Emotional Actions Are Not Exceptions

They are the norm.

Posted Nov 20, 2017

Here is a paradigm emotional action: In the dying minutes of the 2006 Soccer World Cup Final, the captain of the French team, Zinedine Zidane, widely recognized as the best player of all time, head-butted an Italian defender, Marco Materazzi. As a result, he was sent off and France lost the final. A pretty stupid thing to do.

This counts as an emotional action because his emotion (his anger, presumably) is what played a crucial role in causing and motivating this action. If he had deliberated about his action calmly and rationally, he would have chosen not to head-butt Materazzi. He was acting foolishly, impulsively and irrationally, following his feelings, not his reason. At least that is the standard story about emotional actions.

My aim here is to argue that emotional actions are not exceptions, they are the norm. Most of our actions are less stupid than Zidane’s but all of our actions have emotional components. Actions can be more or less emotional, but they are never completely non-emotional.

Neuroscientists of action make a distinction between the preparation for a movement and the execution of that movement. One major difference between these two phases of action execution is the inhibition of action during preparation and the lifting of this inhibition shortly before the execution begins. The main difference between these two phases of action execution is that there is a sharp decrease of spinal reflexes (more precisely, T-reflexes) during preparation for a movement (which prevents motor neurons from spontaneous firing) and increase again shortly before execution.

In short, increased spinal excitability is necessary for the initiation of action – if the spinal excitability is decreased, there is no bodily movement. And this is where emotions come in. Spinal excitability is reliably increased by affective stimuli (by objects or events with special emotional significance for us). Whether and when the action is executed is partially dictated by our emotions (although the emotion in question may not always be transparent to us). Not just Zidane’s action, but also our prosaic actions such as getting out of bed.

This is a big deal, not just theoretically but also in practical terms. Consider giving in to temptations. I need to write an article, but the vague idea of watching TV begins to creep into my mind. But I resist the temptation. Then suddenly I find myself reaching for the remote control. Why am I doing that? Understanding this would improve our lives considerably.

Giving in to temptations is an emotional action. Not because it is not what maximally rational agents should do. It is an emotional action because emotions play a role in the triggering the actual bodily movement of, for example, reaching for the remote. And this emotional impact is not specific to giving in to temptations: it is a necessary feature of all of our actions.

Emotions can push us over the threshold of action execution. Whether and when the bodily movement is triggered depends partly on our emotional state. Not just in the case of Zidane’s head-butt, but also in the case of all our actions. There is no such thing as a completely emotion-free action.