Emotion: The Emotion Wars

Feelings mean nothing without context.

By Hara Estroff Marano, published January 1, 2012 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Science, just like art, is subject to big shifts in the way we think about ourselves. For the past two decades, psychology has favored "inside" explanations of behavior: Who we are is largely determined by our makeup. We are hostages to our genes.

But the cutting edge is now shifting. Evidence is amassing that the environment we inhabit shapes even what we thought was most fixed about ourselves.

One orthodoxy of psychology in the past two decades has been that emotions are hardwired into us and their facial display is universal, and thus recognizable, across cultures. We just "read" the emotions that are written on a face. But Boston College psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett finds that emotion perception is driven as much or more by context, and we can't know what emotions mean unless we know the situation.

Showcasing a photograph of Serena Williams in which the tennis ace looks feral with anger, Barrett points out that it is in fact an image of ecstasy, marking Williams's moment of victory in the 2008 U.S. Open. "Context findings, in and of themselves, don't negate the existence of biologically basic universal emotions," Barrett and colleagues report in Current Directions in Psychological Science, but "such claims should be reconsidered."

Facial expressions do not contain all of the information we need to recognize emotion in others, says Barrett. In fact, she notes, it's context that "constrains what we expect to see and where we look." Even without our awareness, factors such as social environment, body posture, voices, scenes, words, and even culture routinely influence which emotion we see on the face of another person.

"Situations matter," declares Tufts University psychologist and PT blogger Sam Sommers, in a new book of that title. But even as our brains automatically incorporate context into decoding experience, Americans prefer to attribute behavior to stable, internal features, whether genes or personality, because "we've been encouraged to think we're special. And we believe we have a core, true self waiting to be discovered."

As champions of the individual, we often overlook the role of context. The joke is, he finds, even our most intimate thoughts are shaped by the people around us.

Situations Speak

Consider other recent evidence highlighting the power of context.

Heart

The gene most closely tied to heart disease is modifiable by a diet rich in raw fruits and veggies, Canadian scientists write in PloS Medicine. Researchers have just begun cataloging the nutrition-sensitive positions in human DNA.

Weight

When poor women move to better neighborhoods, researchers report in the New England Journal of Medicine, they lower their risk of developing obesity and diabetes. Physical activity and reduced stress are both known to influence genetic expression.

Immunity

A whole class of immune cells vanish from our bodies if we don’t consume vegetables from the cabbage patch, according to a report in Cell. From bok choy to broccoli, the vegetables we put on our plates can turn genes on and off.