reflect the same state. We can get ‘locked in’ to anger, fear or anxiety. The best cure for this might be meditation, or mindfulness, to bring our awareness to nicer things.