Emotions Revealed: The Nine Causes Of Emotion



Continuing the series about Paul Ekman's book, "Emotions Revealed" this post will highlight his research conclusions of the nine ways emotions get turned on in a human. Ekman points out that most of the time we can't control or predict becoming emotional but that one of these nine are most likely to leave us feeling regret. 

One: Automatic Reaction - our automatic appraisal system takes over and we react to a moment emotionally without thinking. 

Two: Upon Reflection - in a delayed reaction to an event/experience we reflect and find our way thoughtfully into becoming emotional. 

Three: Memory of a past emotional experience - when we remember a charged experience from before it brings it right back to us. 

Four: Imagination - we can imagine emotional experiences and that will provoke us to feel.  A good story can really move us.

Five: Talking about a past emotional event - when we talk to our friend, spouse, partner, therapist, family member about what happened to us it again causes us to feel the emotions of that event. 

Six: Empathy - when we see others feeling and find their experience in our own story we mirror their feelings. 

Seven: Others instructing us what to be emotional about - when we are guided to feel specifically about something it can cause us to become emotionally too. Think about how as children we are instructed how to feel about things (a child who's parents fear the police, a child's who's parents get excited about large crowds, etc.)

Eight: Violation of social norms - when someone breaks a norm of ours (like being secretive when we expected them to be open or when they engage in an activity that is outside the norm values) it can cause all kinds of reactions (anger, joy, excitement, etc.).

Nine: Assuming the appearance of the emotion - when we match our face and voice to the universal expressions of universal emotions (a sad face, a particular happy face, etc.) we will evoke those emotions and affect our autonomic nervous system in real time. 

All of these are helpful to realize in terms of being able to understand why we might have become emotional. The first reason though, says Ekman, is the most often culprit for causing us to do and feel things we regret. Which is why therapy focuses most on understanding the implicit meaning of automatic moments for people so that we can slowly become more in control and less automatic. I'll end with an augmented metaphor by the famous behavioralist Aaron Beck called; The Bus. 

The bus is us. Our "self" is the driver of the bus. Our passengers are our stories, our history, or emotions. The stories and emotions that have gotten onto the bus so fast that we didn't get a chance to log them or understand them are always threatening to unseat us and take control of the driving. They get out of their seat and move to take control when the bus comes around a corner that look similar to the corner in which the unprocessed stories/emotions originally got on. They think it's the same corner and they're acting as if now is then. Before we know it, our "self" is in the passenger seat and our unprocessed stories/emotions are driving. Psychotherapy and psychoanalysis is designed to help people process their stories/emotions and get better at knowing what corners their stories are likely to try and get up and take control. So that they can turn around, in real time, and tell their passenger to, "please sit back down, I've got this and this is not the same place you got on".