Fear of Embarrassment, and Other Nested Emotions

Nested emotions like longing for love are emotions about emotions.

Posted Feb 26, 2016

Emotions are psychologically valuable because of their contributions to evaluation of situations, attention to important aspects of those situations, motivation to act, and social connections.  A theory of emotions should be able to explain their full range, from relatively simple ones such as happiness, sadness, fear, anger, and disgust to complex social emotions such as shame, guilt, embarrassment, gratitude, and pride. 

The most complicated emotions that operate in human relations are emotions about emotions.  In the tragic origins of the First World War, fear of humiliation was a common experience among political leaders who thought that they and their countries might be humiliated as a result of military and diplomatic defeats.    Humiliation is already a highly complex emotion, a loss of pride, self-respect, and dignity, each of which are positive emotions.   So fear of humiliation is fear of losing a combination of other emotions. I will call emotions about emotions “nested” emotions, because the term “meta-emotion” has already been used in a different sense concerning reactions to the emotional displays of others.     

Here are some additional examples of nested emotions:  hope for forgiveness, love of honor, longing for love, fear of fear itself, lust for glory, fear of shame, dread of embarrassment, hatred of boredom, wanting to be brave, falling in love with love, fear of commitment, disgust at lust, daring to be proud, pride of love, wishing for trust, anxiety about attachment, and fear of disappointment.  Generalizing to include not only one's own states but also the emotions of others, we get additional examples such as being annoyed at someone else's resentment, being happy at someone else's satisfaction, trusting someone not to let you down, and being fed up with the tensions in an international or romantic relationship.

Nested emotions are a major problem for purely physiological theories of emotion. There are no obvious physiological correlates of specific emotions like fear or humiliation, let alone for the far more complicated situation of suffering from fear of humiliation. Purely cognitive theories are similarly limited in that, even if they could identify the complex appraisal that goes into suffering fear of humiliation, they cannot explain why this goes with the kind of feeling that provides a strong motivation for action.   The facts that fear of humiliation feels bad, and that hope for love feels good, demand a physiological component for nested emotions.  

Fortunately, the semantic pointer theory of emotions can handle both cognitive complexity and physiological input through repeated neural bindings. According to this theory, emotions are patterns of neural firing that bind together neural representations for all of these:  bodily changes such as elevated heart rate, cognitive appraisals such as threats to survival, the self who is experiencing the emotion, and the situation that the emotion is about.    In nested emotions, the situation concerns having an emotional experience such as humiliation.  The brain’s capacity for bindings of bindings naturally accommodates nested emotions about emotions. 

To take a specific example, consider the nested emotion that many people experience when they have to give a public presentation: fear of embarrassment.  In nested form, this would be something like:

Bind (self

          bodily changes

           appraisal of relevance to goals

           situation that binds (self

                                            bodily changes

                                             appraisal of relevance to goals

                                             situation, i.e. public speaking



Such bindings of bindings take a lot of neurons, which explains two important aspects of nested emotions.   First, we should not expect animals such as dogs with much smaller brains to experience them.    Second, humans seem to be limited to emotions about emotions rather than emotions about emotions about emotions.     The idiotic leaders who provoked the First World War ought to have experienced regret about their fear of humiliation, or even pride in their regret of fear of humiliation!   But such super-complex emotions are probably beyond the capacity of the human brain for representation and binding. 

Related blog posts:

What is Love?

Does the Heart Want What it Wants?

The New Synthesis in Cognitive Science