The construction of emotions

I recently read How Emotions are Made, by Lisa Feldman Barrett. It explains the theory of constructed emotion and its implications. This is the best book of nonfiction I have ever read. Repeatedly throughout the book, I had to put it down because I was so blown away that I needed a moment to think through the implications. And since I’m a blogger, my thoughts would often drift towards how I might write about these ideas and share them. This post will be a bit of an introduction explaining the basic concepts as I understand them, and I hope to write more in the future.

Regular readers know that I believe in nominalism–I think there is a meaningful sense in which everything is socially constructed. I understand that a lot of readers disagree with this, and we may never persuade one another. But fortunately this is irrelevant. When we speak of the theory of constructed emotions, it isn’t a broad philosophical claim, it’s an empirical claim that is specific to human emotions.

When psychologists study emotions, they can record a number of objective measurements, such as facial configurations, positive/negative valence, high/low arousal, and activity in different parts of the brain. However, these objective measurements do not match up to emotional categories. A single emotional category could correspond to many different facial configurations, while a single facial configuration could correspond to any number of different emotions. Yes, there are many qualitatively distinct feelings we can feel. However, when we give a name to those feelings, and place those feelings in an emotional category, this categorization process is not purely based on the feelings themselves. It’s based on the emotional concepts that are available to us, it’s based on the context in which we have those feelings, and it’s based on what we think the purpose of those feelings are.

The theory of constructed emotion can be contrasted with the classical theory of emotion. In the classical theory, there are six basic emotions that are biologically hardwired, and every human brain has a special happiness circuit, anger circuit, and so on. Some work on the classical theory of emotion is based on facial expressions that are claimed to be recognizable across all cultures.

Six faces showing emotion

These photos were used in a 1962 study by Silvan Tomkins. If you do not already know what psychologists think the 6 basic emotions are, I invite you to take a guess based on these photos. I didn’t get it right the first time myself. (source)

The way they focus on just 6 emotions to the exclusion of others strikes me as cherry picking. There’s an analogy to cross-cultural studies of color (video), which find certain universal patterns in the “basic” color categories. Color categories are still socially constructed, it’s just that there are some universal facts that inform which categories get constructed first. IMHO, if some emotional categories are more universal than others, that is entirely consistent with the theory that they are socially constructed. In any case, even when sticking to the “basic” emotions, Dr. Barrett was unable to replicate these studies. In cultures with little contact with western cultures, there are significant differences in emotional concepts. For example, in the Himba culture in Namibia, people would distinguish the “happy” faces from the others, but would not separate out the other 5 basic emotions, and even the “happy” faces would be labeled as “laughing” rather than “happy”.

But Dr. Barrett is not saying that emotions are purely social constructs. She makes a distinction between emotions and feelings. Feelings arise from your brain’s sensation, representation, and control of your bodily functions (e.g. blood circulation, immune system, digestive system, etc.). This is called interoception. Feelings are not just about how your body is functioning right now, but also how your brain simulates your body, and makes predictions about how it should budget your body’s resources under different conditions. One commonly studied part of your feelings is your affect, which is commonly described with two dimensions: positive/negative valence, and low/high arousal.

But when we categorize these feelings into emotions, it is often based not just on the feeling itself, but on circumstantial evidence. For example, “anger” describes people who get red in the face and shake their fists, people who go cold and silently plot revenge, and people who just shift around in agitation. “Anger” corresponds to feelings that are all over the map. What all these instances of anger have in common is not so much people’s affect or bodily functions, but rather the circumstances and presumed purpose of these feelings. When you have been visited by injustice, and you want somebody to pay for it, we might call it an instance of anger, regardless of what precisely you are feeling. Anger may be associated with certain typical feelings, but those feelings aren’t all that the concept is getting at.

And not only do feelings inform our emotions, it goes the other way too. When we construct an instance of an emotion, that informs our brain’s interoceptive simulations. Dr. Barrett suggests that it might be good for our health to use of a wider array of emotional categories for more specific situations, because this allows our bodies to respond in a more situation-appropriate way, instead of having a one-size-fits-all response. The ability to distinguish many different emotion categories is called emotional granularity. People with higher emotional granularity have been found to be healthier by many measures (although I think there’s no proof of a causal link).

I want to end here with a personal note on why I liked the book so much. To be frank, it’s because of my orientation. I grew up with the presumption that everyone had the same emotions and feelings as me, only to find out later on that there were key differences that functionally changed how I relate to romance. I asked people to describe their own experiences only to realize that even straight people had huge variations which they would rarely acknowledge or talk about. And I reflected on other hidden variations in experience which have nothing to do with orientation, and which are never even named. Although the book never discussed orientation, it provided a conceptual toolset that I will treasure.

If you found this topic interesting, I highly recommend the book. Or, if you don’t want to commit, here are some short videos and longer talks.


  1. says

    @Lisa Feldman Barrett,
    Thanks for doing the research you do and doing outreach to help the public understand it.

  2. anat says

    The BrainHQ brain exercise website has as one of their games one where you are briefly shown the face of one person expressing a certain emotion, and then you are shown several faces of a different person each expressing a different emotion, and you are supposed to pick the one that matches the emotion of the first face. (At higher levels the faces are shown from different angles.) I must say that some of their models have facial expressions I find hard to decipher – especially the elderly ones, but not just them. Mostly I find the happy face and the scared face the easiest to identify consistently, but even there it can be hard with some models. But the sad face and the angry face definitely have some overlap. I wonder what it would be like to be shown all the faces together and try to sort them all out.

  3. =8)-DX says

    Thank you for the review, it’s a very interesting topic. Also have to agree with “there is a meaningful sense in which everything is socially constructed”, I’d go as far as to say plenty of things don’t make very much of any sense outside a framework like that, and plenty of people will actually agree with the basic points, but get stumped by the language surrounding social construction.

    Anyway, will be checking back for further updates on emotional construction!

  4. says

    Anat @3,
    I think the facial expression recognition depends a lot on methodology. Some of the old studies from the 60s pose it as a multiple choice question, and then it’s easy. Also worth noting that the facial expressions are actors that have been coached to give exaggerated stereotypical expressions, and it would be much harder to categorize real expressions.

    Personally, I have the most trouble reading the “fear” and “surprised” faces. I can distinguish them, but I basically don’t associate fear with a facial expression. I mean, how common is the situation where somebody is afraid, and you’re looking at them directly in the face?

  5. says

    I’m so on the same page as this book. After my diagnosis of Tourette’s Syndrome and ADHD as a 33 year-old I dove into the literature in order to understand myself and ended up reading about what we think emotion and consciousness is. I’m going to get a copy and another work that would be a great read with it is Antonio DiMasio’s “Self Comes to Mind”.

    The distinction between feelings and emotions is one big point of agreement with feelings being readouts of body states at particular moments. Goodness/badness and intensity.

    Emotion is more complex with feelings of emotion being but one component in a cycle of events that produces a consciously felt emotional state. I’m not surprised that basic emotional states can look different in different cultures as I’ve believed that there is considerable role-modeling of what to do with different emotions. I’ve preferred Plutchik’s eight basic emotional states bit even there I considered it a replacable frame.
    A single cycle of consciousness would have an emotional state with perception recalling the meaning (valance, intensity), and response (expressions and other actions) associated with objects via recall memory stored in part in body maps in the brain stem and mid-brain. All consciousness contains emotion in contrast to appeals to “being emotional”.

    I didn’t know about the concept of emotional granularly and it’s imeadiately useful when thinking about the benefits of mindfulness meditation which I’ve thought of as practicing interoception. Interestingly I think that the Tourette’s Syndrome gives me something of an interoceptive advantage, my body is “loud”.

    Thank you Siggy for pointing this out, and thank you Lisa Barret for writing this and producing the research you do.


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