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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 fi