In the 1970’s, George Mandler was curious. Obviously we feel emotions in response to events or ideas, but he couldn’t understand why we cared about some things and not others. He argues that emotions are only felt after we become aware of something that ‘wakes us up’. You may or may not know, but our brains work hard to keep its workload down. It does this by creating ‘schemas’ or ‘scripts’, which are basically expectations of the world based on our experiences. When our brain recognises something, it will activate the ‘schema’ or ‘script’ for that thing and we will know what to expect without the brain having to work it out (a shortcut, if you will). Our expectations take over then and that part of our brain can ‘go to sleep’, saving space to deal with other tasks. For instance. I say tree – you think of green, leaves, bark, brown (or something). I say wake up routine – you think of grogginess, brushing your teeth, breakfast, showering, getting dressed, etc. A really great example of one of these shortcuts is experienced when driving. Ever driven somewhere reasonably familiar and not been able to remember a single thing about the drive? That’s your brain activating your ‘drive to that place’ script and shutting down or going to sleep. Kinda scary really.
Mandler wanted to know why some things created emotions when realistically they should be part of our schemas and scripts already (like stubbing your toe, you expect that from the world, but you also feel an emotion). He came up with the notion of Higher Order Plans and goals. Basically we are ‘mindless’ (our brain is constantly activating schemas and scripts), going along with our ‘Organized (sic) Action Sequences’, which are basically our routines designed by our brain to help us achieve our Higher Order Plans and goals which are simply our over-arching desires in life. When these routines are interrupted, we snap out of our mindlessness and our trouble shooting system is activated. Our emotions wake up to motivate us to get back on track.
Let me break it down. We wake up in the morning. We go to have breakfast, ’cause eating helps us stay awake and concentrate on Work/Uni. That in turn facilitates our making money to live and have fun. So eating is our Organized Action Sequence that feeds our Higher Order Plan of study or work and further to have money and have fun. So, we pour the cereal and go for the milk in the fridge, but it’s gone. There is an interruption to our script. We can’t complete our usual Organized Action Sequence because there’s no milk. Mandler says at this point, we feel an emotion.
Once we’re primed to feel an emotion, Mandler says our brains will decide how to feel about the interruption by deciding on two things:
Valence: is it a good thing or a bad thing (quite literally, the valance of something is whether it is positive or negative). Is this interruption helpful or hamful? In the milk example, it’s definitely a bad thing. No cereal! So we move on to…
Relevance: does it matter? Is this interruption something that’s going to cause problems? In the milk example, maybe it does. There’s no more milk. Do we have enough time to run to the store and get more? Are there other options for breakfast? Maybe we can have eggs on toast instead. Maybe there’s condensed milk in the pantry.
If it is relevant (important), then the emotion we feel will depend on the valance. No milk? No other option? We’re going to be annoyed. No milk, but we can have eggs instead? It’s not important and we’re either going to feel a lesser emotion, or none at all. The key is that the valence and the importance have to be high to elicit an emotion.
This is called Interruption theory and it’s as sacred to psychologists as gravity to physicians. So how can we control these emotions? Well, if we’re already feeling an emotion, it’s too late to sort our its relevance (importance). if we can address the valence of an emotion, we can swerve around the interruption and let our brains go back to chilling out. The whole thing is your brain’s attempt to motivate you to troubleshoot. The quicker you do, the quicker it settles down.
Check out part two to see how our brains choose the emotions we feel, and how you can get in there and control ’em!. Or, while we’re talking about emotional control, maybe you’d like to be the master of your arguments in the future? Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and ‘the good life’ at The Dirt Psychology.
Thumbnail photo courtesy of Hammond_J (Flickr)