Constructed Reality

Modern neuroscience is challenging innatism—think evolutionary psychology—with their findings on how our emotions work.  The bottom line is that our emotions are not hardwired (i) at least not in the sense we were sold.  The proponent of the theory, Lisa Feldman Barrett Ph.D., tells a lucid story in “How Emotions are Made” on how the mind constructs emotions minus the fingerprint (i) requirement.

I will explain here how motivated reasoning (v) corrupted the science of the day while the next post will look at how Dr. Barrett cleverly uses language to promote her theory but at the cost of misrepresenting others’.  It brings up the disturbing idea, at least for the strict innatists, that our realities are constructed purely by statistical reasoning and interoception and that our emotions are only valid in so much that there is a collective agreement.  

This is particularly important because it shows how researchers were motivated to reinterpret findings and even architect experiments to conform to their faith in innatism.  But judging by Dr. Barrett’s interest in constructionism, she too is motivated to reinterpret studies and prove the status quo—Plato, Steven Pinker, Charles Darwin (ii), and Paul Ekman—wrong but nevertheless shows a genuine passion to accurately characterize our emotional states.

Motivated for a Fingerprint

Darwin’s theory of evolution says that differences found within a species are not errors from the ideal-type but are necessary ingredients for natural selection to work.  So the ideal species is better seen as a statistical average (iii) where individual members of the species vary from this average in, sometimes, important ways.

This insight that an ideal-type doesn’t exist matters because our emotions are best viewed in the same way.  It was ignored, however, when the philosopher John Dewey, a Darwinist, reframed William James’ work on emotions to conform to the ideas of essentialism (iv).

Dewey’s misinterpretation of James is one of the great mistakes in modern psychology, forged by essentialism in the name of Darwin. [1]

The irony is that Darwin’s theory was arguing against essentialism since it was saying that there was no essence or ideal-type.  But Dewey’s motivations were philosophical and so labeled the essence a fingerprint since it was thought to be unique and exist in all of us.  But no fingerprint for emotion has ever been found.

Architecting a Fingerprint

The idea that emotions have a fingerprint exists today as the classical theory of emotions.  But studies conducted to prove this was in a way architected [1].  In other words, they allowed their experimental method to be influenced by their philosophy (iv).  Let me explain how the study was contrived.

Researchers knew that at least seven emotions had fingerprints.  The experiments required that participants choose from a list of emotions when trying to guess the emotion conveyed.  This list was not random but handpicked and consequently improved the accuracy for guessing the correct emotion.

There were also opportunities for non-Westerners to learn the meaning of our stereotyped emotions before being given the list.  Moreover, the list itself was providing them with emotional concepts that acted as cues that experimenters didn’t take into account.  The researchers still succeeded, however, at replicating the studies with the faulty methodology and proved innateness.

But using more sophisticated techniques from neuroscience to measure our emotions shows that they are more like variations of a theme than fingerprints.  That is we construct emotions by using learned concepts and no one instance of emotion is the same although a category of emotion, say anger, seems to converge to some average distribution.


i) The book takes innate in the most strict sense where each emotion must have a similar neurological pathway and be universally expressed and recognized across all cultures.  The word fingerprint is alluding to a predefined pathway that is expressed in everyone the same way.

ii) Darwin’s insight that there is no ideal species but rather a prototype instead would have helped innatists, but they relied on the book in which Darwin got it wrong, namely “Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals”.  He speculated that there were universal emotions but portrayed it in a way that betrays the anti-essentialism he was expressing in “On the Origin of Species”.

iii) A statistical average is not real but abstract.  We can think of the ideal species as being the statistical average, and the members of the ideal species as data points in an experiment that all vary from the ideal or average.

iv) Essentialism is a philosophical belief that any entity has a definable and finite set of properties that make it what it is but claims that it is science’s role to figure out what that is.  Staunchly holding to this belief, however, led to faulty experiments and conclusions.

v) Motivated reasoning is a confirmation bias.  And despite cognitive science labeling, it is a ‘cognitive distortion’, it is a feature of the mind and is how it works.  Fortunately, our motivated hypotheses are challenged by others if not trapped in the same dogma.


[1] Barrett, Lisa Feldman. How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. HMH Books.

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