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Sophomoric Emotion

I have long found it odd that most college curricula in psychology do not include a course on emotion, as the research on emotion has exploded over the last generation. I know there are historical reasons for this. In the behaviorist era, there was often a course on “learning and motivation,” but after the cognitive revolution of the 1960s, issues of emotion and motivation were often left to introductory coverage of basic motivations (the 4 “F”s of feeding, fleeing, fighting, and reproductive behavior). Most college sophomores who go beyond Psych 101 will take a range of survey courses in perceptual, cognitive, developmental, social, and abnormal psychology which all provide a short summary, usually in one of the early chapters of the texbook, of the “major theories of emotion.” What is odd is that most college psychology students are not headed to the research and teaching careers of their professors, but into human services of various kinds, including psychotherapy. Why this is odd is that most people don’t go into therapy because they are not thinking right, but because they feel terrible. Sadly, the common forms of psychotherapy are the technologies of “cognitive-behavioral therapy,” where you learn to deal with your problems by learning how to think about them differently. No surprise. Most professors, having come out of the same educational system, figure that “gee, we cover emotion in all of our courses,” and will point for starters to the summaries of “major theories of emotion” in all of the sophomore survey texts. Professors get trained to be cognitive, developmental, and social psychologists, or sometimes cognitive scientists or neuroscientists. There is usually one specialist in “abnormal” psychology, but it is not usually a psychotherapy practicing, licensed, clinical psychologist (which you need to be to get third-party insurance payments), as the latter tend not to be Professors, but Psychologists. No one really gets trained to understand emotion very well, and until recently few specialized in it. To teach a course on Emotion, I had to learn most of it myself, long past my doctoral training. I’m sure my one-time department dropped it because they thought it was redundant with all the other sophomore surveys. But the “major theories of emotion” are all 50 or more years old, and a lot’s been done since then.

The reason to call this “sophomoric emotion” is not just that the old theories are covered in the sophomore survey courses, but because of the other meaning of “sophomoric,” which is not just “characteristic of a sophomore,” though that will be true, but “exhibiting great immaturity and lack of judgment.” Unfortunately, and sadly, this may also apply to the professors fomenting generation-old myths. Perhaps they should be forgiven, as this is what they were taught, validated by their peers, and tested for on both graduate and medical entrance exams. Moreover, overzealous ethics committees render much human subjects’ research to not only require “informed consent” to any risks, but be safe enough to simply avoid exposing increasingly sensitive youth to “risks” about which there may actually be little evidence beyond the committee members’ frightened imaginations. So, in fact, much of the research these folks both do and read about tends to produce only theories about “safe” human behavior, rendering much of it of little use for clinicians dealing with real human misery, anguish, and despair. Indeed, even ta course on emotion may make the students themselves uncomfortable, which a consumer-based educational system cannot currently tolerate.

So, there are few textbooks, and textbooks are expensive in any case (given the captive audience), so I’d recommend checking out Amazon for trade books written by reputable and courageous emotion researchers. Dacher Keltner, actually a social psychologist at Berkeley, is one of the best in Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. As I have said before, my bible was Donald Nathanson’s Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self. I’d also recommend recent books by Lisa Barrett on How Emotions Are Made (which may be revolutionizing psychology, health care, and the legal system), by Jaak Panksepp and Lucy Biven on The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of the Human Mind (Panksepp has been one of the foremost theorists of emotion for a generation), and even a volume edited by Diana Fosha, Daniel Siegel (one of the better researchers in this area), and Marion Solomon on The Healing Power of Emotion: Affective Neuroscience, Development and Clinical Practice. Joseph Le Doux, one of the major researchers for decaces, recently wrote Anxious. There are also trade books for the general reader, like Daniel Goleman’s Social Intelligence.

For now I want to keep it simple, but do my best to deconstruct one of the “major theories” which has reached mythic status, and, while based on an interesting study, gets horribly exaggerated in secondary sources, like all those survey texts. What usually gets trotted out is the James-Lange theory originally proposed by William James, whose masterwork Principles of Psychology was published in 1890, and who lived long enough to hear Freud speak at Clark University in 1909, though James thought the idea of “unconscious thought” oxymoronic, like many students who reject Freud’s theory of unconscious motivation because they are not aware of any. Pause for effect. James actually had a lot of good ideas, like his theory that the conscious experience of emotion may well follow physiological changes and behavior rather than the reverse. For most of our rather ponderous conscious ideation, this theory is probably true, as when someone gets angry about something, then finds out they were wrong, but then finds another justification for their anger, rather than just waiting a few minutes for it to dissipate. In many respects a modified version of James’ theory is probably true, though certainly it represents an oversimplification of a whole range of feedback and feed-forward effects, conscious and otherwise, relating the thoughts, feelings, and behavior to each other. The Cannon-Bard theory, included for historical completeness, is that all three of these things are independent, which is most certainly false. The James-Lange Theory is sufficiently counterintuitive, and its modified version sufficiently beyond most sophomores, that textbooks normally wrap things up with the “Two-Factor Theory” of Stanley Schachter and Jerome Singer. It’s actually not inconsistent with James-Lange, and it did open the door to understanding a huge range of context and social influence effects on emotion, which anyone can see in a child that checks to see a parent’s reaction before crying, or a friend who mistook his lusty beer-goggled infatuation for something more serious.

The theory is that emotion may be constructed from two factors, physiological arousal plus a context-dependent label. Now, it is true that there are a lot of contextual effects on the experience of emotion. It is also true that, since the fight-flight system producing arousal is mediated by a string of ganglia all wired together right next to the spinal cord, emotions do start to seem more and more alike at higher and higher levels of arousal. The problem is that at much less than a pretty high intensity, the ganglia for the opponent “rest and repair” system are all over the place (located near the end-organs themselves), and can each be balanced differently. But never mind. Schachter and Singer did an ingenious study in 1962. They gave some subjects epinephrine (which basically produces arousal, as anyone who has used an “epi-pen” knows, but it is pretty basic biology), and others a placebo, telling both they were getting an injection of some vitamin “suproxin.” Then some from each of these conditions are put in a situation, either with a confederate who is acting angry, or one who is acting euphoric. The results provide some support for the theory. Cool. Maybe even a little interesting, but the actual data is rarely described very accurately, leaving readers to believe, occasionally with some codicils easily ignored, that epinephrine plus angry confederate leads to an experience of anger, and epinephrine plus euphoric confederate to an experience of euphoria. I once saw (but did not use) a sophomore level social psychology text that actually had most of a page cartoon illustration of arousal plus a number of different contexts for a number of different emotions, to better illustrate the theory. And that is how most people remember it, and there are versions of this on graduate and medical school admissions exams, so you have to know it.

You have to know the myth. The problem is the actual empirical data. Schachter and Singer, for obvious reasons of easier comprehension, and better description of results understandable in terms of the theory, only report relative differences between reports from each of the conditions. The data that support the theory are that, while there were no differences between the euphoric and angry contexts when subjects were given the placebo, they did indeed report less happiness in the angry than the euphoric condition. Full stop. The first thing to note is usually obvious even from the simplified description, and that is that the context alone did nothing. Well, that is fine, it is an interaction effect. But wait. They only report differences, say, by subtracting the number of angry comments from the number of happy comments. In point of fact, no subjects in any condition made more angry than happy comments. So while the epi-injected subjects in the angry condition were less happy, no one was actually more angry than happy. So while the data are consistent with the theory, the simplified version of the theory, the simplified description of the results are at least a little misleading. There was also no difference between the reports of subjects in the euphoric context with or without the epi-injection. So, the euphoric context actually doesn’t do anything. Uh-oh. It gets even weirder.

But let’s step back a second and actually look at the results. Below is a chart in which relative differences are shown by the number of “>” (“greater than”) signs between the Happy (H) and the Angry (A) remarks. And let’s also be explicit about the two different “Epinephrine” conditions. The first column is the theoretically relevant condition where subjects are given epinephrine and are “uninformed,” as they are told (as in the placebo condition) that they were being given the vitamin injection (“suproxin”). Perhaps they should be called “epinephrine misled,” but never mind. The other epinephrine group was actually told what epinephrine actually does (like increasing heart rate and blood pressure), so they are called “epinephrine informed.”

Epinephrine Uninformed Epinephrine Informed Placebo

Euphoric Context H>>>A H>A H>>>A

Angry Context H>>A H>>>>A H>>>A

Now, again, the first column is consistent with the theory. Given an epinephrine injection and not told what it does, one is less happy when there is an angry than a euphoric confederate present. One is aroused and doesn’t know why, and there is someone else there acting pretty pissed. Hmmm, yeah, but no one actually reports being more angry than happy, and wait: How often do you find yourself aroused and not know why? Yeah, I know, we probably misattribute arousal all the time. Dolf Zillman has a whole theory about this called “excitation transfer theory.” There was the famous “Cornell Bridge Study,” where male subjects who had just walked across a swaying suspension bridge above a gorge were more likely to later call the attractive female experimenter “with further questions” than those in a control condition who did not walk across the bridge. There is also what I call the “back seat of the car effect,” where the greater arousal of one’s date a half hour subsequent to watching a horror movie is not partitioned into “horror movie arousal” vs “date arousal” but wholly attributed to the latter. But that hardly means that this is how emotions are usually constructed.

I love the original cover photo of Anxious by another well-known emotion researcher, Joseph Le Doux, which is a picture of a diving board poised above the Himalayan Mountains. I’d just been skydiving for my first time, and loved it. My first response was “I want to do this!” Unfortunately, for the relatively more anxious reader, the publisher quickly had to change it, as the cover itself was making people too anxious! As the title slide of my Powerpoint for a talk I gave in Germany, I used another image, taken by my old college roomate John Cote, of three 20-ish Moto-GP cyclists (anyone past their early 20’s doesn’t have fast enough reaction times), leaned over their bikes, knee-pads almost touching pavement, cornering in a group, at speed, in the rain. I doubt that any of these people are unaware the source of their arousal.

The “weirder” part is what happens when the subjects know that the source of their arousal is the injection they have just gotten. In the “euphoric” context, reports are the least happy of all, even more than the epi-uninformed in the angry context, and by a fair amount. It is as if they are thinking: “We just got hit up with an epi-pen, what is this jerk so happy about?” But the happiest of all are those who can clearly attribute their arousal to the epinephrine, and there is some poor jerk in the room all pissed off about it. Ha, ha, ha! So yeah, this may all be pretty interesting when thinking about what happens when we are led to attribute arousal states in different ways, and sure, yes, this is going to have something to do with our experience of arousal, and its role in the resulting emotional state. But does this really work as a general theory of how emotions are put together?

Worst of all, of course, is our sophomoric sophomores (and our sophomoric professors?) taking this as, somehow, a scientifically validated piece of their superior knowledge about how human emotions actually work. So, the only difference between fear and anger is that I label their arousal differently in different contexts? Sorry, smartypants, but when I get angry more blood runs to my face, the veins on my neck stand out, and my muscles get all tensed up. When I am scared, the blood runs from my face and it turns white, and while my heart rate may be up, I’m not cranked up to strike someone, though I may be ready to run at the first chance I get. What is sad is how such “learning” can get us to pay less attention to our own lived experience. And yes, I know, my own n=1 experiment may not really show how most people are, but emotions tend to give pretty good, visible evidence, especially in high-arousal situations, on lots of other people’s faces as well. How do kids ever learn to accurately label their own emotions if they aren’t obvious enough for adults to comment on them, and respond appropriately? We quickly learn the advantages of hiding our feelings, often even from ourselves, and the less we pay attention to our bodies, the easier it is to do. That does not make our emotions disembodied.