d. Emotions



Snow and ice are important to the Inuit people and their lexicon includes 93 words to describe them in their different guises. However, there are only a dozen basic words for snow and another ten for ice. The remaining words are modifications that provide additional meaning. A similar principle applies to emotions. They are important to us and the English language contains many words to describe our different emotional states. 271 of these are listed in the following publication by the University of California, Berkeley.

Fortunately, most psychologists believe there to be just a few basic emotions and regard the remainder as combinations of these. For example, it has been suggested that hate is a combination of fear, anger, and distrust. There is little agreement among psychologists on which emotions are basic and which are compound. In fact, there is little agreement on what is defined as an emotion and what is not. Opinions differ from author to author, but many regard anger, sadness, fear, disgust, joy, and surprise as basic emotions. So, these, together with one notable omission, love, are what I will discuss in the next article.

General Features of Emotions

Emotions have an external cause. As mentioned in the previous article, they are associated with satisfiers, or those external things that satisfy our needs, and contra-satisfiers, or those external things which cause harms we wish to avoid. Emotions attach to satisfiers or contra-satisfiers. These, in turn, attach to needs and contra-needs. For example, fear attaches to existential threats. Bearing in mind that most satisfiers and contra-satisfiers affect several needs or contra-needs, it is unsurprising that many emotions are also of a compound nature.

The emotions that we experience have an evolutionary basis. They help us to make decisions in the interest of our survival and the propagation of our genome. However, they evolved when we lived together in fewer numbers and in a more natural environment. Some of our emotional reactions are also inherited. This is particularly the case when a satisfier or contra-satisfier impacts on our more basic needs or contra-needs. For example, threats to life cause fear. Others associated with the satisfiers of our higher needs may well be learned, for example anger caused by an opposing political stance.The emotions that we experience have an evolutionary basis. They help us to make decisions in the interest of our survival and the propagation of our genome. However, they evolved when we lived together in fewer numbers and in a more natural environment.  Some of our emotional reactions are inherited. This is particularly the case when a satisfier or contra-satisfier impacts on our more basic needs or contra-needs. For example, threats to life cause fear. Others associated with the satisfiers of our higher needs may well be learned, for example anger caused by an opposing political stance.

Involuntary facial displays can be associated with emotions, allowing others to recognise the latter and to act accordingly. In fact, some psychologists use facial display as a criterion for differentiating emotions from moods and feelings. The facial displays associated with our basic emotions are relatively easy to recognise. However, those associated with compound emotions are more difficult and it is easy to make mistakes.

People can, of course, give facial displays of emotion deliberately or in an unconscious attempt to mitigate a difficult situation.

Emotional Contagion

The concept of emotional contagion has been recognised by researchers for well over a century. However, the work of Hatfield, Cacioppo, and Rapson in 1993, has been of particular value in providing an understanding. You can read more about their work here.

In summary, people express their emotions through facial expression, body language, posture, and behaviour. When interacting with others we often mimic these. If, for example, someone smiles at us we will smile back. Mimicry is normally an unconscious process that helps us relate to others. It is closely associated with empathy. However, by mimicking an emotion we also begin to feel it. A positive feedback process then occurs. The more strongly we feel the emotion the more genuinely we express it. The more genuinely we express it the more strongly we feel it, until it becomes fully a part of our experience. Positive feedback can also take place between the communicating individuals, leading to emotional convergence. Our expressions can be picked up by others nearby, and emotion can, therefore, spread throughout a group.

Emotional contagion can affect any group of people, for instance in family or social contexts, work environments, via TV, social media, email, and advertising. Most particularly, contagion can occur in crowds, such as political rallies.

Such externally acquired emotions do, of course, affect our decisions. Both positive and negative emotions can proliferate in this way. However, it is almost impossible for the emotion, love, to proliferate in a group because no easily recognised facial expression is associated with it. Furthermore, because contra-satisfiers elicit stronger and more rapid emotional responses than satisfiers, negative emotions can spread more readily than positive ones.

To add to the problems of negative emotional contagion, people in groups often delegate personal responsibility for their actions to the group or, if one exists, the group leader. This can free them from the constraints of personal conscience.

In the next article I will discuss our basic emotions in more detail.

c. How Needs and Contra-Needs Motivate Us

How Needs & Contra-Needs Motivate Us.

Variational Principles

Variational principles exist widely in the physical world. They state that a physical object, system, or event will behave in a way which minimises or, in some cases, maximises some physical quantity. The most famous of these is Fermat’s Least Time Principle which states that the path taken between two points by a ray of light is the path which takes least time.

Similar principles apply to human decision-making and behaviour. We will first attempt to satisfy the need which has greatest value to us, i.e., the need which is most pressing. Furthermore, we will attempt to satisfy it in a way which demands least use of personal resources or the resources of those close to us.

First Variational Principle – Pressing Needs

Behaviour is physical action or communication to satisfy our needs. It involves the application of resources available to us. Behaviour can be simple, i.e., directed towards a single need, or complex and directed towards several needs. In Maslow’s view, most behaviour is multi-motivated, i.e., determined by several needs rather than just one. For example, eating may satisfy one’s hunger, need for comfort, and need to socialise.

We tend to address our most pressing needs first, but priorities differ according to the individual and circumstances. The behaviours that we adopt contribute significantly to the perception of our personality, therefore.

Second Variational Principle – The Efficient Use of Resources

People aim to satisfy each personal need as efficiently as possible, i.e., in a way which yields the maximum benefit for the least expenditure of personal resources. For example, if a person walks across a park to a gate in the opposite corner he or she will do so in a straight line unless other needs are satisfied by not doing so. In this way our resources can be used to provide greatest satisfaction across all our needs.

The Role of Emotion in Decision-making

Many higher animals experience emotion and, in the human being, evolution has built on that foundation. Most psychologists now recognise that emotions are an integral part of the human reasoning and decision-making process. They are not, as so often portrayed, the enemy of reason. We may be able to make a logically or mathematically based decision in very simple circumstances, such as whether to buy 4 apples for a pound at one stall or five identical apples for a pound at another. However, the circumstances surrounding most decisions are far too complex for this. In such circumstances, it is emotions that motivate our behaviour. They are used to “tot up” the effects of satisfiers and contra-satisfiers, i.e., those things which cause our needs to be satisfied or which cause harms we wish to avoid.

We experience several basic emotions, and they fall into two classes. Those associated with satisfiers are regarded as positive and those associated with contra-satisfiers are regarded as negative. Our decisions aim to improve our overall emotional state by increasing the former and reducing the latter. Note that it is satisfiers and contra-satisfiers, i.e., external causes, that are evaluated rather than our internal needs and contra-needs. So, for example, the presence of a contra-satisfier such as a disease, and the absence of a satisfier such as food will both contribute to a negative emotional state.

Our overall emotional state depends on whether the status of each satisfier or contra-satisfier is: absent; latent; precarious; or entrenched. Here, “latent” means capable of manifesting, for example when a satisfier is promised, or a contra-satisfier threatened. “Precarious” means present but insecure. “Entrenched” means present, solidly established, and unchangeable.

Emotions are experienced on a scale from mild or non-existent to strong or overwhelming, depending on the priority of the need or contra-need and the status of the satisfier or contra-satisfier. Most of the time our emotions are low key, for example a mild feeling of discontent, and we are capable of consciously verifying our decisions and making rational choices. These lower key emotions are used to “tot up” the predicted effects of our decisions before they are implemented. For example, if we decide to behave in an anti-social manner, then we are likely to predict social censure, which is of course a contra-satisfier. This will contribute to feelings of anxiety which may cause us to alter our decision.

However, when emotions are very strong or overwhelming, we experience stress. Hormones are released which prepare our bodies for swift action in the face of an immediate risk or opportunity and we respond almost entirely unconsciously. This is, of course, an inherited survival mechanism which, on average, enables us to survive and prosper when there is no time for the conscious verification of our decisions. It does, however, carry with it a strong risk of error.

When making more considered decisions about our behaviour we carry out a form of risk/benefit/cost assessment. In this context, “risk” means the likelihood that our behaviour will result in the anticipated benefits and/or dis-benefits. “Cost” is the value that we place on the resources used.

The “benefits” of any behaviour are reductions in negative emotions, such as fear and grief, and increases in positive emotions, such as happiness. These benefits are due to increases in the status of satisfiers and decreases in the status of contra-satisfiers. For example, a benefit results when access to food increases or when a risk of disease decreases.

Dis-benefits, on the other hand, are increases in negative emotions and decreases in positive emotions. They are due to decreases in the status of a satisfier or increases in the status of a contra-satisfier.

Benefits and dis-benefits can of course, cancel one another out and, depending on their relative magnitude, may yield a nett benefit, no overall benefit/dis-benefit, or a nett dis-benefit. The magnitude of benefits and dis-benefits are, in turn, determined by several factors related to needs and contra-needs which will be described in a future article.