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Thomas J. Scheff

Thomas Scheff Ph.D.

Emotions in the Public

The flat earth stage

Most of the beliefs held by the public about emotions are either mistaken or at least not backed by evidence. The most glaring example is the idea that venting anger is necessary to “get it off your chest.” This is a dangerous and destructive belief, yet it has been proven false with many replications in experimental psychology, beginning with Leonard Berkowitz (1962).

Other examples: confounding genuine pride with egotism, infatuation with love, crying with weakness, and fear with cowardice. The public also believes that yawning is caused by boredom, sleepiness and/or lack of oxygen, although what evidence there is (Walusinski 2010) suggests these beliefs are mistaken.

The main stance of the public is that emotions should be neither seen nor heard; expressing one’s emotions is impolite if not rude, and certainly unnecessary. Yet there is evidence that expressing, rather than suppressing emotions is just as necessary as eating. If we don’t get sufficient and wholesome food, we suffer, at the very least, and may die.

To give one example: it is possible that PTSD, which can lead to suicide, is caused by the belief that showing fear is a sign of cowardice. We need to learn how to express our emotions without shame. Perhaps a first step in this direction would be to define each emotion carefully, rather than continuing with the confusing and confused ordinary usage. These terms both generate and are generated by the flat earth stage of emotion beliefs.

The public might show more interest in studies of venting anger if two changes were made in the reports. First, if venting doesn’t help, what does? One possibility is to express anger verbally, making sure that one’s manner is not insulting. The failure to offer an alternative to venting might indicate that, like the public, the experimenters believe that either that emotions are not important and/or it is not necessary to express them.

A second problem with the reports on venting is that they equate it with catharsis. But the theory of catharsis is not relevant. Catharsis is more like Wordsworth’s definition of poetry: emotion recollected in tranquility (Scheff 2007). The psychotherapist Lynette Danylchuk, who has treated PTSD sufferers for many years, describes a central part of therapy as dealing with immense amounts of unexpressed fear “in the zone” of safe recollection.

Even though emotions are discussed and studied less than behavior, cognition, perception, etc, they are just as important. All aspects need to be discussed and studied, their origins, bodily expression, stimuli, and therapy for hidden emotions. Perhaps this is an increasingly crucial topic both for the public and researchers.

References: Berkowitz, L. (1962). Aggression: A Social Psychological Analysis. New York: McGraw-Hill. Scheff, Thomas. 2007. Catharsis and Other Heresies. Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology. 1 (3): 98-113. Walusinski, Oliver. 2010. The Mystery of Yawning. New York: Karger.


About the Author

Thomas J. Scheff

Thomas J. Scheff is Professor Emeritus of Sociology, University of California, Santa Barbara.