Post No.: 0488
According to some definitions, an ‘emotion’ is an external expression of an inner state that occurs typically without/before awareness in response to a stimulus; whereas a ‘feeling’ is an experience of being in a certain emotional state and is always done with awareness (an ‘introspective’). So you can have emotions without feelings but never feelings without emotions. Another slightly different interpretation is that emotions drive behaviour and are linked with physical expressions that can be externally observed; whilst feelings are internal states known only to those who possess them. ‘Moods’ differ from emotions like climate differs from weather – the states involved trend for a longer period of time.
The emotions we experience after a real event or an imagined or fictional event feel the same. Seeing what’s happening to fictional characters in fictional stories on screen will activate the same emotional responses from our ‘system one’ as if watching real people in real life, unless we engage our more critical ‘system two’ and tell ourselves that they’re just acting or animated. Pain from mental sources is also as real as from any other source – the same areas of the brain activate when people feel emotional pain as with something like a cut.
‘Arousal’ is the strength of an emotion (low or high) but is bi-valent/non-directional (i.e. you cannot tell just from looking at arousal whether someone is enjoying themselves or is frightened); and ‘valence’ tells us the direction (positive or negative) but no information about the strength of an emotion. When valence is either strongly positive or strongly negative then arousal will be high and motivation will in turn be high, but when valence is neutral (which usually indicates boredom) then arousal will be low and motivation will be low.
Emotions affect thoughts that can lead to behaviour, they can change one’s cognition, are social signals for communicating how one feels, and tend to be heuristic/autopilot response cues. In the context of neuroscience, liking is a person’s hedonic experience of something and can be consciously expressed (a conscious preference). Meanwhile, wanting is something that people cannot explicitly express and must be measured indirectly, such as via behaviour change (moving towards/away from something), mental preoccupation, work/effort, eye-fixation or arousal (an unconscious motivation). According to brain scans – the unconscious mind will have already made a choice many seconds before the conscious mind feels like making a choice! The higher the unconscious motivation, the more people will pay for a product too.
It’s more precisely our current emotional state that affects our perceptions, preferences, judgements and even morals. Arousal can increase our willingness to engage in more types of sexual behaviour, take unnecessary risks and act immorally, including lying to try to get what we want, for instance. Emotions arguably make us act primitively.
Planning something whilst in a ‘cold’ state for how we’ll behave when in some future ‘hot’ aroused state is very tricky – we typically grossly mis-predict how different emotions will affect us. This is an intra-empathy mismatch or ‘empathy gap’. For example, young men while in a ‘cold’ state usually fail to predict that when they’re in a ‘hot’ aroused state they’ll be more likely to make risky sexual decisions such as not using a condom. Another is when it’s difficult to empathise with the pain of another person when one is angry at them. It’s like different emotions turn us into different individuals!
When making decisions for the future, we tend to focus on how we feel now. Emotions are often deemed irrational and get in the way of rational behaviour, but emotions are prevalent, unavoidable and affect our decisions in ways we may not be aware of. Our current emotional state can cause us to treat others or ourselves in ways that we wouldn’t otherwise, which can in turn lead us into making decisions that have repercussions for a very long time. So always carry or put in place precautions that take this empathy gap into account.
Remarks like, “How did you get that easy question wrong?” when viewers are sitting comfortably at home watching contestants on a TV quiz show, may be lacking the empathy of being under pressure at that moment. And we all make mistakes occasionally anyway, especially during the heat of the moment, or even when not. Over-confidence or over-exuberance may therefore be one of the most dangerous feelings.
Yet emotions and feelings evolved for beneficial reasons. Fuzzy negative emotions like anger can bring our attention to something that should be changed, such as a social injustice, and furry positive emotions like hope can give us the impetus to actually make it happen because we’ll feel that change isn’t futile. Sympathy encourages us to offer the first act of kindness to start a positive tit-for-tat relationship. Gratitude makes us wish to return the kindness we’ve received from someone to maintain that positive tit-for-tat relationship. Anger protects us from cheaters who fail to reciprocate with us. Guilt impels a cheater who’s at risk of being found-out or expelled from a group to repair the relationship and advertise that they won’t do what they did again. And if we see someone crying after they’ve done something wrong, empathy may make us punish them less severely or give them another chance. Disgust evolved so that we avoid infections and parasites. But we can get used to things after enough safe exposures with them until they’re not considered disgusting anymore, which is adaptive and intelligent.
It’s currently commonly agreed that there are 6 basic universal emotions, which are happiness, sadness, fear, surprise, anger and disgust. But there are maybe in total at least 27 more nuanced emotion categories – including calmness, excitement, awe, relief, anxiousness, confusion, boredom, contempt, envy, guilt, horror, disappointment – that are connected with each other and can overlap. Not all emotions appear equal – the most primal emotions such as anger, panic, hunger and sexual arousal hijack us more powerfully than less primal emotions such as sympathy, guilt, boredom and embarrassment.
Generally, emotions are about fulfilling a short-term desire, whilst cognition is about fulfilling a long-term goal. And they do not necessarily add up together – our emotions can sometimes override our relatively more rational cognition. Our emotions and cognition can and often do conflict (e.g. cognitively, it’s better to save 4 people rather than just 1, but it emotionally feels better to save 1 friend and let 4 strangers die).
We can detect someone’s emotions through their body language. Poker players try to spot ‘microexpressions’ that last a fraction of a second on another person’s face because these might reveal the truth of their state just before they’ve managed to control them to hide them. This would be one type of ‘leakage’ that might reveal that someone is lying. People can pull one facial expression but feel something entirely incongruent to that expression (e.g. a smile can be happy or nervous, to attract or appease). We may learn that a genuine smile involves crinkling the eyes as well as lifting the corners of the mouth, but even this can be faked. However, even when people aren’t trying to conceal their true emotions, we aren’t as accurate at correctly judging the emotions of others as we tend to think. And those who are most hubristic about being good judges tend to perform worse because they jump to conclusions too quickly.
At least 24 kinds of emotion can be conveyed via nonverbal exclamations or ‘vocal bursts’ – including embarrassment (oops), disgust (urgh), contempt (pfff), anger (grrr), fear (scream), awe (woah), surprise (gasp), confusion (huh?), elation (woohoo), realisation (ohhh), interest (ah?), relief (phew), sadness (sob) and pain (ouch). Woof!
Compared to girls, boys tend to struggle to describe and show their emotions other than anger. This might be due to being raised in a culture of ‘boys don’t cry’ and ‘men should keep their emotions to themselves’, which isn’t healthy in the long run. (It’s bad for their individual mental health, and it’s bad for societies too because men are basically being encouraged to behave more like psychopaths.) So males evolved to have emotions and feelings too – they’re just culturally taught to unnaturally not externally express them so much.
Feeling and showing emotion isn’t weak – emotions and how we communicate using them evolved as genetic instincts and like a universal language for a reason. Emotions and feelings likely evolved to impel us to do certain things and repel us from doing other things, as well as to communicate with others socially – ultimately for the overall benefit of the specie’s survival and reproduction.
Emotions – both pleasant and unpleasant ones – are socially contagious. Yet we do have some control over how much our emotions are influenced by other people or events (e.g. if we want to stay calm then we can remain relatively unperturbed by angry people, or if we’re in the mood to be angry then angry people can fire us up, which is a problem if one is stuck in an echo chamber full of angry people amplifying each others’ anger). Another way to control who or what influences our emotions is to simply change our environment (e.g. avoid angry people if you don’t want to feel angry).
We can use emotions to get others to feel more empathy. For example, get someone to feel hungry, then ask them to donate to a hunger-related charity, and they’ll more likely donate. So we’ll feel more empathy for others if we already feel in a similar emotional state with them. (This is essentially one way we can close the empathy gap.) People also likewise tend to care more about third-world poverty and famine after they’ve had children of their own.
In philosophy contexts, rationality means reasoning based on logical reasoning rather than emotions; whereas in economics, it means your preferences should be at least consistent with themselves in particular ways. We are frequently more ready to act on our emotions and feelings than on data or knowledge. Emotive stories with emotive pictures are increasingly people’s sources of news. Even our moral choices are more often the result of what we feel than what we know. One example is being more likely to want to save someone who’s right in front of us rather than someone whom we cannot see but is suffering exactly similarly. We’re also more likely to save a member of kin over an anonymous stranger. There may be obvious evolved instinctual reasons for this but from a moral philosophy standpoint – why would we rather save a stranger who’s right next to us than thousands of miles away? Why would we also rather buy a personal luxury item over using that money to save a life or two? In places where they’re frequently heard, distant car or house alarms don’t elicit a neighbourly concern as much as annoy us with their noise!
This is why many argue that emotions lead to irrational behaviours. But emotions, as guides to behaviours, are only irrational if they’re inappropriate or disproportionate; albeit this is frequently the case (e.g. over-generalised fears, over-confidence). Emotions and raw intuitions or instincts are best relied upon when there is no time to think, but if there is time to think then we should use that time to also think more critically.
Emotions aren’t always rational but once you factor them into decision-making processes then you’ll get a more accurate prediction or model of real-world human behaviour. It’s a far more complex model of behaviour but this might be how every complex animal really operates? People aren’t cold-calculating, strictly rational computers, for better or worse depending on the context. Not everything can be decided rationally anyway (e.g. what paint colour to choose for one’s kitchen?) Emotions and feelings can overcome such decision deadlocks.
Woof! So emotions and feelings are a complex subject. Whatever the case, they drive behaviours and are important for communicating as a social species. Humans wouldn’t be human without them.