April 1, 2019
Everyone feels emotions. Even those who seek to suppress their emotions through stuffing or addiction still feel them. However, most of the time, we don’t consider how our emotions come to be or how they’re threaded through our evolution. Shining a light and focusing our attention on our emotions is what Emotion and Adaptation seeks to do.
I came to this book through a very winding route. Some years ago, I read Destructive Emotions, which is a conversation including both the Dalai Lama and Paul Ekman. Since then, I had read more of Paul Ekman’s work in Telling Lies and Cracking the Code. I’ve read much of the Dalai Lama’s work in An Appeal to the World and My Spiritual Journey. I also read Emotional Awareness, which shares some of the continuing conversations of Dr. Ekman and the Dalai Lama. However, it was the challenge put forth in How Emotions Are Made that caused me to dig back through my notes and to discover a comment that Dr. Ekman made to the Dalai Lama about the book Emotion and Adaptation.
The challenge is whether emotions are universally formed and have a singular physiological signature that defines them or whether emotions are the result of a set of forces that don’t cause them to end up in predictable patterns as much as they create clusters of related feelings. Where How Emotions are Made criticizes the established thinking about emotions, Emotion and Adaptation takes the long view and mostly affirms the existing thinking while indicating, in places, that what we know about emotions is incomplete.
At the heart of the question is how emotions are formed and Lazarus’ assertion in Emotion and Adaptation is that emotions are formed based on the appraisal of the environment. That is that emotions are our response to what we believe the impact of the situation will be to us. We’re constantly scanning the environment to assess it for threats and opportunities. These assessments – whether correct or not – become the basis for our emotions.
Lazarus believes that emotions come from a primary appraisal of the relevance of the environment to our goals. The first part of the appraisal is a filter as to whether the environment is relevant to any goal. If it is relevant, then the next step is the evaluation of whether the current environment is congruent or incongruent. That is, the environment is appraised to whether it helps move us forward in our goals or backwards. Finally, we consider how important this goal is to our self-identification.
There is a secondary appraisal that is engaged to assess attribution of the environment – whether we’ll receive credit or blame for the situation, our coping potential, and whether we expect that the situation will get better or worse.
The coping potential component of the secondary assessment is very much like willpower (see Willpower) and hope (see The Psychology of Hope). The secondary assessment isn’t an assessment of the person-environment relationship. Instead, it’s an assessment of our personal capacity. It’s about whether or not we can rise to the challenge.
Where our assessment of the relationship between the environment and our goals drives us towards an emotion, the intensity of the emotion is created by the level of threat or opportunity with relationship to the goal and our commitment to the goal. The more committed to the goal we are, the more intense our emotions will be when there is a threat or opportunity towards it.
When we feel strong emotions, we would do well to consider how committed we are to the goal – and why we feel the goal is threatened or strengthened by the situation.
One of the key challenges that people face with their emotions is that they feel opaque. It’s not possible for most people to peer into the construction of their emotions – a point discussed at length in How Emotions Are Made. Because emotions just seem to happen, it’s difficult to even determine what caused the emotion to erupt in the first place.
When viewing emotions as the response to our assessment of the impact of the environment on our goals, it’s important to recognize that not all goals are the same for everyone. Still, some goals are universal. Survival is, generally, one such goal. The other class of goals are unique to us and our perceptions of ourselves.
Some of our personal goals are apparent in our explicit understanding of ourselves and what we want. Another set of personal goals are not explicit and are tacit things that we want but cannot articulate. (See Lost Knowledge for more on tacit vs. explicit.)
In seeking a better relationship with our emotions, it’s relatively easy to disassemble the factors leading to our emotional responses by evaluating the common or explicit personal goal impacted and the way that we feel that goal is impacted. While the connection we make unconsciously may be faster and richer than our conscious awareness, we can with work generally expose the components that led to the emotional reaction.
However, uncovering the cause of emotions which are driven by tacit goals is substantially harder. This is both because tacit goals are necessarily unconscious and because they don’t always make rational sense. Often, the tacit goals that provoke emotion are goals to protect ourselves – from hurts that we’ve previously felt.
There’s a bit of recursion going on to say that some of our emotions are based on previous emotions. However, there is lots of loops in nature, history, and evolution. The assessment of the environment is heavily biased towards the things that have harmed us in the past. So, at one level, we have a goal to not be harmed that is universal. In fact, Jonathan Haidt spoke of care/harm as a foundation for morality in The Righteous Mind.
At a more detailed level, we’re working to prevent the specific hurts that we’ve felt. If we’ve been hurt by someone close to us in a romantic relationship, we may find ways to protect ourselves from this pain. Sometimes, in this case, we’ll seek to isolate ourselves and to prevent intimacy. (See Intimacy Anorexia.) John Gottman’s word is “stonewalling,” which expresses the defensive nature. (See The Science of Trust.)
The fact that people respond based on their history is a fact. The question is what we do with that knowledge. Do we ignore our history and accept that there are hidden hurts that will drive us, or do we seek to acknowledge the past hurts and learn to adjust our assessments of our probability of being hurt that way again, so that we’re willing to take appropriate risks? (For more on the topic of trust, see Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy.)
So often, our emotions that rise to the surface like a geyser are stirred in our history of hurts that we aren’t even conscious of. We are, in many ways, still assessing the situation like a child – or younger adult – who has been harmed deeply and is positioning to prevent the hurt from happening again.
States and Traits
It’s in the processing of these hurts that we land ourselves in the murky land between emotional states – that is, our moment to moment emotions – and emotional traits – our predisposition or characteristic emotions. One can be happy or generally happy. Typically grumpy or just grumpy in the moment. How is it that these are related?
There’s an intervening stop between the state and the trait that may be helpful in enhancing our understanding. We can have an emotional state of happiness or we can have a general mood of happiness. A mood is a continuance or predisposition towards an emotion over time – but not as a permanent state of the individual. A mood then is the first extension of an emotional state over time.
Moods are like the emotional record getting stuck in a groove. The same emotions seem to keep reoccurring until someone bumps the table and causes the record to jump into a new groove. That is, someone in a mood seems to have the same emotional states more frequently than others.
Extending this across time, what if an emotional trait is simply a magnet that pulls emotional states back towards a set of states that are familiar, common, and comfortable?
If we consider this in the context of hidden hurts, we can see that sometimes the environment is assessed positively or negatively for a while until something substantial changes the assessment, and thus we get a mood. Hidden hurts, which aren’t dealt with, can keep pulling a person back to an assessment that leads them to have the same emotional states across time.
The more we can address the hidden hurts, the less pull they have to keep us in a mood or even develop an emotional trait. The more that we can help ourselves feel safe in the recognition of these hurts, the more we can help ourselves feel safe.
Startle vs. Emotion
With any definition, the challenges are always at the edges. What is an emotion and what is not? When it comes to this question, the challenge is often defining what it is to be startled. If your view is that emotions are caused by appraisal of the environment, what sort of appraisal can be made in the milliseconds between a loud noise and the resulting jump? The answer is – of course – not much. Thus, it makes sense that Lazarus might define startle as a reaction rather than an emotion.
Largely this makes sense. The startle itself doesn’t influence mood, and though it forces the reticular activating system (RAS) to turn the attention dial up to 12, it doesn’t directly seem to have an emotional component. (See Change or Die for more on the RAS.) The physiological impact of adrenaline release seems to increase the tendencies for anxiety and fear – but these can easily be explained by the endocrine system without need to ascribe direct emotive qualities.
So just like moods or emotional traits aren’t necessarily emotions but rather are factors that influence emotion, so, too, are there physiological and neurological events like the startle response that are not emotions either.
Safety is an illusion. We believe that we are safe when we are only relatively safe – or unsafe. Our technology has limited the devastation that Mother Nature can unleash. We’ve found ways to reliably provide shelter and warmth for most humans. We’ve learned how to avoid food borne diseases and we eliminate harmful bacteria from our water. In many ways, our lives are safer than they have ever been – and yet we’re still not objectively, completely safe.
A car or plane crash can still into our homes, killing us. For all that matters, we don’t know that there’s not an invisible, asteroid-sized object on a collision course with Earth right now. There is no way that we can guarantee that we are actually safe. We can only say that we feel safe – or not.
Our emotions are not driven by our actual safety. Our emotions are driven by our perception of our safety. We can walk within feet of a lion and feel safe – if we’re in a zoo. It isn’t the lion itself that creates our fear. It’s the possibility that the lion might eat us. We evaluate the probability and even possibility that we might be harmed – and decide whether we should be afraid or not.
The key opportunity in Lazarus’ work is the opportunity to create the perception of safety to change the appraisals that people make and therefore their emotions. Albert Bandura’s work demonstrated that even those people with strong phobias can be relieved of the phobia through progressive introduction of safety. (See some of his work in Moral Disengagement. I covered my book review about the mechanisms and the cases.)
Adaptive and Maladaptive
One of the interesting questions that arise with emotions is whether they’re adaptive or maladaptive. That is, would most people believe that the response was proportional to the situation? In the context of our hidden hurts, this is problematic. If we recoil from a touch and get anxious, is that adaptive or maladaptive? With no history of pain, one would say that such an emotional reaction would be maladaptive. However, put in the context of someone who has been physically abused, the anxiety is a reasonable response.
A better way to view adaptive and maladaptive may be to view the response in the context of whether the response moves someone forward to their collective goals. So, is the emotion itself and the corresponding behaviors congruent with moving someone forward towards their goals or moving them further away? Adaptive behaviors move us closer to our goals and maladaptive ones move us further away. When our emotions are adaptive, they encourage adaptive behaviors.
Afflictive or Non-Afflictive
Where Western psychology uses the measurement of adaptive and maladaptive, Buddhism uses afflictive and non-afflictive. Rather than measuring the behaviors that result from the emotion, Buddhism acknowledges that the emotion itself can be helpful or harmful. Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers explains the profound and multifaceted impact of stress on our bodies and minds (see my reviews regarding the physical impact, the psychology and neurology, and the causes and cures of stress). Nelson Mandela wrote, “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” Resentment is a poison – an emotion that would be easily described as afflictive, because it harms you but not the other person. Conversely, caring for others seems to have positive physical and psychological benefits.
While we can’t directly control our emotions, we can look for opportunities to shape them by encouraging non-afflictive, adaptive responses and discouraging emotions that cause us emotional distress.
If you were to look through DSM-5 for diagnosis criteria for the various psychological problems that are cataloged, you’d find a common thread. That thread is the fact that the diagnostic criteria almost uniformly include some form of emotional distress. Emotional distress is the key to psychopathology. However, emotional distress in and of itself isn’t psychopathology. Even with the definition of depression, there is care taken to avoid short-term negative mood. Depression is reserved for when the feelings are persistent over a longer period of time.
Your car breaks down or, more precisely, catches on fire while you’re driving it, resulting in a total loss. You’re in the position of needing to get a new car immediately. Your emotional reaction isn’t going to be positive, but it will be very different if you’ve got the money saved up to buy the new car you want with cash vs. having to accept something you don’t want and still being concerned about the car payment if you don’t have the money to replace it. The difference in how you feel has very little to do with the actual event and has more to do with your capacity to cope with it.
While this is a practical example, the same holds true for the loss of a friend when you have many friends as compared to you have few friends or you find it hard to make new friends. You’ll react differently to job loss if you feel like you’ll have no trouble finding a new position when compared to if you’re concerned that you’ll find anything – or that you won’t be able to make enough to live with what you can find.
Our emotional response is driven by our belief in ourselves and our capacity to overcome. Martin Seligman and his colleagues once believed that you could learn helplessness. However, more recent research by his colleagues teaches us that we actually learn control or the illusion of control. (See Compelled to Control for more on the illusion of control, and The Hope Circuit for learning control vs. learning helplessness.)
When we teach ourselves and others that we have more control of our world, we minimize the intensity of emotions and generally make them more positive.
The Relationship Between Cognition and Emotion
It may be apparent at this point that there is a relationship between cognition and emotion. In fact, I’ve been encouraging the thought that our cognition can shape our emotion. By subtly shifting and changing our appraisals, we can shift our emotions. We can do this by changing our goals or exposing conflicting goals that balance out the appraisal as not good in some respects and good in others. However, I’ve largely ignored the impact that emotion has on cognition.
Drive explains that time pressure focuses thinking in a way that limits the development of alternate solutions. Thinking, Fast and Slow explains how negative confirmation bias can send us into a downward spiral. Our emotion has the greatest influence on our cognition by shaping what options we’re able to consider. This is one of the reasons why having a community of supportive, authentic people can be a powerful forward force in your life.
Depression and Grief
Depression is a critical topic for today’s world. It’s moving into the position of being the world’s largest health concern. It’s been the subject of Choice Theory, Warning: Psychiatry Can be Hazardous to Your Mental Health, and scores of other books. Depression is the reaction to loss, whether that be a tangible or a psychological loss. Grief, on the other hand, is related but different in that it is focused on the activation of resources for coping with the loss. Where depression appears to just happen to someone, grief is the process of recovery.
If you were to point to one thing that we could do to relieve human suffering, it would be to help people move from a focus on the losses that they’ve experienced and towards the capacity that they have to recover. In other words, it would be moving people from depression to grief. Instead of being victims of the loss, they become reactionary to it. (See Boundaries, Beyond Boundaries, Daring Greatly, and Change or Die for more on victimhood.)
The Necessity of Emotions
While emotions may at times be unpleasant and unwanted, they’re necessary for life, happiness, and joy. In my experience, I’ve seen the severe psychological distress created by people who are not able to express their emotions, because they’ve been told that emotions are scary or unsafe. The resulting misery and sometimes catastrophic breaks in reality are tragic.
Perhaps if you can understand where emotions come from and how they form, you can remove the fear of emotions and instead harness them to help move you to a place of happiness and joy. It’s not possible to blunt out the negative feelings without blunting the joy that life can bring, and most of us can’t live without some joy. Maybe that’s why there’s Emotion and Adaptation.