Attraction and emotional granularity

This article was written for the Carnival of Aces themed on “Nuance & Complexity“. It is being cross-posted to my other blog, The Asexual Agenda.

Asexuality is chiefly about noticing a distinction between the emotions you perceive in other people, and the emotions you perceive in yourself. We give a name to this distinction, for example by saying some people experience sexual attraction and some people do not. And we discuss appropriate responses to our emotions, for example by saying that some emotions mean we want to have sex, and other emotions do not.

Within ace communities, we often discuss further distinctions in emotions. Again, we give names to these distinctions, for example by talking about romantic attraction, platonic attraction, aesthetic attraction, sensual attraction, and so forth. And we discuss appropriate responses to these emotions, for example by describing what kinds of relationships might satisfy our emotions, or if a particular emotion only makes us want to look at a person.

The ability to distinguish different emotions is a nascent research topic in psychology. And while you shouldn’t let psychology research dictate how you live, looking into the research may give us insight into a common topic.

The concept of emotional granularity was developed by Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett. It is a measure of a person’s ability to make fine-grained distinctions between similar emotions. For instance, a person with higher emotional granularity might be able to distinguish between anger, annoyance, irritation, and frustration, and a person with lower emotional granularity might not.

Research on emotional granularity has been based on the framework of the arousal and valence. Arousal is a measure of physical alertness, and valence is a measure of how positive or negative the emotion is. Together, arousal and valence form a two-dimensional space that can be used to describe different emotions. This model should not be understood as a complete description of all emotions, but rather two dimensions that are relatively easy to measure in experiments. Attraction is not among the emotions studied within this framework.

Despite the constrained nature of research on emotional granularity, researchers have looked at several different types. For example, arousal focus is a measure of granularity along the arousal dimension, and valence focus is a measure of granularity along the valence dimension. Arousal focus is associated with the ability to use internal cues to distinguish emotions, while valence focus is associated with the ability to use external context to distinguish emotions. Researchers also sometimes separately measure people’s ability to distinguish among positive emotions and among negative emotions.

Researchers have found that emotional granularity improves psychosocial functioning. Low emotional granularity is associated with schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, major depressive disorder, problems with alcohol, and aggression in response to anger. Low emotional granularity has also been found to correlate with autism. People with higher emotional granularity have been found to use a wider range of strategies to regulate their emotions.

The theory is that different strategies for coping with emotions are effective in different contexts, and that higher emotional granularity equips a person to deploy the right response in the right context.

I feel that this resonates with my personal experience, making distinctions between my own emotions and the social category of sexual attraction. Those emotional distinctions equipped me deploy the right strategy for my life, instead of stressing over my inability to find any girls I liked, as I had been doing before I identified as ace.

At the same time, ace communities generally understand that not every emotional distinction is useful for every person. For example, while romantic attraction may be a very important concept to some people, it is not for everyone. Many people find that they are unable to distinguish between romantic attraction and other feelings they have. Other people can make distinctions among their emotions, but distinctions that they find to be most important are not the same as the ones that are named in ace communities.

Although emotional granularity is associated with many psychosocial benefits, pressuring people to work on their emotional granularity is tantamount to healthism. It is a demand that other people prioritize their health above all else, without any consideration of their personal circumstances or needs.

It also seems premature to jump to any conclusions based on the research. In many cases, the results only show correlation rather than causation. We may later find that emotional granularity has drawbacks in addition to benefits. And it’s still an open question whether emotional granularity can be learned at all.

The larger thesis in Dr. Barrett’s research is that emotional categories are constructed, and that the categories may differ between cultures. This seems to imply that emotional granularity could at least be taught on the cultural level, if not the individual level.

Learning about this research made me more optimistic about the way that ace communities put so much focus on making emotional distinctions. But I do think this needs to be moderated by the knowledge that not everyone has the ability to make the same distinctions, and not everyone needs to make it a personal priority.

How Emotions are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett (book)

A Brief, but Nuanced, Review of Emotional Granularity and Emotion Differentiation Research, by Smidt & Suvak (journal article)


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