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It’s not you, it’s we
How our understanding of emotion is moving from individualist to collective explanations
Emotion is an issue that sits at the heart of a great deal of human activity. It seems at times to be a key determinant of behaviour, our bodies viscerally reacting to the events we see in front of us. Brands often look to emotion as a key means by which we might engage with products and services, policy makers seek to understand emotion as a way in which people might react to new social initiatives, politicians look at emotion as something that drives affiliation, activists seek it to rally people to a cause.
Despite the seemingly central role that emotion has in shaping behaviour, it is perhaps one of the most slippery concepts in psychology. We will set out to explore some of the ways in which discussion of emotion has evolved from the early psychologists to more recent cultural theorists.
The history of emotion
Psychologists such as Sigmund Freud, Konrad Lorenz and Clarke L. Hull historically looked at emotion in terms of innate drives: as such our emotional states are related to the past history of the species itself or to the learned and past history of us as individuals. In either case, both focus on the way the past determines the emotional response that then shapes behaviour. This ‘classic’ view of emotions implies that our emotions are ‘built in’ templates that ‘fire’ off – so ‘anger’, for example, is a built-in defence mechanism of our animal fight/flight/freeze pathways.
From this perspective, emotions have a key role in directing us towards appropriate responses. On this basis, we can see how there is an assumed notion of a universality of expression of emotions, which is referenced in Darwin’s book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals and was popularized by the psychologist Paul Ekman. This view places emotion as developed within the individual - an ‘inside out’ model as it were, with basic emotions being patterns of innate autonomic responses.
Later theories of emotion take a more constructivist perspective, suggesting that humans have an active role interpreting and making sense of emotions. An example is the James-Lange theory of emotion, in which emotions are bodily sensations interpreted by the mind. Here it is thought that we use situational and cultural cues to provide ourselves with explanations of what type of emotion we are feeling.
However, there is a growing body of research which challenges a strictly psychological notion of emotion. On this basis, behaviour is not driven by the emotion alone, because choices can only be negotiated between the person and the situation and its structure of opportunities, constraints, and affordances. The implication of this for our reading of emotion is quite radical: if you take a positive face and put it in a negative situation, people experience the face as more negative. Lisa Feldman-Barrett suggests that the expressions that we’ve been told are the correct ones are simply stereotypes and that in fact people express emotions in a vast array of different ways.
With that in mind, we can see that we do not construct our emotional concepts individually but are reliant upon our culture. Feldman-Barret points out that Russian has two distinct concepts for ‘anger’; German has three and Mandarin has five. As she sets out in her book How Emotions Are Made:
Your personal experience, therefore, is actively constructed by your actions. You tweak the world, and the world tweaks you back. You are, in a very real sense, an architect of your environment as well as your experience. Your movements, and other people’s movements in turn, influence your own incoming sensory input. These incoming sensations, like any experience, can rewire your brain. So you're not only an architect of your experience, you're also an electrician.
Feldman-Barret is challenging the traditional ‘inside-out’ model of emotion and suggesting that our emotions are in fact a function of both our internal states and the external facets of the world we live in. She is by no means the first to approach emotion with external factors in mind. Sociologist Emile Durkheim long ago suggested that ‘great movements of feeling do not originate in any one of the particular individual consciousnesses’. On this basis, the individual is not the origin of feeling and instead emotion is what binds the social body together.
Princess Diana’s death could be considered a good example of the ‘outside-in’ model – a collective crowd sense of emotion overwhelms us, so we become personally invested. This would infer that the sense of grief of the crowd got internalised by individuals. Lisa Feldman Barret seems to take a more nuanced approach with a view of emotion which is both ‘outside-in’ and ‘inside-out’.
Supporting this notion is a 2019 paper by David Garcia and Bernard Rimé that shows how this collective influence of emotion can transform the experiences of certain events. Analysing a set of data collected from 62,114 Twitter users after the Paris terrorist attacks of November 2015, they found that in the months after the attack, Twitter users who had tapped into an ‘outside-in’ emotional experience by participating in social sharing, subsequently expressed higher rates of prosocial behaviour and positive affect in their social-media activity on Twitter. It seems that by engaging in collective emotions through social media, users were able to synchronize their thoughts and emotions, facilitating feelings of social belonging and shared beliefs.
Mechanisms underpinning collective emotion
For us to properly understand collective emotion we need to unpack the mechanisms that make this possible. To this end, Maria Gendron and Feldman-Barrett highlight the co-constructive mechanisms in which culture fine-tunes the conceptual systems we operate in; as we pointed out previously, this avoids every individual having to incur the cost of obtaining that information by trial and error within a single lifetime. Emotion, they suggest, is no different to this with each generation shaping the neural systems of the next, facilitating prediction within that cultural context. In other words, we learn the way in which we and other people are likely to respond emotionally to a given set of circumstances and adapt ourselves accordingly. They also talk about synchronicity, the way in which people act together to regulate (or disrupt) each other’s emotional states.
From a different theoretical tradition, cultural theorist Sara Ahmed considers our experience of emotion should not be regarded as psychological states at all, but as social and cultural practices. She suggests they are the means by which we collectively define the ‘surfaces and boundaries’ that allow the ‘individual’ and the ‘social’ to be defined as such. Her notion of ‘affective economies’ suggests that emotions do not reside in the inner or in the outer, but exist in the circulation. They are the orientations we have towards objects, bodies and signs, thus separating as well as connecting us to others.
Through this brief review of the literature, we can see the way in which there is a general movement towards an understanding of the shared, collective nature of our emotional lives. We can see the way in which there is an interplay between us as individuals and the culture we inhabit that means how react and feel emotionally is not an entirely individual act.
In future articles we will start to apply this to understand the way that our emotions develop in response to misinformation or conspiracy theories, we will draw on the work of people such as Stephen Reicher in the way we think about crowds less as irrational explosions of emotion and more as places of emotional transformation with crowd members feeling empowered to shape their world realising shared goals.