If I ever needed proof that our emotional response to the world around us is quicker than our ability to think, I got it a couple of weeks ago. Anticipating that I was about to hear another pseudo-science sales pitch, I cut off the speaker with an ill-considered outburst. In retrospect, I suspect that I did them an injustice. But the episode does highlight the powerful role that emotions play in shaping our behavior.
The primary role of emotions is to dictate our response to the world around us. Based on our prior experience, the emotional “charge” either impels us toward or away from something. What was being said on this occasion triggered a negative anticipation for me, and I reacted without engaging my conscious brain first. But then my conscious brain caught up and shut down my ill-tempered rant. I could then reflect on why I had acted the way I did and take action to put things right.
At the time of the outburst I am not sure I was conscious of any particular emotion, but afterwards I interpreted the reaction as anger. And that led to me feeling guilty and defensive. I had behaved badly and felt the need to make amends.
Now let’s look at this event from the research viewpoint. Could we have predicted that I would react this way?
This blog proves that I am allergic to the suggestion that traditional research gets it wrong most of the time. If I was asked in advance, then I could have easily predicted my reaction to the speaker’s statement (he was suggesting that people don’t know why they act the way they do). What I could not have predicted was the strength of my reaction or exactly when it would come to fruition; that depended on the specific circumstances and what was said. However, after the event I was able to easily reflect on why I behaved the way I did and how it made me feel.
What is really interesting to me is the motivational power of the emotions and feelings involved. The emotional reaction that guided my immediate action was strong but short-lived. The reflective feelings subsequent to the event were weaker, but motivated my behavior over a longer period of time; I tried to be a good listener, I tried not to cut people off in mid–flow, and I tried to make my case as clear and compelling as possible.
And this is what worries me about much of the popular discussion about the role of emotion in shaping how people respond to the world around them. Like Erik DuPlessis, I think we need to distinguish between instinctive short-term responses and longer-term feelings. The short-term will be important to guiding attention and impulse decisions, but the mediated response – the knowledge of how something makes us feel – will have far more effect on people’s behavior when they are making a considered purchase. And if that feeling is strong enough to affect people’s behavior, it is probably also strong enough to enable them to answer questions about it.
So what are your thoughts or expressions of emotion?
The Blake Project Can Help: The Emotional Connection Workshop