Archive for June, 2010

Research on emotion in the Social Sciences

Research on emotion in the Social Sciences:

Because emotions are key to attributions for success, motivation, and goal-setting, we will be focusing on regularities in how they manifest. This is of interest because traditionally, emotions are considered to arise rather mysteriously, and be uncontrollable.  The first step to controlling emotion is to understand it.  Nico Fijdas is a social scientist whose work on emotional regularities (he refers to them as laws) is constantly cited.

Regularities give scientists and other perplexed and curious people a way to establish some ground rules for evaluating important emotional parameters such as intensity and perseverance. If you or a course participant is ever perplexed by an emotional reaction, you may benefit by running it through the following criteria for emotional response.

Previously, we have noted that meaningful, goal-oriented behaviors are sourced in emotion.  We may also say that emotions appear to arise from the meaning placed upon the situation.  For example, events that satisfy your goals, or promise to do so, yield positive emotions.  Graduating from college may satisfy both the proximate goal of obtaining a diploma, the intermediate goal of obtaining interesting and lucrative work, and finally, the ultimate goal of supporting a comfortable life for you members of your family.

This leads to the observation that emotions arise in response to events that are important to your goals, motives, or concerns.  If you are feeling an emotion, you may be sure that it is related to an area of concern.

Emotions are elicited by events appraised as real, and emotional intensity will correspond to the degree of “realness”. For instance, you hear that there is trouble in the Middle East. This is business as usual for people who do not concern you. However, if your parents are traveling in Israel, you are in front of CNN broadcasts for the duration of their stay. This regularity is even more interesting if you have  a vivid imagination.  Imagination is thought to be a way to transform reasoning or symbolic logic into much more motivating emotional stimulation.  Motivational visualization will work well for people who are able to imagine an event in detail.

Emotions are elicited not so much by the presence of favorable or unfavorable conditions, but by actual or expected changes in those conditions.  The greater the change, the more intense the emotional reaction. We will be over the moon when our bottom-ranked team wins the big one because no one expected that much difference in performance. .A friend turns into a jerk after financial success- the change for the better is as hard to deal with as a bankruptcy.  Your frame of reference  determines what counts as an emotional event and what response is possible. This becomes clear when we watch people who feel that they should cope with difficult circumstances suffer when they cannot cope. I stress this because general feelings of control are key to coping with the stress of constant or drastic change.

Emotions are conservative.  Emotional events retain their power to elicit emotions indefinitely,  unless repeated unto boredom and indifference.  Think of people in war zones who appear indifferent to acts of extreme violence as a result of being constantly exposed to horrific events. However, unless you get used to a certain class of repeated change, you will react to that emotional event indefinitely.  If you don’t work to establish more positve meaning for traumatic events, you might be doomed to experience it afresh every time a present stimulus evokes it.

This sort of work keeps therapists and clergy in business. There is a lot of scoffing at unresolved childhood trauma, but there is ample evidence that what goes unresolved in your family of origin  affects you in relationships which evoke similar response.  Traumatic events may not be erased, but they may be overwritten.  Behaviors which you seem doomed to repeat, in spite of unfavourable results, are wonderful places to begin the process of assessing and reevaluating.


Our emotions tend to be “absolutes” relative to individual meaning structures, not necessarily corresponding to reality!  How many times have we counseled a friend (or ourselves) not to act on an emotional surety before checking out facts and alternatives?  For instance, a child is certain that the teacher is out to “get him”.  We arrange a meeting, and find that the teacher has a very high opinion of the child’s talents, and is pushing them towards goals higher than those set for the rest of the class.  In mediation, for instance, we often stop a mediation in which the people are at absolute loggerheads  with each other and ask them to undertake a fact-finding mission before resuming the mediation.  Armed with real information, participants may come back ready to make some concessions to more objective criteria for reality, such as law, custom, or industry standards.  This moderating effect leads to

7/  Every emotional impulse can be modified by the emotional effect of consequences.  You spoke harshly to a child, and he cried.  This caused some reflection on whether you had been too angry over a minor infraction, and whether you need to exert control over your reactions to his behavior.  Control is an inextricable part of emotional response.  Completely uninhibited response  can be dangerous unless sanctioned.  People in crowds or groups that sanction uninhibited response easily lose such control.  Think of the stands in a pro-wrestling match, or a “rave” dance happening.

8/  Lastly, we tend to place an emotional interpretation on events that gives us the lightest load to bear and the greatest emotional gain.  For instance, we have an argument.  The other person is not only wrong, but obviously more stupid than oneself.  It takes a very powerful argument to persuade one that one is wrong and possibly even ignorant!  We resist feeling badly.  Different emotions can produce different gains.  Anger intimidates and produces “agreement”.  Fearfulness prevents one from taking risks.  Grief provides excuses, demands the right to be treated with consideration, and calls for help (think of a child who broke their toy, cries inconsolably, and brightens only when Dad promises a new and better one).