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Dynamic Attributes of Emotion

What they do is often different from how they feel.

Certain attributes of emotions dynamically influence how we experience them and the meaning we give to them. It's not possible to understand the function of emotions without a grasp of these attributes.


Emotions create importance. With an emotional response anything can be important; without it, nothing is. There can be no sense of meaning without emotion.

Amplify, Magnify, Distort

Emotions seize conscious attention by amplifying and magnifying change in the environment or within the self. The evolved purpose is to get us to act on the motivation of the emotion (approach, avoid, attack). For instance, if you're interested in something, and don’t focus on it, the usually unconscious emotion of interest starts to feel like anticipation, excitement, a nagging hunch, or anxiety. If you have ignored someone you love and don't approach to kiss and make up, the usually unconscious emotion of guilt will begin to feel like impatience, frustration, anxiety, or depression. If you’re in the Toddler brain, you’re likely to blame it on your partner. If you do, the unconscious guilt becomes anger or resentment, as in: "She had it coming!" or "Why should I feel sorry for him?"

Focus on feelings unavoidably distorts and blows out of proportion whatever change the feeling amplifies and magnifies. The distortion effect of emotions explains why the stronger ones, such as anger, make us do and say things we don’t believe. With an angry response, we’re usually wrong even if we’re right. We can start out factually right, until the distortion effect of the anger blows things out of proportion and context, making us wrong.

Negative Bias

The distorting effects of emotions worsen with their built-in negative bias. Negative emotions produce much greater effects than positive ones. There are several reasons for this. Negative emotions (particularly anger, fear, disgust, and distress) are more urgently related to survival. The brain is a better safe than sorry system. It would rather be wrong 999 times thinking your spouse is a saber tooth tiger than be wrong once thinking a saber tooth tiger is your spouse.

Loss is almost always more intense than equivalent gain. Having a meal is enjoyable but, in most cases, incomparable to the distress of having to skip one. Finding $1,000 will be pleasant for a day or so; losing $1,000 can ruin a week. More poignantly, having a child is a joyous occasion; losing a child takes a lifetime of recovery.

Signal Retreat

This built-in mechanism counteracts the power of emotions to dominate or overwhelm us. Emotional signals become weaker as the change that activates them becomes familiar. This accounts for why the bad gets better, or at least more tolerable, as people adapt to horrific conditions of poverty and prison. It’s also how the good gets boring. Sadly, much of the grief in marriage is due not to loss of love, whose complexity helps it endure, but to loss of simple interest. The death knell of intimate relationships sounds not from boring partners but from partners who misunderstand signal retreat and blame it on each other.


Emotions with approach-motivation are incompatible with those that motivate attack or avoidance. We cannot experience incompatible emotions at the same time, although we often experience them in rapid sequence. For example, compassion and anger are incompatible, not because of the arousal or feelings that go with them or even the thoughts and language that express them. Their incompatibility owes to their respective motivations. Compassion motivates approach (sympathize, help), and anger motivates attack—punish, put down, or prove wrong.

The law of incompatibility has special importance to issues of emotion regulation. It's much easier to change the motivation of emotions from avoid or attack to approach, than to wade through virulent feelings and the contradictory meanings that attach to them. To be effective with any consistency, emotion regulation must become a habit that can hold under stress. (Otherwise, Mr. Hyde will not remember what Dr. Jekyll learned in anger management class.) Habits triggered by arousal and motivation cues are superior to those requiring conscious reflection on feelings or behavior choices.

How Emotions Dominate Thinking

The function of emotions as an alarm (or early-warning) system affords them priority and greater speed of brain processing. On autopilot, they easily overwhelm slower thought progression. For example, a startle response occurs thousands of times faster than one can say, “I feel afraid or angry.”

Negative emotions send possibility-based signals of change to the Adult brain (prefrontal cortex) for interpretation. Like a smoke alarm, they signal what might be happening. The Adult brain tests the signal against assessments of reality in a kind of probability calculation—how likely is it that the signal is accurate? Is there really a fire or someone cooking?

For many people, the Adult brain’s assessments tend to justify emotional signals rather than test their accuracy. (The smoke alarm means the house is burning.) This habit of automatic justification no doubt forms early in life when the Toddler brain has to process intense emotional signals with little interpretive capacity.

Interpretations based on possibility are more often wrong than right, yet they triumph over more accurate estimations of probability. That’s because possibility estimations are hair-trigger responses based on past experience. The brain matches the current emotional arousal with similar arousal patterns of the past and draws motivation from emotions associated with those arousal levels. This is why, when angry or resentful at a spouse, we’re able to recall everything he or she did to offend us in the past ten years! It is also why we only remember those offenses when angry or resentful. When feeling sweet and loving, we’re likely to recall only good things. It also means that we tend to make the same mistakes over and over when emotion dominates behavior choices.

Intensity = Self-validation. Strong emotions drastically limit the adult brain’s appraisal, reality testing, and explanatory accuracy and make mere possibilities seem like fact. Intense emotions self-validate: If I’m angry, you must be doing something wrong. If I'm afraid, you must be threatening. If I'm disgusted, you must be repulsive.

The threshold of emotional self-validation has lowered considerably in our modern era of blame and entitlement. “Uncomfortable” is the watchword here. “If I’m uncomfortable, you must be insensitive or abusive.”

Enhancement, Disorganization. Enhancing emotions reinforce meaning and make behavior more decisive, though not always advantageous. They increase energy and focus. They reduce doubt and strengthen resolve. They make us certain, though often wrong. They empower by strengthening confidence, morale and the “spirit to go on.” The major enhancing emotions—interest, excitement, and anger—fortify meaning and justify behavior: “I’m right!”

Disorganizing emotions dis-empower with global doubt and uncertainty. They deplete energy and concentration, diminish confidence, morale, and resolve. They make it impossible to think straight or take decisive action. Shame, humiliation, sorrow, and anguish are the major disorganizing emotions.

In the next post, I'll discuss how we create meaning from emotion.

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