How to never get mad again (kind of) (part two)

June 23, 2014

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Ever feel like emotions rule you sometimes? You're not alone. We get emails on this topic every week. Well, in this article we give you a checklist psychologists use to determine why we feel the emotions we feel so you can hijack your brain and turn those emotions into your slaves (not the other way around).

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Unfiled: this is an archived article from our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology.

One of our most popular articles talks about WHY we feel emotions. Emotions are thought to motivate us to fix things in our environment. This idea is fairly obvious. Think about guilt. It makes us want to confess to something naughty. Anger often motivates us to right a perceived injustice. Shame? We did something socially unacceptable and now we have to wheedle our way back into good graces.

Well, psychologists think that this motivating function of emotion is more fundamental than that. That we feel emotions when our day to day 'mindless' routines are interrupted Maybe you're off to work and your shoes aren't where they usually are. You'll feel annoyance, which motivates you to find your shoes. If your shoes were there, you wouldn't feel an emotion, because you were following your routine of putting your shoes on.

We create these routines because there are many predictable patterns of events that we don't need to worry about. So, we have expectations or 'schemas' that manage these so we don't need to waste energy figuring them out all the time. When these schemas are interrupted, psychologists say we feel an emotion.

Now, it's all well and good to say we'll feel an emotion, but our brains have such a delightful selection to choose from. How do our brains choose which one? Well, (attribution theorists) have a pretty useful idea about that.

Ok, so your routine has been interrupted. You're motivated to respond, and you need to fix your broken routine. What happens next will depend on your 'attribution':

Locus: is it your fault or not?

First you will consider the 'locus'. What is responsible for the interruption? Here we have three broad options:

  • Other: is it someone else's fault? Is it only happening to someone else? It might not even really involve you, although it might affect you. Our relationships have a lot of influence on our emotions.
  • Self: or perhaps it's your fault. Perhaps it only involves you. If this is the case, you're likely to start focusing inward.
  • Environmental: or perhaps it's nobody's fault. Maybe something else in the environment is responsible for the interruption.

Typicality: does this happen in every context?

Once you've identified the source of the interruption, you're going to feel more or less strongly about it depending on whether it's typical:

  • Global: is this something that happens in many different contexts?
  • Situationally Specific: or is this something that happens only in a very specific situation?

Stability: does this happen regularly?

Then you'll start to think about how often it happens:

  • Stable: this sort of thing happens all the time.
  • Transient: it's pretty strange, this isn't something that happens often.

Controllability: can you handle it?

Then you'll wonder if it could have been stopped or not:

  • Controllable: could you, or someone else, have done something about it?
  • Uncontrollable: or maybe no one could have forseen it. It happened and there was nothing that could be done.

Intentionality: was it on purpose?

And finally you'll wonder if it was intentional:

  • Intentional: it happened because someone made it happen on purpose.
  • Unintentional: it happened, but no one meant to cause it.

An example: unexpected flowers

Let's say you've unexpectedly recieved some flowers. This constitutes an interruption to our routine. We don't typically expect flowers. So now we're liable to feel an emotion. What kind of emotion depends on the attribution. Choose your own adventure:

Locus: is it your fault or not?

  • Other: well here, someone else is buying the flowers. Perhaps they're buying them for you. We might like this very much. But perhaps they aren't buying them for you. Maybe they're buying them for another friend of yours--a roommate or a sibling. This also counts as an 'othered' locus. If it's for you, pleasure. If it's for a friend, a different kind of pleasure, or perhaps jealousy.
  • Self: maybe you bought the flowers. You thought they'd be nice. It's still an interruption, but you're going to feel differently than if someone else bought them for you.
  • Environmental: or perhaps it was a sample, sent to you by a company. Maybe it was the unexpected flowering of a weed in the garden. Each of these calls for different emotion sets.

Typicality: does this happen in every context?

  • Global: maybe the person buying the flowers is usually pretty generous. You'd expect this to some extent.
  • Situationally Specific: but if the person buying flowers doesn't do this very often, maybe you'll be extra surprised (or extra suspicious...).

Stability: does this happen regularly?

  • Stable: perhaps your garden is full of flowers. Or your family buys each other flowers all the time. If flowers are a regular part of your life, then this might not be so special.
  • Transient: or maybe it's a special occasion. You know that flowers don't just happen all the time, and that's going to make this more unique.

Controllability: can you handle it?

The flower example breaks down a bit here. So rather than force it, let's quickly switch to something else. Let's say someone showed up late for coffee.

  • Controllable: they were late because they were slow leaving the house. This is more frustrating than:
  • Uncontrollable: them being late because there was a car accident on the road. You more likely to be forgiving here. You can start to see how these things start to chain together. If this was controllable, but say, the person isn't usually late (i.e. it's a transient event) you'll feel less annoyed than if it was controllable and the person is always (stably) late.

Intentionality: was it on purpose?

Back to the flowers.

  • Intentional: if someone went out of their way to get flowers for you, you'd much prefer that to:
  • Unintentional: a sample of flowers showing up as part of a big mail out from the local florist.

Emotions are a product of our attributions

Attribution theorists reckon that once your brain shoots through all these decisions, it makes up it's mind about the responsibility (what or who was to blame) and consequently what sort of emotion we're likely to feel. Through each of these filters, the emotion becomes shaped into something that's going to motivate us appropriately. Flowers, unexpectedly given, could be a show of generosity from a generous person, or it might be suspicious--perhaps an expression of guilt from a more selfish friend. It's all about creating an emotion that's going to motivate us to address the interruption the right way.

Counsellors are fond of this framework to help us at those times our emotions get out of control. You see, we can always just do what our brain wants. Give in to the emotion and act on it. But, of course, our emotions don't always make us behave in ways that we would like. Knowing that it's the interruption at the root of our emotion, and the attribution that determines the emotion, means we can do something about that emotion. We can see why we're feeling a certain way and get a handle on it. Just spend a minute running through the checklist before acting, you might find you've just made some ridiculous attributions, or maybe you've got it right and you're hanging out with the wrong kind of people. Either way, can't hurt to take a breath right?

Alright, now you know how emotions happen, maybe you can figure out what sort of attributions might lead to jealousy or maybe you can see how complicated things can get when two people mash their routines together? 'Til next time, at The Dirt Psychology.

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