Big Ideas: Name That Emotion

"I met someone when I was in grad school, and I had butterflies in my stomach," Lisa Barrett, a psychologist at Boston College, says. "I thought this meant that I was in love, but I actually had the flu."

The episode comes up frequently when Barrett describes her conceptual-act model of emotion, an entirely new paradigm that challenges decades of psychological thinking (and won her a $2.5 million NIH grant in 2007).

The predominant model proposes that people have a standard set of emotions—anger, sadness, fear, disgust, interest, and happiness—and that each one corresponds to a clearly defined pattern of brain activity and behavior. But Barrett argues that the way we distinguish one emotion from another is based not only on differences in physiological reactions, but also on experience and context. You might label the same response "surprise" one time and "fear" another time based on the circumstances. An emotion is not a discrete, universal entity, Barrett says, but a flexible negotiation between general biological reflexes, social conditioning, and deliberate thought.

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Her model has potential implications for therapy. If you tell your therapist you're angry your wife left you, he might say you're sad. "You can't say who's right in objective terms," Barrett says, but you can say whose interpretation offers the more constructive way to approach the situation.

Barrett argues that you can learn to change how you interpret internal states, and even increase your emotional granularity: "If people have 20 words for anger (irritation, fury, rage, hostility), then they will perceive 20 different states and better regulate their emotional states as a result." Preliminary support comes from a study Barrett and colleagues conducted demonstrating that we're slower to recognize facial portrayals of emotion when emotional labels are less mentally accessible.

The conceptual-act model remains controversial. "Feelings cannot be taught or learned," says Carroll Izard, a psychologist at the University of Delaware, "so there is no way a conceptual act can create them." But he finds common ground with some of Barrett's arguments. In a current research project, Izard and colleagues have found that teaching Head Start kids to articulate their emotions improves their social skills and reduces aggression and misbehavior. "Attaching adaptive thoughts and action plans to feelings is critical," he says, "especially in the early years of life."

Feel Free

Three Steps to Improve Your Emotional Intelligence

  • Ask yourself if your internal state is caused by emotion or something physical such as lack of sleep or low blood sugar.
  • Don't limit your internal assessments to general statements like "I feel great" or "I feel awful." According to Barrett, "This does not really help you figure out how to cope with the feeling, and it doesn't tell others how to help either."
  • Expand your emotion vocabulary. "Just like an expert in fine wine," Barrett says, "improving your vocabulary will help you perceive important differences that novices can't."

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