Emotions May Not Be What You Believe They Are

Emotions May Not Be What You Believe They Are

In the classical view of emotion, an individual is born with an innate suite of emotions (e.g., fear, happiness, sadness, anger). As such, they feel these emotions when triggered by a stimulus, which in turn triggers a circuit in their brain (e.g., a fear circuit, sadness circuit, happiness circuit, etc.). This then invokes a bodily response, which causes them to behave in a certain way.

In other words, in this view, emotions happen to people.

However, with the advent of further advances in neuroscience, biology and anthropology, this common-sense view of emotions has come into question. One of the most vocal researchers in this regard is Professor Lisa Feldman Barrett who focuses on the study of emotion. Other researchers have equally acknowledged a similar concern about the classical view of emotions (see also Russell, 1980; Scherer et al., 2001; Matsumoto and Hwang, 2011).

Barrett’s research has shown that emotions are constructed. She suggests that “people experience an emotion when they conceptualise an instance of affective feeling,” which means that “the experience of emotion is an act of categorisation, guided by embodied knowledge about emotion”. As Barrett notes, “Emotions are meaning. They explain your interoceptive changes and corresponding affective feelings, in relation to the situation”.

Emotions, then, according to Barrett, occur through what she describes as interoception, which is our sense of our physiological conditions in our body. This sends a status update to our brains, after which we classify these physiological conditions into one of four rudimental signals: pleasantness, unpleasantness, arousal and calmness. These are collectively seen as affective feelings.

In this view for both Russel and Barrett, emotions are formed through our brain’s attempt to make sense of these incoming raw data. The brain achieves this by taking the data and filtering them through past experiences, through learned concepts and social reality. Here a learned concept infers the embodied knowledge we have from cultural norms, including emotion concepts. Barrett explains an emotion concept as follows:

Your familiar emotion concepts are built-in only because you grew up in a particular social context where those emotion concepts are meaningful and useful, and your brain applies them outside your awareness to construct your experiences. Heart rate changes are inevitable; their emotional meaning is not. Other cultures can and do make other kinds of meaning from the same sensory input.

Social reality is the collective agreement and language that make the perception of emotions possible among people who share the same culture. In other words, emotions result from sensory input from the body or surroundings and the context in which this happens. In turn, emotions are created through this sensory input, which are set forth and build upon memories accumulated from prior experiences.

Matsumoto and Hwang similarly argue that we create meanings about our affective feelings via “concepts, attitudes, values and beliefs” and that emotions are therefore “constructions that occur only because of memory, language, self-other knowledge, and abstract thinking”. Such meanings or interpretations of affective feelings are influenced not only by biology, but culturally, socially and cognitively as we seek to explain, justify and rationalise them. They are also re-negotiated in their retelling, depending on audience and context.

In line with Barrett, researchers such as Scherer and collegues and Desmet advocate an appraisal process whereby an emotion is elicited by a subjective evaluation of a significant event or situation in the environment that is seen as potentially beneficial or harmful. It is the interpretation of an event, rather than the event itself, which causes the emotion; therefore, an emotion is a result of a cognitive process, be that automatic, unconscious, controlled or deliberate. Appraisals thus serve as an evaluative process to diagnose whether a situation confronting an individual has adaptational relevance (i.e., will this change cause a better fit in one’s environment or not). This allows the individual to identify the nature of that relevance and to produce an appropriate emotional response to it.

As Barrett suggests, emotions as conceived of in this way, can therefore be understood as follows:

In every waking moment, your brain uses past experience, organised as concepts, to guide your actions and give your sensations meaning. When the concepts involved are emotion concepts, your brain constructs instances of emotion.

In other words, this theory of constructed emotions overturns a long-held belief that emotions happen to you; in fact, they are made by you. If this is the case, a general argument can be made for emotional intelligence, at least in the sense that one has the ability to exercise more control over emotions than previously thought.


1 Barrett, L.F. (2006). Emotions as natural kinds? Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1(1), 28-58.

2 Barrett, L. F. (2017). How emotions are made: the new science of the mind and brain. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

3 Russell, J. (2003). Core affect and the psychological construction of emotion. Psychological Review, 110(1), 145-172.

4 Matsumoto, D. and Hwang, H. (2011). Culture and emotion. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 43(1), 91-118.

5 Scherer, K., Johnstone, T. and Schorr, A. (2001). Appraisal Processes in Emotion: Theory, Methods, Research. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

6 Desmet, P.M.A., (2002). Designing emotions. Delft: Delft University of Technology.

1 thought on “Emotions May Not Be What You Believe They Are”

  1. Great article, I like the concept that emotions are constructs and that they are not innate. Different people show different outwards signs of emotions depending on their memory and experience of that emotion. When you give a birthday present to a Thai they simply take it and show no outward emotion, you do the same thing in the UK and you would be horrified if the recipient did not do a back flip in appreciation, yet both people in both examples will be grateful. Different culture, different script will be run for the same categorised emotion. Fascinating stuff.

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