The nature of emotions

Stolen Watermelons Taste Better….

Last week, the professor for my internship class began our weekly meeting with the following statement: “nothing tastes better than a stolen watermelon.”

Noting the perplexed looks on our faces, he offered an explanation.  We were treated to a short story about a boy who steals a watermelon, noticing the ones he steals are much “sweeter”.  The obvious moral to his story: perception often influences our experiences than the event itself.  The question he then asked is: why does stolen watermelon taste better??  The unexpected delight of enjoying ill-gotten booty, is what increased the boys pleasure of the watermelon….

File_000….this story naturally resulted in a class discussion on recent observations we had clients that week.  I left that day reflecting on how my own life had at times, been affected by poorly thought-out hedonistic desires…

In my worn out mental state, it took me some time to figure out where I heard this story before:

When considering the issue of hedonistic logic (if there is such a thing), what sort of behavioral freakonomic principles guide our decisions?

As I pondered this question, one individual came to mind: Social Psychologist, Daniel Gilbert.  I first learned about his work when I watched the PBS Documentary series: “This Emotional Life”.  Naturally, as a self-help junkie I bought his book “Stumbling on Happiness”.  Finally, in the context of my educational endeavors, I’ve read some of his research articles. What follows are intriguing insights based on his work, as they apply to my own lived experience:

Hedonistic Behavioral Freakonomics 101


image“The representation of…an object is…empowered to guide behavior as if it were true prior to a rational analysis of the representation’s accuracy. (Gilbert, 1991, p. 116).”

The importance of belief in comprehending assorted life events….

In an article titled: “How Mental Systems Believe”, Gilbert, (1991), provides  insight on how we make sense of our lives.  Research seems to shows that problems aren’t often a matter of “what we’re looking at but how we are choosing to look at it”.   Gilbert, (1991) explains that acceptance of an idea is critical to a comprehension of it.  If you think about it, assessing a life situation requires us to examine what it “means to me”.   What are the knowable facts in this situation?  What does this mean for my future goals and plans? How do I feel about the direction is heading in?

For example, I have been forced recently to make a tough decision about my education.  I’m dropping out next quarter in order to find an internship placement that can better fit my specific needs.  My mind is filled with anxieties about what the future holds.  

*What if I don’t find anything better?

*How long is it going to take me to graduate

*Will I be able to find a job once I’m done?

 Depression sets in as I consider the treacherous path to here.  I’ve really paid a huge price for those early childhood traumas.  I mourn a loss of something abstract missing within.  My mind fills with anger over the unhealable hurts left behind….
….As I type these very words, the emotions melt away like an ice cube on hot pavement.  Slowly emotional equilibrium is restored, and with it a sense of clarity,  I can’t help, but laugh at what I’ve  just typed…. 
So how might Gilbert’s insights apply to this situation????

In a recent post titled “Nature of Belief Systems”, I define belief as either: (1) an expression of trust and faith in something or (2) the acceptance that something is true and exists.  Defined in this way, beliefs represent a “what if” mental representation of our situation.  In order to understand the long-term implications of my decision, I must first accurately comprehend the facts: (1) I need my job, (2) I can’t reduce my internship hours, (3)  I can’t maintain this 70 hour schedule for the next year….

imageSo with this as my current reality, how might I analyze my options, and the consequences of my decision?  My approach has been to examine all potential alternatives from a “what if” perspective.  What might the outcome of each option be?  How will I feel about this “what if”?  In this sense an accurate understanding of things requires both comprehension and acceptance.   This acceptance allows me to wrestle with the question: “what does this situation mean for me?”  In this respect belief is a component of part of our personal meaning making process.

*Beliefs are often misinterpreted as byproducts of external events…

*Beliefs also exist as a cause for the events themselves.  Situations can be believed into being.

According to Gilbert, (1991), doubt is much more difficult…

Gilbert, (1991), uses the term “cogntive business” to describe the mental state of somebody who is attempting to multi-task.  As a wife, mother, full-time student, & healthcare worker, I constantly have several “irons in the fire”.  Typically, individuals examine hypothetical alternatives by examining them “as if” they are true.  By comparing these alternative mental representations of a life event, we can better understand how we feel about the options.  It is only through this process that inconsistencies are then uncovered.  Doubt, develops later as truth dissipates and fallacies emerge.  The entire process is 10x more difficulty if you’re “cognitively busy”.

“the ontogeny of belief is at least consistent with the idea that unacceptable is a more difficult operation that acceptance. Not only does doubt seem to be the last operation to emerge, it also seems to be the first to dissappear, Gilbert, 1991, p111).”


imageThe next intriguing insight in Gilbert’s work, pertains to how we make sense of the options available to us.  How do we determine what we feel about the options available?    Wilson, Gilbert, et al, (2003), use the term affective forecasting is used for “people’s predictions about future feelings (p. 346).”  The meaning of current events and the actions we take are based on how we believe we might feel in the future,…

I imagine graduation as a wondrous day. The ten-ton weight of this long journey, I can now move forward.  I get weekends free.  No more papers or exams, (yippie!!)
I imagine graduation as a terrifying culmination of years of effort.  Will it prove fruitless in the end?  Will I find a job waiting for me at the conclusion of this journey?

Affective forecasting requires us to develop an understanding of our situation.  Once we have a mental representation of events that satisfies us, we can begin predicting future feelings.

Wilson, Gilbert, et al, (2003) describe four components of affective forecasting….

*We try to predict the specific nature of our future feelings…

*We try to predict the valance (+/-) of our emotions.

*We try the intensity and duration of what we will feel…

As you might suspect, we tend to make mistakes at every step in the process and are often quite lousy at knowing what we will feel at some future point.  Mistakes can be right at the outset, when we misconstrue a situation, and develop faulty representation of it.  Wilson, Gilbert, et al, (2003), also note errors in prediction within each of the four components of affective forecasting.   While we are often accurate in predicting the general nature of our emotions, we are often inaccurate in knowing the degree of those emotions.  Additionally, our future predicted emotions are often imagined in an “overly simplistic” (Wilson, Gilbert, et al, 2003, p348) manner.  Finally, we tend to overlook our abilities to acclimatize emotionally to situations.  Over time, as the “newness” of a situation wears off, we tend to revert to an emotional homeostasis.  Gilbert, et al, (2000), describe this unique ability as our “psychological immune system”….((more on that later))


image“people’s emotional reactions to life events become less intense with time, a phenomenon we call emotional evanescence” (Wilson, Gilbert, et al, 2003).

Over the years, I’ve been fascinated at how the healing process is affected by things beyond our control or understanding.  At work are spiritual and psychological factors that allow individuals to heal, recover, and thrive great physical and emotional trauma.  When encountering patients like this the psychological immune system is vividly displayed before me. From time to time, I find myself imagining what it is like to be in their shoes: (quadriplegia, cancer, et).  The idea of this in a “what if” sense produces unthinkable negative emotions.

According to Gilbert’s research the sense-making processes underlying our ability to re-establish an equilibrium involve four key phases…

“First, people orient to unexpected but relevant information in their environment.” (Wilson, Gilbert, et al, 2003, p. 371)

As it pertains to my current educational endeavors, I’m currently in the emotional rollercoaster phase. Internship requirements entail an array of unexpected factors that often act as monkey wrenches in our well-laid plans.  Preconceived notions of the counseling profession are immediately challenged by the daily realities of the job.  New areas of interest open up that you hadn’t considered previously.  The daily grind of family life, work, and internship responsibilities can quickly overwhelm one.  This produces heightened stress and exhaustion as your self-care falls into the toilet.   In my current set of circumstances with every unexpected bit of information my mental state falls into An unpredictable flux.

*Learning of recent changes in program requirements leaves me worried about how this influences my projected graduation date.  

*Hearing about opportunities to work kids, leaves me feeling hopeful.  

*Realizing that an unexpected illness has result in a doubling of my group therapy class workload, I’m now stressed.  

“Second, people have more intense emotional reactions to unexpected, relevant information than to other events.”  (Wilson, Gilbert, et al, 2003, p. 371)

With each bit of new information, I’m hit out of left field.  Since it comes at me in the midst of a busy day, my mind is preoccupied and I’m thrown into a mental flustercuck.  Left with an uncertain future, it often seems in that moment as if the “rug has just been pulled out from under me”.   Without an ability to stop and consider this new information thoughtfully, my own worry-wart nature takes over.  I vacillate between anxiety, stress, depression, and periods of hopelessness.  You see, this endeavor has been the result of just under six years of effort.  Its been a long journey, and I would really hate to come out of this “empty banded” with nothing to show for myself.

“Third, once an unexpected event occurs and people have a relatively intense emotional reaction, they attempt to make sense of the event, quickly and automatically.”  (Wilson, Gilbert, et al, 2003, p. 372)

As soon as it becomes clear that these crazy hours (70+) are more than I can handle, I decide to switch gears.  After struggling to find a new internship placement at the last minute, I’m forced to accept that I might need to “take a quarter off”.   I vacillate between depression, stress and excitement at the idea of having time off.  These last two weeks have been a crazy rollercoaster and I need to find a way to regain equilibrium.  How does one learn to have faith in the end goal, despite a continual onslaught of facts that each lead one to a different conception of what the future might hold?

“Fourth, when people make sense of an event it no longer seems surprising or unexpected, and as a result they think about it less and it produces a less intense emotional reaction.”  (Wilson, Gilbert, et al, 2003, p. 373).

I talked with my mom earlier today. She shared me the story of her long and arduous educational journey.  As a retired physician, she has loads of advice.  I told her I’m going to take a quarter off while seeking a new internship opportunity.  I’m taking advantage of this time off to focus on passing the licensure exam.  In the course of her career, she has had to take an exam for licensure 3x in her life.   She described doing this once while working full-time and holding down the fort at home alone while our dad took a 6-month research sabbatical opportunity in California.  Her mental state was very much like mine.  She was overwhelmed and drained….

It helped to hear this story.   Today while “clocking some hours” at my internship site, I heard similar stories.  Since many of them are nontraditional students, they had survived what I’m going through now.  I didn’t feel so alone, and am coming to acclimatize to the experience.

Errors in Cost-Benefit of Life Events & Goals…


The information above provides a quick-and-dirty overview of the process of affective forecasting: (how we predict “future feelings” as a result of present-day decisions).  In this section, I’d like to review common sources of error in predicting “future feelings”.   Affective forecasting errors cause miswanting. “Miswanting is the case in which people do not like or dislike an event as much as they thought they would (Wilson, et al, 2000, p. 821).  These cost-benefit miscalculations cause a great deal of rainbow chasing.  We create complex plans and lofty goals to achieve an idealized future state of preconceived happiness.  Meanwhile, opportunities for happiness in the present are readily available around us, should we choose to pay attention…

image“We treat our future selves as thought they were our children, spending most of our days constructing tomorrows that we hope will make them happy. rather than indulging in whatever strikes our momentary fancy, we take responsibility for the welfare of our future selves (Gilbert, 2009).”

With all this said, here are common miscalculations that pertain to most of us…

imageMisconstruing a situation is a result of an inaccurate mental representation of events. This miscalculation can cause a huge miscalculation in our prediction of “future feelings” due to a complete misrepresentation of the event itself.


 image“Empathy gaps and projection bias suggests that people who are in one psychological state…have considerable difficulty predicting how they will think, feel, and act when they are in the opposite psychological state.” (Gilbert, et al, 2002, p. 430). Projection bias involves assuming current preferences pertain to our future selves.  Empathy gaps happen when we are unwilling to see beyond our current transitory feeling state.


image“People often fail to anticipate the extent to which unrelated events will influence their thoughts and emotions….by neglecting to consider how much these other events will capture their attention. Wilson & Gilbert, 2003, p366).”


 image“[People] may predict their feelings by forecasting (imagining their feelings when the impacting event occurs…or by backcasting (imagining their feelings in a future period, then considering how these feelings would be different if something happened. (Ebert, et al, 2009, p. 353). Interestingly, research shows that forecasting & backcasting greatly influence how we predict the hedonic impact of future events.


image“People seek extraordinary experiences – from drinking rare wines and taking exotic vactions to jumping from airplanes and shaking hands with celebrities. But are such experiences worth having?…Studies suggest that people may pay a surprising price for the experiences they covet the most (Cooney, Gilbert, & Wilson, 2014, p.2259).”


 image“Although negative expectations may have the benefit of softening the blow when a negative event occurs, they also have the cost of making people feel worse while waiting for that event to happen” (Golub, Gilbert, & Wilson, 2009, p. 277). In other words, being a worry wart doesn’t really do anybody any good.


imageDaniel Gilbert (2000) utilizes the term Immune Neglect to refer to the fact that “people generally underestimate their capacity to generate satisfaction with future outcomes” (p. 690).  We often attribute it to external agents and overlook our tendency to “subjectively optimize suboptimal outcomes (Gilbert, et al, 2000, p. 691).  This psychological immune system is quite powerful and allows us to maintain a homeostatic emotional balance throughout life.


Cooney, G., Gilbert, D. T., & Wilson, T. D. (2014). The unforeseen costs of extraordinary experience. Psychological science, 25(12), 2259-2265.
Ebert, Jane E. J., Daniel T. Gilbert, and Timothy D. Wilson. 2009. Forecasting and backcasting: Predicting the impact of events on the future. Journal of Consumer Research 36(3): 353-366.
Gilbert, D. T. (1991). How Mental Systems Believe.  Retrieved from:
Gilbert, D. T., Brown, R. P., Pinel, E. C., & Wilson, T. D. (2000). The illusion of external agency. Journal of personality and social psychology, 79(5), 690.
Gilbert, D. T., Gill, M. J., & Wilson, T. D. (2002). The future is now: Temporal correction in affective forecasting. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 88(1), 430-444.
Gilbert, D. T., Pelham, B. W., & Krull, D. S. (1988). On cognitive busyness: When person perceivers meet persons perceived. Journal of personality and social psychology, 54(5), 733.
Gilbert, D. (2009). Stumbling on happiness. Vintage Canada.
Golub, S. A., Gilbert, D. T., & Wilson, T. D. (2009). Anticipating one’s troubles: the costs and benefits of negative expectations. Emotion, 9(2), 277.
Wilson, T. D., Wheatley, T., Meyers, J. M., Gilbert, D. T., & Axsom, D. (2000). Focalism: a source of durability bias in affective forecasting. Journal of personality and social psychology, 78(5), 821.
Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2003). Affective forecasting. Advances in experimental social psychology, 35, 345-411.

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Feelings about Feelings

As an “INFP”, I’ve always been fascinated by the varied styles of affective communication that existed in my family….

While flipping through some old journals for another blog post idea, I came across the commentary above on attitudes towards emotions.  Understanding attitudinal differences towards feeling is critical in our attempts at communication of empathy.  Professionally, as a student therapist, my motives for understanding this issue should be obvious.  Personally, understanding attitudinal differences towards emotion has been critical in the healing of my relationship with my mother.

I will begin this post, by including relevant excerpts from a paper I wrote some time ago titled “Culturally Inclusive Empathy.”  

Against this backdrop of understanding, I hope to process some insights I’ve been mulling over after along week as wife, mother, blogger, student therapist, and caretaker…

#1. PAPER EXCERPTS: Culturally Inclusive Empathy….

Empathy is derived from the German word “Einfuhlung” which directly translated means “one feeling”, (Pedersen, et al, 2008, p42). From this perspective, empathy can be thought of as an ability to understand another’s experiences as if they are your own.   Best understood as an ability to relate to others due to shared experiences, the western Euro-American definitions predominating mental health are clearly problematic (Pedersen, et al, 2008). With traditional conceptions of empathy tending to reflect this cultural viewpoint, a more culturally inclusive perspective is vital. (Chung, 2002; Pedersen, et al, 2008).  What follows is a definition of this concept from literature:

“Inclusive Cultural Empathy describes a dynamic perspective that balances both similarities and differences at the same time integrating skills developed to nurture a deep comprehensive understanding of the counseling relationship in its cultural context.” (Pedersen, et al, 2008, p.41)

Understanding Emotion.

Emotion Defined

“Emotions can be defined as psychological states that comprise thoughts and feelings, physiological changes, expressive behaviors, and inclinations to act.” (Vohs, et al, 2007, p285). Overall, two divergent perspectives exist regarding research that focuses on the nature of emotion.  Appraisal theories are based on the premise that emotions result from the way we appraise and interpret our environment…Categorical theories tend to view emotions as universal, innate and discrete.

Categorial Theories of Emotion.

file000556357776Some research exists which focuses on a limited number of universal emotions, described as “basic” in nature. and byproducts of neural programming hardwired into the species overall.   Research reflecting this perspective utilizes a “Universality Thesis of Emotions.” (Effenbein & Ambady, 2002). While still asserting some degree of cultural variation, this perspective stresses the universality to facial expressions across culture. (Ellsworth, 1994; Ekman & Friesen, 1971). The Universality Thesis of Emotion proposes that facial expressions and attribution of emotion can be observed as universal across cultures,(Russell, 1994).

Emotion: A Cultural Perspective.

Appraisal theories of emotions interpret emotions as byproducts of the way people interpret and understand their environment, (Ellsworth, 1994). Research utilizing this theoretical perspective has traditionally focused on a few key dimensions such as:  (1) individualism/collectivism, (2) certainty/uncertainty (3) Attention to Novelty (4) Valence/Degree of Perceived Pleasantness, (Ellsworth, 1994). Differences in emotional expression are largely attributed to emotional regulation, stating that culture defines the beliefs about appropriateness of emotional expression. Accounting for differences in understanding of emotional expression, the assertion is made that culture “provides a framework for understanding culturally general emotional phenomena,” (Ellsworth, 1994)

For example emotions can be observed as a component of social interaction.   From this perspective they aren’t internal affective states influenced by cognition but a form of interaction. (Frijda & Mesquita, 1994). We “transmit important messages about ourselves in relation to our surroundings” (Leu, 2001), and behavior from within the framework of culturally meaning systems.  Emotion in this respect contains five characteristics reflective of culture including: “1. quality, 2. intensity, 3. behavioural expression, 4. the manner in which they are managed and 5. Organization.” (Leu, 2001).

“A cultural framework includes a group’s sense of and attitudes toward emotions, that is what emotions are or feelings are, why they are experiencing, and what their significance is in social life, as well as the implicit answers to questions like when does one feel, where does one feel, and how does one feel.” (Frijda & Mesquita, 1994, p.99)

When viewed within the context of a perceptual process, culture’s influence over emotions can also be observed. For example, individuals experience emotions in response to events they encounter that are deemed significant.  Our appraisal of situations reflect culturally relevant systems of meaning.

Inclusive Cultural Empathy.

empathyDefined as an ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, empathy is a culturally relevant concept. Traditional perspectives of empathy are self-limiting, based on a perspective that is empirical and individualistic in orientation. In contrast, culturally inclusive empathy is a useful dynamic perspective that requires two seemingly divergent viewpoints. Essentially, this concept requires a counselor to  hold onto their own cultural perspective while appreciating their client’s as well. can best be understood as a dynamic process that exists as an exchange between client and counselor, (Pedersen, et al, 2008). It comprises three key skills: Affective Acceptance, Intellectual Understanding, & Appropriate Interaction (Pedersen, et al, 2008). With intellectual understanding best understood as a knowledge of similarities and differences, it is an essential to note this is not enough in and of itself. Affective acceptance requires that a counselor acknowledge culturally learned assumptions underlying divergent forms of affective communication (Pedersen, et al, 2008).  Finally, effectively communicating this means developing key interactive skills and abilities through ongoing direct contact within the community (Pedersen, et al, 2008)

“Counselors will not be effective working with clients from different cultural backgrounds if they cannot communicate cultural empathy in a way that demonstrates that they understand and appreciate the cultural differences and their impact on the therapeutic process.   Ridley (1995) identified the following seven guidelines….(a) describe in words to the client his/her understanding of the client’s self-experience; (b) communicate an interest in learning more…; (c) express lack of awareness…; (d) affirm the client’s cultural experience; (e) clarify…communication; (f) communicate a desire to help the client work through personal struggles; and, (g)… help the client learn more about himself or herself …” (Chung & Bemak, 2002, p157)

#2. OBSERVATIONS: (Journal Excerpts & personal observations).


The above paper is a “cliff notes” version of research I’ve done on the subject of emotions.   Fueled by a desire for personal understanding and professional growth, this endeavor has been more than simply an attempt to complete assignments.  What follows are insights from direct observations with clients…..

Primary & Secondary Emotions

imageA fellow intern I work with is conducting an anger management class.  Since this facility is currently “reworking their curriculum”, we’re scrambling week-by-week to design it ourselves.  As we worked to determine the subject for this weeks classes, I noticed she began printing off material on primary vs. secondary emotions.  Hearing these terms brought back memories of a DBT skills group I had participated in “many years ago”.  According to Marsha Linehan, while primary emotions comprise our immediate reactions to an event, our secondary emotions our own interpretations of these emotional states. In other words, secondary emotions are “feelings about our feelings”.

For example, my mother has always reacted to the open expression of emotion with a perplexing discomfort that had always bothered me.  I desired support and understanding and instead I received stoicism.  While she hadn’t intended to, as a child I perceived this as rejection….

Today with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight I have an appreciation for our differences.  My mother was raised in a collectivist society in which daily life centered around the extended family. Identity, for my mother has always included an appreciation of her family role.  For example, to this day everyone calls here “Nene”, which in Tagalog means baby.  Additionally, I’ve come to understand her love as not a matter of words but a quiet and unspoken fulfillment of her “duty” as my mother.  This concept of “duty” is strange and unfamiliar as an American.  Individualism and pride are consistent with our way of doing things.

imageDue to these differences, my mother reacts to the open expression of emotion negatively, I become annoyed by this response, and an endless cycle of misunderstanding develops.   From my mom’s perspective if emotions cause disharmony and impede the fulfillment of her duties as a mother, it is selfish and unnecessary to do so.  Understanding this has been helpful in rebuilding our relationship.

Born in 1938 in the Philippines, I’m sure there is a history of familial trauma that plays a part as well.  The point, however, is her intention was not to make me feel “rejected”.  Instead, I see her own unique emotional resilience as a quiet offering of strength and support.

Ideal & Actual Affect

imageIn the paper I quoted above, I reference a research article titled “Cultural Variation in Affect Valuation”, (Tsai & Fung, 2006).   This article describes two interesting concepts pertaining to the issue of “feelings about feelings”.  Whereas our ideal affect reflects what we want to feel, our actual affect reflects our current emotional state.(Tsai & Fung, 2006).  For example, research has shown that individualistic cultural orientations are more strongly correlated with values such as elation and excitement (Tsai & Fung, 2006). In contrast, collectivist cultures tend to value a more calm, peaceful and relaxed state (Tsai & Fung, 2006).   When I read the first time, I immediately thought of my own mother and our relationship problems.  As fundamentally eye-opening as insight was, I ended up journaling on it later. Somehow, we never saw eye-to-eye on matters growing up. In retrospect, I am now able to understand my mother’s strange and perplexing discomfort with frank emotional expression.

Understanding a Cultural Syndrome….

file000831022860Being the nerd-girl I am, after reading this insight from a paper, I decided to do some personal research of my own.  I found an article that discussed cultural syndromes as shared sets of beliefs, attitudes, and norms that influence one’s behavior (Eid, Deiner, 2001).  It’s worth noting that my entire internship experience has required a trip to a foreign land where unusual cultural syndromes dominate all behavioral tendencies.   I come from an upper-middle educated background, my parents are happily married since ’68, and are both physicians.  I know little of addiction, or the experiences of my clients at the homeless shelter I intern at.   It is definitely a learning experience…..

…At any rate, expounding upon the insights of Frijda & Mesquita, B. (1994), the authors of this article on cultural syndrome describe three key differences between collectivist and individualist cultures…..

“Frijda and Mesquita distinguished among three aspects of emotion that are culturally influenced. First, they considered social consequences of emotions that regulate the expression and suppression of emotions. Second, they stressed the importance of norms for experiencing different emotions. Third, they discussed social-cohesive functions of emotions.”(Eid & Diener, 2001, p. 869).

Display Rules of Emotion…

Expounding upon the insights above, Eid & Diener, (2001) state that cultures have varied unspoken rules of emotional display.  Failing to understand these “unspoken rules” can often result in the violation of a social norm and some level of social rejection.   In my home, an unspoken rule of emotional display existed that involved a preference for restraint and stoicism.  As doctors, my parents led with their intellect.  It has always been a defense mechanism.  They are uncomfortable with honest expressions of emotion.

Feeling Rules “Should-Be’s”…

Eid & Diener, (2001), also mention Feeling Rules: “social norms that prescribe how people should feel in specific situations (e.g., on a wedding day, at a funeral)” (p. 869).  These sorts of cultural norms, greatly influence the appropriateness and desirability of certain emotions.  For example, in the research paper I excerpted from, I recall one  resource mentioning culturally relevant differences in response to the emotion of pride.  While I’m unable to recall the resource at the present, results indicated Collectivist Asian societies reacted more negatively to this emotion. In contrast, Americans were comfortable, openly expressing feelings of pride…

Final Thoughts… (I promise).

file000166887896In this old journal of mine is information I found from somewhere on “Emotional Coaching”.  It describes how to teach children to handle their feelings effectively.   My parent’s own style tended to flounder between dismissive and disapproving.  I spent my 20’s learning to overcome a lasting sense of shame, and inability to trust my feelings.  As a parent myself, I’ve promised to provide my kids the sort of emotional coaching I yearned for as a highly sensitive child.

This resource begins by describing three common emotional coaching styles:

THE DISMISSING STYLE:  parents ignore bad emotions and have a “get over it” attitude.   The child feels they are being ignored and have difficulty trusting their own feelings.
THE DISAPPROVING STYLE:  Here parents don’t just ignore bad emotions, they punish children for having negative feelings.   This “don’t feel that way” attitude, leaves children feeling a sense of shame: that they are somehow wrong and flawed.  
LAIESS-FAIRE STYLE:  Parents with an “anything goes” attitude provide no guidance whatsoever.  While there is plenty of acceptance, there isn’t enough nurturing guidance children need to manage emotions more effectively….  

In conclusion, with this typology in mind, what follows are steps on how to provide emotional coaching to your child…

STEP ONE: Be aware of your child’s emotions.  Parents who are emotionally aware are able to raise children who are also emotionally aware.  Acknowledge your child’s feelings, listen, & see things from their perspective.

STEP TWO: Using shared emotions as an opportunity to connect with your child.  Experience is the best educator I believe.  When emotions arise & become overwhelming, this is an ideal time to help them develop skills to manage them effectively.  Don’t avoid or dismiss them, instead listen and offer guidance.

STEP THREE:  Listening Empathetically.  listening involves supporting the child’s lived experience as if it were true in accordance with their level of understanding.  Reflecting the child’s feelings back to them, lets them know you are understanding.

STEP FOUR:  Help your child name the emotions.  Helping a child identify their feelings and allowing them to discuss why the feel that way is critical.  This allows the child to develop emotional intelligence and adaptive coping skills.

STEP FIVE:  Finding good solutions.  First, when disciplining a child for bad behavior, it is important to understand the problem is the behavior and not the feeling.  With firm limits in place, ask your child what they want to happen to feel better and then options are available to solve things.


Chung, R. C., & Bernak, F. (2002). The relationship of culture and empathy in cross-cultural counseling. Journal of Counseling and Development : JCD, 80(2), 154-159.
Eid, M., & Diener, E. (2001). Norms for experiencing emotions in different cultures: inter-and intranational differences. Journal of personality and social psychology, 81(5), 869.
Ekman, P., & Friesen, W. V. (1971). Constants across cultures in the face and emotion. Journal    of Personality and Social Psychology, 17(2), 124-129. Retrieved from:          doi:
Elfenbein, H.A., & Ambady, N. (2002) On the Universality and Cultural Specificity of Emotion Recognition: A Meta-Analysis. Psychological Bulletin. 128(2). 203-235.
Ellsworth, P. C. (1994). Sense, culture, and sensibility. In S. Kitayama, & H. R. Markus (Eds.),   Emotion and culture: Empirical studies of mutual influence. (pp. 23-50) American         Psychological Association. Retrieved from: doi:
Frijda, N. H., & Mesquita, B. (1994). The social roles and functions of emotions. In S. Kitayama,  & H. R. Markus (Eds.), Emotion and culture: Empirical studies of mutual influence. (pp.    51-87) American Psychological Association. Retrieved from: doi:
Harmon-Jones, E., Harmon-Jones, C., Amodio, D. M., & Gable, P. A. (2011). Attitudes toward emotions. Journal of personality and social psychology,101(6), 1332.
Leu, C.M. (2001). Emotions as Dynamic Cultural Phenomena. The Journal of Linguistic and       Intercultural Education, 4. 62-75.
McKay, M.; Wood, J.C.; & Brantley, J. (20107).  The dialectical behavior therapy skills workbook: Practical DBT exercises for learning mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, emotion regulation & distress tolerance. Oakland, CA : New Harbinger Publications.
Pedersen, P. B., Crethar, H. C., & Carlson, J. (2008). Inclusive cultural empathy: Making relationships central in counseling and psychotherapy (1st ed.). American Psychological          Association. Retrieved from: doi:
Russell, A.J. (1994). Is There Universal Recognition of Emotion from Facial Expression? A          Review of the Cross Cultural Studies. Psychologial Bulletin 115(1). 101-141.
Tsai, J.L, Knutson, B., Fung, H.H., (2006). Cultural Variation in Affect Valuation. Journal of      Personality and Social Psychology. 90(2). 288-307. Retrieved from:   0?accountid=28125
Vohs, K.D., Baumeister, R.F., & Sage Productions,  (2007). Encyclopedia of Social Psychology. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage Productions.

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The Intelligence of Emotions, (contd…)

A Nagging Question

This article is part two of a series. It is an attempt on my part, to address some nagging questions after some late-night studying:  what part do emotions play in logic & moral reasoning?   Prevailing opinions in the field of philosophy appear to define feelings as antithetical to reason and logic (Bennett, 2015; Damasio, 2006; Nussbaum, 2003).  Consequently, emotions are thought to play no meaningful role.   The fields of neuroscience and psychiatry examine emotions from a clinical diagnostic stance.   As someone who holds a social science persepctive, I wonder instead, how individual and cultural interpretations play a role. If the body and mind are connected, how can we separate these two experiential components apart in moral judgments?  In the living of daily life, when discerning amongst viable alternatives how does one differentiate truth from bullshit?

Personally, I believe feelings reflect our reactions to life events in terms of our own needs and desires. They are an experiential connecting points between the body’s interaction with the environment and our minds interpretative mechanisms.  In this respect, they warrant closer examination…

(((BTW))), if I’m being honest, this question is more than purely intellectual in nature.

In my family of origin I was a minority (of sorts). As a Myers-Briggs INFP living in an “SJ” world, the only individual who even remotely understood me was my INTP dad, and he was little help. A neuroscientist by trade, his research endeavors occupied the majority of his mental energy.  My depression and anxiety was too much for him to handle.  I was a sensitive and imaginative child who felt like the oddball out.  My sister and mother, both SJ’s, could not make sense of me. My way of being was constantly “corrected” in favor of a familial ideal that stressed reasoning, logic, and pragmatism.  You know that fable by Hand Christensen Andersen titled “the Emperor’s New Clothes”?  I’m the kid who points out the king is naked and gets in trouble….

….This intellectual endeavor reflects an attempt to seek the value in my own”way of being”.  What if anything can be gained by acknowledging and making sense of my emotional world, (despite familial protestations?)…

Review Part One

In part one of this series, I try to make sense of an article titled, “The Multi-System of Moral Psychology”, by Cushman, et al, (2010).  The authors of this article review brain research as evidence of a dual-system of moral reasoning.  Essentially, they assert the following based on this evidence:

“These lesion studies lend strong support to the theory that characteristically deontological judgments are – in many people, at least – driven by intuitive emotional responses that depend on the ventromedial prefrontal cortex while characteristically consequentialist judgments are supported by controlled cognitive processes based in the dorsilateral prefrontal cortex” (Cushman, et al, 2010, p5).

Deontological moral judgments, characterized as pragmatic and absolutist, are associated with alarm bell emotions and are essentially intuitive reactions (Cushman, et al, 2010).  In contrast, consequentialist moral judgments, characterized as sentimental, are cognitive processes in which currency style emotions attribute varied degrees of motivational weight to our options (Cushman, et al, 2010).  Alternatives are considered against a welfare-maximizing standard in a cost-benefit fashion.  The rest of this post explores insights from other resources that shed further light on the intelligence of emotions.

The value of emotions

“Emotions are ‘non-reasoning movements’, unthinking energies that simply push the person around, without being hooked to the ways in [one] perceives or thinks…like gusts of wind…they move…obtusely, without vision of an object or beliefs about it.” (Nussbaum, 2003).

This quote comes from Nussbaum’s (2003) book, “Upheavals of Thought”, and comprises a common criticism of emotions.  In some respects this viewpoint is correct. After all, emotions hippocampal memories of past experiences and the amygdala’s assessment of what is essential for survival (Nussbaum, 2003).  They are subjective in nature and reflect our deepest desires.  They are a reflection of a reality which is uniquely our own – relevant to what we perceive as valuable.  With this in mind, dismissing them so quickly as “non-reasoning movements” (Nussbaum, 2003)  is short-sighted.  By thinking through them rather than with them, there is much we can stand to learn about ourselves…

The fallacy of the “disembodied mind”…

“Human reason depends on several brain systems working in concert across many levels of neuronal organization…both ‘high level’ and ‘low level’ brain regions, from the prefrontal cortices to the hypothalamus and brain stem cooperate in the making of reason” (Damasio, 2006, p. xiii)

The problem with discounting emotions is that it dismisses much of what makes us human. In order to make reasoned judgments based on pure empiricism, you would need to gain access to a reality that is absolute, objective, and external.  The truth is, “while there is an external reality, we [can] never know how faithful our knowledge is [of it]” (Damasio, 2006, p235).   Human experience is based on a bodily self as the mind’s only reference point. We are held captive to the subjectivity of our life experience.   No one else can understand what it is to walk in our shoes. Likewise, we can never truly “know” another’s experience.  The mind rises out of a holistic organism, since the brain & body function interdependently.  Underlying this inherent subjectivity, is a way of perceiving that begins as the body interacts with a stimulus and ends when the brain interprets this sensory information and determines the appropriate response. Emotions become an essential connecting point “between rational and nonrational processes” (Damasio, 2006, p. 133) and reflect both bodily sensations and internal cognitions.  It is safe to say, on the basis of all this that feelings play a critical role in moral judgment.

the neural self

So if emotions play a critical role in our reasoning processes, what does this say about our lived experiences? How might one begin to understand subjectivity, as a moment-to-moment awareness of live experience?  In a book titled “Decartes’ Error”, Damasio, (2006), describes our subjectivity as a “consistent perspective…rooted in a relatively stable, endlessly repeated biological state” (p. 238). We define this experientially as “the self”.  Damasio, (2006) asserts that the “self” is a neural construction and says the following about our subjective experiences:

“subjectivity emerges…when the brain is producing not just images object, not just images of [an] organism’s responses…but…of an organism in the act of perceiving and responding to an object” (Damasio, 2005, p. 242).

Concluding remarks in favor of “self-ishness”

At the outset of this two-part series, I sought to address the following questions:  “are emotions matters of self-deception as byproducts of limbic activity – and nothing more?…is there more to be said about the role of emotions in our judgments and decisions?” The short answer, in my honest opinion, is best summarized in the following with quote.

“A lot is at stake if we view emotions in this way, as intelligent responses to perception of value. If emotions are suffused with intelligence and discernment, they cannot…be easily sidelined in accounts of ethical judgment” (Nussbaum, 2003, p1).

These sorts of questions represent a personal struggle of the proper perspective upon which to take in my own life history.  When I review my life course, the question which always pops up is: “was it real, or all just in my head?”  As a biracial individual, I reflect upon the “inbetween space” I held within the extended family, where hidden meanings of interactions were left unacknowledged by everyone but me.  I remember witnessing the effects of personal and cultural belief systems as self-fulfilling prophecies about one’s place in the world.  Similar threads of hidden truth are found within my expereinces as bullied child, survivor of psychological abuse, and PTSD sufferer.  That childlike complaint teenagers yell to parents: “YOU JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND!!” Echos in my mind as I reminisce.  Nobody noticed these bad things happening to me or stepped in.  When help was offered, pragmatic advice was given on how to best resolve matters.  Falling in line with the “stick’s and stones” idea, nobody noticed my inner struggle with self-blame, as I struggled heal the hurt that overwhelmed me.   Today, with 20-20 hindsight, I live my life according to the following ideal:

Common sense is a highly over-rated majority rules notion that overlooks deeply held values relevant to ones unique life experience, for blind pragmatism.

Our perspectives in life are uniquely our own, and nobody else can understand what it is to walk into our shoes.  For this reason, I firmly believe the key to empowerment is self-responsibility.  I’m a big believer in living life according to a standard of “self-ishness” – not in terms of the conventional definition of the term, but as a matter of orientation towards the self.  Merriam Webster (n.d.), defines selfishness as “having or showing concern only for yourself and not for the needs or feelings of other people”.  This is most definitely not what I’m speaking of here: I’m not a proponent of “assholery” .  Instead, I prefer the following definition:

“What happens if you hyphenate the word selfish?-…How might placing the “-ish” suffix after the root “self” change the whole tenor of the word’s meaning?…Let’s take a look. Among the meanings of “-ish” are: “having the characteristics of,” “belonging to,” or [my favorite] “concerned with.”…is it not fitting that your very orientation toward life ought to have a certain self-interested focus? that your primary “concern” should be, well, you? None of this, to me, implies selfishness as such. It’s just that if you’re going to (1) take complete responsibility for your thoughts and feelings, wants and needs, and (2) strive to reach your full potential…That is, to be self-ish.” (Seltzer, 2011).
While there is much I could say on the subject of self-ishness, I’ll save that for a future post when I begin discussing another favorite topic of mine: Myers-Briggs Typology.


Bennett, M. (2015). F*ck feelings our Manifesto [Blog Post] Retrieved from
Cushman, F., Young, L., & Greene, J. D. (2010). Our multi-system moral psychology: Towards a consensus view. The Oxford handbook of moral psychology, (1-20).
Damasio, A. R. (2006). Descartes’ error. New York: Random House
Merriam Webster Dictionary (n.d.) Selfish. Retrieved from:
Nussbaum, M. C. (2003). Upheavals of thought: The intelligence of emotions. Massachusetts: Cambridge University Press.
Seltzer, L.F. (2011, June, 2). Selfish vs. Self-ish: What’s the Really BIG Difference? Retrieved from:

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The Intelligence of Emotions…

“If you want to make good decisions or get good advice about them, don’t pay too much attention to your feelings…” (Bennett, 2015).

This quote comes from a blog by a psychistrist, and in my opinion, reflects a fairly prevalent viewpoint regarding the usefulness of emotions.  In fact, I find this attitude quite surprising, especially from someone in the mental health field.   As a student therapist, I’m wary of how attitudes like this exist as mental filters, defining our understanding of matters.  Throughout my studies, I have discovered interesting threads of belief woven throughout research seeking to define the nature of emotions.   For example, a neurological perspective of emotions provides universal insights on the biological components in our brain responsible for the production and experience of feelings. In contrast, a social sciences perspective can help us understand unique variants in emotional expression and experience within individuals and across cultures.  My question is, how accurate are these divergent theories about emotions and the belief systems that underlie them? Are emotions matters of self-deception as byproducts of limbic activity – and nothing more? If this is the case, they play no role in moral judgment.  On the other hand, is there more to be said about the role of emotions in our judgments and decisions? What is – if anything – is being missed?

“If one’s sole avenue for assessing whether something is relevant and worthy of consideration is empiricism…literalism is the only kind of truth…the motto here [would then be] ‘either it’s a fact or it’s meaningless'”(Gross, 2012, p76-77).

What follows is my personal attempt to make sense of what I’ve been reading lately about the role of emotion in moral judgment.  Mind you, this blog post is me “talking out loud” as I sort through my personal interpretation of information I’ve been ingesting lately.  In this respect it is a “mental bookmark” highlighting a subject I might like to delve into further, at some point.

Debunking Conventional Wisdom…


In the introduction to her book “Upheavals of Thought”, Nussbaum, (2003), makes the following comment:

“A lot is at stake if we view emotions in this way, as intelligent responses to perception of value. If emotions are suffused with intelligence and discernment, they cannot…be easily sidelined in accounts of ethical judgment” (Nussbaum, 2003, p1).

The problem with including emotions in discussions of moral judgment, is that the subject matter is instantaneously muddied ten-fold.  You’re left to wonder what emotions play a role in motivations and attributions of value.  How do feelings reflect perceptions of need in determining our desire for an object?   In what way do our emotions exist as an experiential connecting point between the body’s interaction with the environment and our minds belief-systems, dictating the next “appropriate action”?  Two interesting resources I’ve uncovered address these issues from a neurological perspective.   In an article titled, “The Multi-System of Moral Psychology”, Cushman, et al, (2010) state that evidence exists indicating a cognitive and affective moral judgment system in the brain, however this claim “has been met with skepticism” (p2).  Damasio (2006), addressees a similar skepticism in his book “Decartes Error”, stating the following in the introduction:

“I began writing this book to propose that reason may not be as pure as most of us think it is or wish it were, that emotions and feelings may not be intruders or bastion of reason at all, they may be enmeshed in networks for worse and for better” (Damasio, 2006, xii).

So if moral reasoning is not a purely cognitive endeavor, what role do emotions play in our own moral reasoning?  I spend the remainder of this article answering this question.

The Brain’s Dual System of Moral Judgment…

Cushman, et al (2010), in an article titled “The Multi-System of Moral Psychology”, utilize the analogy of a camera with both automatic & manual settings to describe the brain’s moral judgment system.  A camera’s automatic settings, might be useful for portraits or landscapes.  Likewise, the brain’s automatic settings, are useful for the millions of little decisions a person has to make in a day.  The manual settings of a camera are essential when adjustments must be made in a unique instances.  Similarly, the brain has manual settings, that allow it to make more reasoned judgments for complex situations.  Citing brain imaging research on survivors of  brain injury, Cushman, et al, (2010), describe two divergent brain system responses to moral dilemmas based – much like the camera scenario.  These studies compare the responses of healthy individuals to moral dilemmas with those who have suffered a brain injury.  In one study, individuals are asked to respond two to hypothetical scenarios, described below:

Scenario one – “The Switch Dilemma”

File_000SCENARIO ONE – (SWITCH DILEMMA) “a runaway trolley threatens to run over and kill five people. Is it morally permissible to flip a switch that will redirect the trolley away from five people and onto one person instead? (Cushman, et al, 2010, page 3).”

In this study, no differences were seen in the responses between healthy individuals and those with a brain injury.  Responses reflected a consequentialist moral judgment that focused on the idea of saving the greatest number of lives.  Participants displayed greater activity in brain regions responsible for controlled cognitive activity.

Scenario two – “The Footbridge  Dilemma”

File_000SCENARIO TWO – (FOOTBRIDGE DILEMMA)  Here, one person is standing next to a larger person on a footbridge spanning the tracks, in between the oncoming trolley and the five. In this case, the only way to save the five is to push the large person off of the footbridge and into the trolley’s path, killing him. (Cushman, et al, 2010, p3)”

In this study, participants with lesions in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, were more likely to utilize the “greatest benefit” standard. The idea of having to push someone off a bridge didn’t factor into their assessment of the situation.  In contrast, healthy participants responded strongly to the idea of pushing someone off a bridge.  Their response reflected a moral absolute.  Greater activity was seen in brain regions associated with emotion for healthy individuals. In contrast those with brain injury displayed an absence of function in the same area.  Cushman, et al, (2010), end this research review with the following summative comment:

“These lesion studies lend strong support to the theory that characteristically deontological judgments are – in many people, at least – driven by intuitive emotional responses that depend on the ventromedial prefrontal cortex while characteristically consequentialist judgments are supported by controlled cognitive processes based in the dorsilateral prefrontal cortex” (Cushman, et al, 2010, p5). 

Essentially, Cushman, et al, (2010) propose a dual-process theory of moral judgment, on the basis of studies such as these, as most reflective of brain function. This perspective runs counter to traditional philosophy which characterizes consequentialist perspectives as sentimental and the deontological perspective as rational. When reading the quote above, my old mind searches through mental files pertaining to the subject of ethics and moral philosophy. Since my recent academic focus has been the social sciences, it’s honestly been a while. In my intro to ethics course as an undergrad I recall reviewing key moral philosophies throughout history. The instructor organized the subject matter in a spectrum-oriented fashion, starting with absolutist stances and ending in nihilism. As I recall, this placed Decartes’ deontology at the start of the course and consequentialist perspectives such as Mill’s utilitarianism somewhere in the middle. A review of these moral perspectives is necessary to appreciate the claim that deontological judgments are conducted by the emotionally-driven brain and the fact that the abstract logical components engage in consequentialist judgment.

Consequentialist Judgment

image“Consequentialism is the view that morality is all about producing the right kinds of overall consequences” (Haines, n.d.).  This welfare-maximizing principle involves increasing pleasure and minimizing pain.  From this perspective, our main focus is the “overall consequence” (Haines, n.d.) of one’s actions and the sum total of their effect.  Did our action create more harm than good?  Or did was it a beneficial decision for the majority of those involved? A criticism of this moral stance is that it relies on sentiment at the expense of duty and imageprincipled standards.  The consequences of this cost-benefit analysis  is that an “ends justify the means” standard is reflected in our actions.

According to the work of Cushman, et al, (2010), brain research provides evidence of a neurological system that acts on the basis of this consequentialist welfare-maximizing standard.  The affective component acts at a subconscious level and creates a motivational push while our cognition creates value-based thinking.  This moral reasoning occurs in a manner similar to a camera’s manual settings as we weigh alternatives in complex situations such as in the switch scenario. The brain’s affective component is characterized by Cushman as “currency-style” emotions:

“A set of meso-limbic brain regions…represent expected monetary value in a more graded fashion…These regions, in a rather transparent way, support currency-like representations… Currency-like emotions function by adding a limited measure of motivational weight to a behavioral alternative, where this weighting is designed to be integrated with other weightings in order to produce a response. Such emotional weightings, rather than issuing resolute commands, say, “Add a few points to option A” or “Subtract a few points from Option B.” (Cushman, et al, 2010, p.12-13).

Deontological Judgment

image“In contemporary moral philosophy, deontology is one of those kinds of normative theories regarding which choices are morally required, forbidden, or permitted “(Alexander & Moore, 2012).  This absolutist perspective rejects the consequentialist notion that actions could be assessed in terms of their consequences.  Instead, right and wrong are concrete and absolute normative constructs.   From a deontological perspective we are expected to uphold duties and obligations.

What I find interesting about deontology, is that it reflects a “cause-I said-so mindset” of my son’s concrete-operational Piaget-like thinking.  When pushing further and asking “why” his absolutist standards exist, it is discovered they have no underlying well-reasoned basis.  “It is as it is because I said so.”  Cushman, et al, (2010) uses the term “moral dumbfounding”, (p, 11), to describe this sort of difficult-to-justify, moral standard.   Brain research indicates this deontological judgment system lies in unconscious mental processes and is supported by affective bcomponents (Cushman, et al, 2010). To understand these mental processes in the brain, it might be useful to revisit the footbridge scenario once more…

So what is it about the footbridge scenario that sets off this deontological reasoning system?  This scenario forces one to imagine engaging in an action that causes grave harm to somebody.  This immediately elicits a well of negative emotions.  I, for example, can’t help but react to this scenario with the thought, “so you want me to push this dude off the bridge and kill him, are you kidding me!?!” Associated with this response are the “fight-or-flight” emotions created by the amygdala.  This limbic structure is capable of producing what Cushman, et al, (2010) describes as “alarm bell” emotions (p. 12).“The core idea is that alarm-bell emotions are designed to circumvent reasoning, providing absolute demands and constraints on behavior” (Cushman, et al, 2010, p 12).

Concluding Remarks…

“Historically, consequentialism is more closely allied with the ‘sentimentalist’ tradition….while deontology is more closely associated with Kantian rationalism. According to the dual-process theory, this historical stereotype gets things mostly backwards” (Cushman, et al, 2010, p.6).

As expected, this post is longer than I had originally intended it to be.  I would like to stop here by  reviewing key insights from the article, “Our Multi-System Moral Psychology” by Cushman, et al, (2010).

**Emotions play a critical role in our moral judgments. These affective processes occur subconsciously, outside our awareness. They affect our information processing, thought processes, and behaviors.
**Two systems of moral reasoning exist.  A deliberate process utilizes cost-benefit analysis to maximize one’s overall, well-being.  The other is an evolutionary adaptation in the brain promoting survival.  It is rapid, automatic and guided by limbic-based moral absolutes.
**Two unique emotional responses exist in response to moral dilemmas.  Everyday “switched dilemmas” are interpreted as impersonal situations and produce currency emotions that yield a consequentialist response.  In contrast “footbridge dilemmas” are interpreted as highly “personal ”  and produce strong alarm bell emotions that yield absolute deontological reactions.


Alexander, L., & Moore, M. (2012). Deontological Ethics. Retrieved from:
Bennett, M. (2015). F*ck feelings our Manifesto [Blog Post] Retrieved from
Cushman, F., Young, L., & Greene, J. D. (2010). Our multi-system moral psychology: Towards a consensus view. The Oxford handbook of moral psychology, (1-20).
Damasio, A. R. (2006). Descartes’ error. New York: Random House
Gross, R. M. (2012, Summer.) The truth about truth. Tricycle Magazine, 76-80.
Haines, W. (n.d.) “Consequentialism”. Retrieved from:
Nussbaum, M. C. (2003). Upheavals of thought: The intelligence of emotions. Massachusetts: Cambridge University Press.

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The Nature of Emotions: Part 2

As stated previously, the purpose of these posts is to sort through a somewhat disturbing grain of truth weaved throughout my inner emotional world.   At the core of my greatest struggles is the realization that my emotional world is ripe with a paradoxical irony I can’t quite wrap my mind around.   As someone who happens to be studying the field of psychology at the graduate level, I’m having trouble shaking these personal realizations.  Human nature is – after all – at the core of my field of study.  It would be ridiculous to study this stuff and not take time to apply it meaningfully to my own life wouldn’t it?  In this blog post, I hope to explore the “other side of the coin” – emotions from a sociocultural and psychological perspective.   I again am not sure where this blog post might end, I simply hope to record my ongoing train of thought and see where takes me…

Irony and Paradox

“A lot is at stake if we view emotions in this way, as intelligent responses to perception of value. If emotions are suffused with intelligence and discernment, they cannot…be easily sidelined in accounts of ethical judgment” (Nussbaum, 2003, p1).

While neurological perspective of feeling provides, a description of common features in brain’s production of emotion, a sociocultural perspective provides understanding of variances in the experiences of feeling, individually and culturally. These perspectives each propose contradictory interpretations on the implicit nature of feeling. For example, while Dr. Bennett (2015) proposes that we “f*ck feelings”, Nussbaum (2003) asserts in the above quote they contain an intelligence – all their own. Underlying the grain of truth in both perspectives is the disturbing fact that human experience, at its core, is ironic and self-contradictory.   I realize in stating this I am probably jumping ahead of myself.  Why don’t we step back a bit and consider emotions from a social sciences perspective…

A L@@K  at the Other Side of the Coin…

From a sociocultural perspective, emotions are much more than “intraindividual states of conscious awareness” (Frijda & Mesquita, 1994, p51). In fact, as Leu, (2001), notes: “Emotions cannot be separated from the sociocultural contexts in which we find ourselves” (p. 65).  While I don’t want to get bogged down in the details, it is important to note how they reflect our conceptualization of life events.   The process of appraising a situation for its emotional relevance is at first colored by an array of personal concerns.  From within the framework of a historical and cultural context the emotional significance of an event colors our perceived meaning of it.  By acting on this perceived meaning and felt significance, we then perpetuate the historical and cultural context we utilized to analyze the situation.  It is for this reason that emotions are often more reflective of a person’s cultural, historical and temperamental reference points than brain matter (Frijda & Mesquita, 1994; Leu, 2001).  Excellent examples of this can be the changing definitions if love through history, from the courtly variety to our own modern versions of it.  Irving Singer’s books provide a good comprehensive view of this notion (and really worth reading).

It is important to note that a sociocultural perspective of emotion does not end here.  Appraisal theories of emotion focus on how people understand and interpret their environment (Ellsworth, 1994).  This perspective is in stark contrast to universal theories which focus on how emotions exist as hardwired byproducts of primitive brain function (Ellsworth, 1994).  The appraisal process of emotions only begins as the perpetual process described above.  Goffmanesque insights can be found when considering how emotions exist as a form of social communication and exchange (Frijda & Mesquita, 1994).   For example, others’ ascertain how we appraise life events and significant others based on our emotional expressions.  In this sense, emotions are not just “inside our head” they are also “out there”, as a felt connection with others and the world in which we reside.  They communicate valuable implicit messages to others about how we evaluate ourselves in relation to others and provide a sense of connection.  I’d like to conclude this section by mentioning that, as building blocks of a relationships, emotions might be actually thought of as forms of social control (Kityama & Markus, 1994).  As a key component in social behavior, emotional expression adheres to normative rules and cultural beliefs.  Culture provides us with emotional schema regarding attitudes toward feeling.  It creates a belief system that acts as a framework with which to make sense of things including: “when does one feel, where does one feel and how does one feel” (Kityama & Markus, 1994, p99).

Interpreting Emotions – “A Clashing of Schemas”

Here’s where things get complicated.  Since culture influences the way we interpret emotions, a clashing of perspectives is inevitable.  A convenient example of this sort of “clashing” comes from within my very own family.   As your typical American, I was raised within a very individualistic culture that encourages values of pride, independent thinking , and speaking your mind.  In contrast, my mother is from the Philippines, a collectivist society in which the extended family plays a more central role in daily life. As a result, I have observed in my mother an adherence to values including humility, stoicism, respect for elders, and appreciation for the value of duty in relationships as an expression of love.  After much reflection and personal growth, I have come to understand much of our ongoing miscommunication was a result of these diverging culturally-based belief systems.  As a child, I failed to understand my mother’s expressions of love.  Preferring to hear and witness outwardly visible affective indicators of love, it was instead an unseen dedication to her duty as a mother.  As I am only able to contextualize now, it seems the underlying cultural gap between us has been a failure to acknowledge key differences between us.  At the core of these differences, are divergent perspectives on what it means to be a person int his world.  What follows is a quote from a dissertation on the acculturation process in Filipino-American families, that touches upon this insight.

“To the Filipino, actions always speak louder than words, so instead of conveying love and fondness ith words, parents will endure extended periods of separation and/or hold down two jobs so that they can send their children to the best schools, pay for lessons and activities and provide material support and other opportunities.  This is the way they express their affection and the children are expected to recognize and value it.  If they do not express or show appreciation, parents might perceive them as lacking utang na loob – serious infraction of social mores” (Fortune, 2012, p12).

As I have wrestled with this ongoing miscommunication, two interesting tidbits from my studies have helped me make sense of this cultural gap.  The first insight comes from Marsha Linehan, founder of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy.  Several years ago, while attending a DBT skills therapy group, I learned a bit about the concepts of primary and secondary emotions.  According to Linehan, we experience both primary and secondary emotions.  Primary emotions refer to our initial reaction to what is happening and secondary emotions are reactions to this response…”or feelings about your feelings” (McKay, et al, 2010, p131).  When applying these concepts to one’s own life it is possible to note an endless change of emotions resulting from an initial response to a singluar event.   As it pertains to my own relationship with my own mother, I notice we can tend to react to some emotional events in culturally divergent ways. For example, situations resulting in the overt expression of feelings are natural to me.  Instead with my mother this might produce feelings of discomfort.  Understanding subtle cultural differences such as this has been critical to bridging the cultural gap between us.

Related to these concepts, is affect valuation theory, which states that how people wish to feel (ideal affect) is different from how they actually feel (actual affect) (Tsai, et al, 2006, p288).   In other words, one’s ideal affect reflects a person’s goals, while their actual affect reflects an innate response (Tsai, et al, 2006). For example, those from individualist societies “aim to influence their environments to fit their own needs, collectivists aim to adjust (i.e., modify, alter, subvert) their own needs to fit those of their environments” (Tsai, et al, 2006, p. 290).  In accordance with these culturally relevant goals (i.e. ideal affect) “individualists” tend to express feelings of excitement or elation openly (Tsai, et al, 2006).  In contrast those from collectivist societies display a greater preference for a calm and peaceful demeanor (Tsai, et al, 2006).

Having taken this line of thinking to its logical conclusion, I will pick it up later in a future post.  I would like to share some of my past journal entries on the subject emotional regulation, and discuss a few useful DBT exercises applying many of the insights here… Until next time 🙂


Bennett, M. (2015). F*ck feelings our Manifesto [Blog Post] Retrieved from
Ellsworth P.C. (1994). Sense, culture and sensibility. In S.E. Kitayama, & H.R.E. Markus, (1994). Emotion and culture: Empirical studies of mutual influence. (p.p. 23-50). American Psychological Association.
Fortune, B.V. (2012). Acculturation, intergenerational conflict, distress, and stress in Filipino American families (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from Proquest database. (Regents University, Order No. 353526).
Frijda, N.H., & Mesquita, B. (1994). The social roles and functions of emotions. In. S.E. Kitayama, & H.R.E. Markus, (1994). Emotion and culture: Empirical studies of mutual influence. (p.p. 51-87)). American Psychological Association. doi:10.1037/10152-002
Kitayama, S.E. & Markus, H.R. (1994) Emotion and culture: Empirical studies of mutual influence. American Psychological Association.
Leu C.M. (2001). Emotions as dynamic cultural phenomena. The Journal of Linguistic and Intercultural Education. 5. 62-75.
McKay, M., Wood, J.C., & Brantley, J. (2010).  The dialectical therapy skills workbook.   Practical DBT exercises for learning mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, emotion regulation & distress tolerance.  Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Nussbaum, M. C. (2003) Upheavals of thought: The intelligence of emotions. Cambridge University Press.
Tsai, J.L. Knutson, B., Fung, H.H., (2006). Cultural variation in affect valuation.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 90(2) 288-307.


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The Nature of Emotions: Part 1

As I sit here and prepare to work on another blog post a pile of school notes and old journals beckon me.  While thumbing through them, a favorite book comes to mind (Silverstein, 1976). Within these piles of material are themes prevalent in my thinking that this book describes so succinctly.  My own missing pieces are at first represented by deep wells of unresolved trauma which are the primary subject my old journals.   Over time, this missing piece perspective has morphed into what Shel Silverstein (1981) describes with his Big O Character .   This emerging 20-20 hindsight has become the byproduct of my own desire for self-understanding.  As I progressed from self-help junkie, therapy client, to student, I’ve had to wrestle with bitter truths that are impossible to ignore.   I now realize, much of my own thinking can be thought of as a “backa**wards flustercuck”.  The solutions aren’t what I thought they’d be, and neither were the problems.  As I’ve bypassed the big “4-0”, I’ve come to two conclusions:  (1) life happens when you’e doing other things and (2) it all adds up to something at some point.  Ironically, reflections of my personal history can be found throughout my school research.  As an individual who processes information verbally, working through this jumbled up mess is much like detangling a knot.   The big dose of reality that I’ve struggled with most is the nature of emotions.  They create a felt value which flavors my own life experiences.   They are the motivational underpinnings of my belief systems and thought processes.  They complicate the nature of reality due to a causal relationship, which more than one-sided.   An inability to wrap my mind around all this is what produces missing pieces in my thinking.  As I ponder this train of thought, I realize it will need to be the subject of a series of posts.  I’m not sure where this train of thinking will end, but it should be interesting.  In this post, I’ll explore the nature of feelings as an essential precursory understanding to insights I gained from a DBT skills class I took several years ago.

Divergent Ways of Being…

As I engage in this metacognitive endeavor, I find it ironic that a diversity of perspectives on emotions can be found in literature as well as my own family. As per usual, I find all this research is causing me to stop and reflect a bit.  My father comes from a neuroscience background which stresses the universal nature of emotions as byproducts of interacting structures in the brain. In contrast, as a student with a background in psychology and sociology, I’ve focused on the appraisal-oriented aspect of feeling. My interest has been in the individual and sociocultural variants of emotional appraisal and expression. As a result of diverging viewpoints, my father and I have very different ways of relating with emotions. Whether internal states or second-hand observations, my father holds feelings at a distance and contextualizes them in terms of brain function.  Preferring to utilize his prefrontal cortex, emotions are seen by byproducts of the limbic system and cloud rational thought.  In contrast, I work through them in an uncertain manner, led by an instinctual drive to see them to their often absurdist conclusions.  In doing so, I attain a clearer perspective on matters.  Along the way, I’ve come to terms with my own missing pieces and discovered new ways of being.  This journey has taught me to respect the differences between my father and I.   It seems the whole is not equal to the sum of its parts.

A Neuroscientist’s Perspective…

While I’m not wanting to get too bogged down in details that might bore my readers, I would like to begin by defining the concept of emotions from a neuroscience perspective. Emotions are complex states in which your mind and body become inextricably connected. They are experienced as a series of physiological responses that arise at a preconscious level as we interact with our external environment (Baumeister & Vohs, 2007).  Emotional perception begins with the intake of sensory information when the limbic system works to assess its emotive relevance (Lambert & Kinsley, 2011).  For example, the hippocampus stores memories of emotional events that can initiate a stress response when we encounter things that trigger these memories, (Lambert & Kinsley, 2011).  In this event, our amygdala triggers the fight-or-flight system, experienced as an emotional reaction that exists independent of our control or awareness  – at least initially (Franks, 2006). Occurring without the prefrontal cortex’s input, we are at the mercy of the brain’s more primitive components.  The limbic system changes our affective state by initiating a reactive process throught our body with the release of chemicals in the brain. For instance, during a visit home to see my parents one year, I ran into an old childhood bully at the local grocery store. This experience flooded my mind with adrenaline and norepinephrine causing my heart rate and breathing to rapidly increase.  My hands shook uncontrollably as I gripped the shopping cart until my knuckles when white and numb. While attempting helplessly to present a cool exterior, my limbic system continued betraying me.  Hippocampal memories of old traumas caused my amygdala to do my thinking for me.  As I left the store I was perplexed and stunned by both the immediacy and extremity of this reaction, completely out of my control.   I berated myself for this display of insecurity and sat in the car to calm down before making my way home….

…With fresh snow on the road, the drive home was slow, giving me time to think.  Now alone with my thoughts the nature of my affective state began to enter conscious awareness.  My prefrontal cortex was at work engaging in a bit of cognitive reappraisal, (Lambert & Kinsley, 2011). I began thinking through my emotions rather than with them.  My parents’ words of advice echoed in my mind “Remember Kathleen:  Exercise your prefortal cortex”.

Concluding Remarks

Much of what occurs in the brain is a covert operation. While out of view of our experience, these unconscious processes have profound affects on our well-being and lived experience. It seems the Buddhist monkey-mind concept has a neurological correlate in the limbic system.  For this reason, understanding emotions as a felt value we imbue our life with, only scratches the surface of reality.  Therefore, it might not be unwarranted to characterize emotions as matters of self-deceptive bullshit.  The following quote comes from a blog by a psychiatrist that summarizes this idea succinctly:

“If you want to make good decisions or get good advice about them, don’t pay too much attention to your feelings…Most things that make you feel bad aren’t within your control, so sharing your feelings won’t make you feel better for long….And focusing on your bad feelings makes them more important, so you’ll forget other important things in your life…I know, you’ve got lots of feelings about what you can’t change and you’d prefer to ask why rather than accept what you consider as defeat.  But here’s the advice that I think can be most helpful: fuck that shit. You’re never defeated if what’s stopping you is reality.” (Bennett, 2015).

So have I managed to merge this perspective with my own in a way that makes sense?  While thumbing through a book titled “Emotion & Culture”, Ellsworth, (1994) makes a point that “What is needed is a framework that allows a consideration of the general and particular at the same time” (p. 25).   A neurological perspective of emotions provides a general background on the biological components involved in the production of feeling.  From this perspective emotions are evolutionary adaptations from our environment, and exist as primitive byproducts of our earliest ancestors (Franks, 2006).  In this respect, emotions can be considered innate and universal byproducts of hardwired neuroanatomical elements.  In contrast, a psychological and sociocultural perspective describes the unique variants in emotional expression and understanding within individuals and across cultures.  From this stance, the focal point of understanding is how we choose to interpret and appraise our environment (Ellsworth, 1994).  Finally, it is interesting to note the byproducts of these diverging perspectives in research.  For example, some studies assert a universality to emotional expression and understanding by noting commononalities in facial expression and emotional attribution across cultures (Ellsworth, 1994).  In contrast, research indicates variances in emotional regulation and understanding between cultures.  For example, one study I found states that individualistic and collectivist societies vary significantly in how they interpret and handle emotions due to varying belief systems about self in relation to others (Kitayama & Markus, 1994).  As a result, divergent emotional schemas exist between individualstic and collectivist societies (Kitayama & Markus, 1994).  I conclude this post here, by noting it provides only half of the story on the nature of emotions.  In an attempt to leave my posts to a reasonable length, I will discuss the “other side of the coin” on this matter for my next time…


Baumeister, R. F., & Vohs, K. D. (2007). Encyclopedia of social psychology (illustratition ed.). Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage Publications.
Bennett, M. (2015). F*ck feelings our Manifesto [Blog Post] Retrieved from
Ellsworth P.C. (1994). Sense, culture and sensibility. In S.E. Kitayama, & H.R.E. Markus, (1994). Emotion and culture: Empirical studies of mutual influence. (p.p. 23-50). American Psychological Association.
Franks, D. D. (2006). The neuroscience of emotions. In Handbook of the Sociology of Emotions (pp. 38-62). Springer US.
Lambert, K., & Kinsley, C.H. (2011). Clinical neuroscience: The neurobiological foundations of mntal health. (2nd ed.), New York, NY: Worth Publishers
Kitayama, S.E. & Markus, H.R. (1994) Emotion and culture: Empirical studies of mutual influence. American Psychological Association.
Silverstein S. (1976).  The Missing Piece. New York: Harper Row
Silverstein S. (1981). The Missing Piece Meets The Big O.  New York: Harper Collins.

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