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Can perspective fix all our problems?

Imagine this all to common scenario – Billy and his friend Ricky are talking one evening over dinner. Both of these men are adults, have jobs, most of the needs are met, but Billy still feels depressed.

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“Look Billy, you only feel how you want to feel, you just have to change your perspective!” says Ricky.

“Easy for you to say. I try to stay positive, but no matter what, I just wake up feeling like the world is against me. I’ve been so sluggish that I’ve even called in sick a few times just because the stress was too overwhelming,” says Billy.

“What do you mean? Work bogging you down with some crazy projects? You shouldn’t get so worked up!” asked Ricky.

“No, just the idea that I would have to be at work. Stuck in the office, working in a system where I don’t really matter, feeling the judgement from co-workers, and getting nit-picked by managers…” Billy trails off.

“Just think about this. You have a job, you have a place to stay, you have a car, a degree, and everything you could ever need. The only person making you feel bad is you! You need to start looking on the brighter side and you’ll see! You only feel as bad as you CHOOSE to feel!” exclaims Ricky.

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I know I have heard this conversation and have even been a part of it. I’ve had people tell me that perspective is the one and only thing that matters. Perspective can help in some cases, such as someone having a warped or maladaptive view of the world. How did they begin to have this view? Was their warped perspective a result of maladative thinking, or were they unable to thrive in their environment? Perspective is certainly important, but our Western ideology puts too much emphasis on the person and not enough on the situation.

If we look at our imaginary friend Billy, we can clearly see a problem with his environment that creates his emotional response. Even if he should feel fortunate to have a job, it sounds like he’s being forced to use a large number of free-traits. As Brian Little’s theory suggests, usage of free-traits comes at a price. Just to review, a free-trait is used when we adopt a personality that differs from our own in order to meet the demands of our environment. The greater the difference between the adopted personality and our natural one, the greater the stress. So it is fair to say that in our example, Billy’s excessive sick days, and stress, are a result of a miss-match of personality and environment.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that he is a poor fit for his job, but he may not fit in with his co-workers. He may not feel a trusting relationship between himself and teammates, or himself and management. Feelings of isolation are not created out of thin air. We feel isolated as a result of being avoided and disregarded in social contexts.

What if emotional states were a reaction to physiological response to a situation or demand? Emotion is the justification of our physiological response. We’ll apply this idea to the following example:

  • A man pulls out a knife and threatens to attack me
    • My adrenaline kicks in. I turn around, and run away. I ran, thus I am fearful
    • My adrenaline kicks in. I rush towards him, and kick him in the head. I fought, thus I am angry.

The physiological response is identical, but the actions that are created define the emotion. I am angry because I attacked or I am fearful because I ran away. Either way, my adrenaline was released. Our perspectives define the behavior after it occurs, so how could my perspective possibly change my reflex? We’re talking about reflexes that bypass the working memory. Recall the dual-process of memory results in a majority of information being processed without conscious thought . Clearly, your mood at the time of the event could alter your physiological state, which could be the result of a perspective. However, at the reflex and response level, physiology reacts prior to executive-level cognition (choices and decision making). Thus I had a physiological response first, then I analyzed my situation afterwards.

William James 1842-1910

William James originally authored this model of emotions (James-Lange theory of emotions). Our descriptions of our physiological states are what define an emotion. Every emotion we have is a chemical mixture. Fear goes hand-in-hand with adrenaline, while happiness is expressed through dopamine and serotonin. These states are almost always the result of our interaction with external stimuli (not in all cases).

What does this mean for someone like Billy? Perhaps instead of using his perspective to change his mood, he should change his actions to alter his mood. After his actions have altered his mood, he could lift himself out of his slump and feel more positive. Some may argue that the choice to be proactive is then the changing of perspective.  Instead of argue over the proverbial chicken and egg, we will label this argument for what it is. Emotion focused coping versus problem focused coping.

To simply change your outlook to improve your mood is actually unhealthy in many cases. If we ignore our stressors and do not act to change them, we will be forced to adopt Free-Traits. If we act to change the parts of our lives that we can control (problem focused coping) then our emotional state will improve. To improve emotions, you simply act. You do not act on the emotions, however, you act towards the ones you desire. 

If we follow the James-Lange model of emotion, you can allow yourself to create behaviors related to the emotions you wish to feel.

This theory is not perfect or without limit. Here are a few examples of when the James-Lange model doesn’t work:

  • I’m reading a book: There’s a twist ending that I did not see coming and I’m excited!
  • I’m reading a different book: There’s a twist ending that I did not see coming and I’m scared!

In both of these cases, the events are being interpreted in my working memory as they occur. I’m not using a reflex to act, I’m reading and visualizing the events. I would argue that your emotional state is completely fabricated by the cognitive experience. Fabricated or not, you have a real emotional experience as a result.

Here’s another example

  • I read a research paper. I think about it all day and I eventually get a great idea! I’m excited!

Once again the emotional state was not created by the physiological response – it was created by my working memory. I didn’t suddenly feel a rush of adrenaline and then come to a grand discovery, I made the discovery and that caused the emotional response. Once again, this did not use a reflex. My imaginary discovery was a thoughtful process.

What should our imaginary friend Billy do given the James-Lange theory of emotions? I think he has a few options:

  • Engage in activities that support the mood he desires
    • Sports
    • Creative activities
    • Social activities
  • Change his environments to support his behavior
    • If he wants to be more social, he should begin making plans
    • If he wants to be more active, he should begin scheduling it
  • A new career (environment)
    • If his work environment elicits a negative emotional response because the job requires behaviors linked to those emotions… he should change his career, or at least place of work

I know there may still be some doubters, but this TED talk by Amy Cuddy might change your mind. Her talk is entitled “Your body language shapes who you are.” That wording itself is very important. If you do not care to watch all 20 minutes, skip to about 10:30 into the talk and you can see her experiment. I’ll summarize it below as well!

Participants were instructed to be in either a high power, or low power pose. An example of a high power pose is standing up straight with your arms on your hips and legs shoulder width apart. A low power pose is one where you sit or stand keeping your body smaller (crossing your arms, touching your neck or face, etc). Participants held these poses for two minutes. Their resting levels of testosterone and cortisol (stress hormone) were measured before the getting in their pose. Those in the high power poses had a 20% increase in testosterone while those in the low power poses had a 10% reduction in their testosterone. For cortisol, those in high power poses reduced their baseline amount by 25% and lower power poses increased cortisol by 15%.

Something as simple as a different pose can dramatically change how stressed we are or how confident we feel. Seemingly simple behaviors can be quite powerful.

In conclusion, I try to avoid “one size fits all” remedies like “just change your perspective!!!!” Just changing your perspective won’t solve any problems. If one only focuses on behavior, one will come up short as well. I do believe, however, that far too many people disregard the power of behavior and instead focus on introspection. As discussed, introspection used for emotion focus coping is actually quite toxic. Thinking through your problems is important, but never more important than actually solving them.

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2 Comments

  1. You stated that you had your physiological response occur first, then analyzed your situation. Unfortunately, that isn’t possible and even the terms you
    used to proves that that isn’t possible because your adrenaline rush is caused when your amygdala, your emotional center, interpreted your situation as something dangerous “the knife, the expression on the assilant’s face” and felt fear or anger, and sent a nerve impulse to your
    adrenal glands to release your adrenaline, giving you an adrenaline rush. You called it and what it is a called is a physiological RESPONSE meaning that it can only responded when given the command to by something that can interpret and give commands rapidly, such as your brain, but more deeply, your amygdala that through your life’s experiences
    and interpretations, have given you a belief, an interpretation, something that your amygdala can act of on and give commands, like releasing adrenaline showing that your adrenal glands can not respond first without something with analytical and commanding power giving the order first.

    I feel that because emotions are natural instinctive state of mind deriving from one’s circumstances, mood, or relationship with others because your emotions are based off of your feeling tone (Your somatic response to your emotions “Stomach dropping, mouth watering, clenched hands”) and your
    interpretations of events that the only way you can ever have control over your emotions is through interpretation, and that emotional responses are based off of one’s interpretations.

    However, there is prove that doing a reverse of the emotional system (where you experience a situation, your amygdala uses whatever interpretations you have and sends signals to your body’s muscle systems to act out that emotion (Feeling happiness, your body automatically and very temporaily out of your control exhibit a smile) that you can reverse the process by acting out the emotion and having the same emotional response

  2. Thank you for your comment!

    Oddly, we can have a physiological response prior to our prefrontal cortex having the chance to interpret anything. The dual process memory system has a top down (executive) and bottom up (reflex-like) component. Brain systems that are part of the “old brain” (older in terms of evolution) such as the amygdala do not need to wait for the executive to act. Learned procedures and associations facilitated by the basal ganglia do not need conscious perception to function at all. Even recognition does not actually need the executive process and it occurs much faster than our prefrontal cortex does!

    In the eyewitness lab, we used methodologies that would allow us to differentiate the fast recognition versus the slow recall. When you see a face, for example, you may get the feeling you had scene it somewhere. You get this feeling before your executive can figure out where, and in many cases it fails to do so. Part of the dual process isn’t throttled by the executive at all.

    Point being, you can identify and physiologically react to a gun before the concept of “gun” even enters your working memory if you have a learned association. We’re talking reaction times under 30ms of course.

    The real point is the adrenaline comes and depending on whether we run away, or stay and fight, we label the emotion in a different way. The chemical state doesn’t change, but our label for it does. I think we are in agreement on this point – our interpretation of our physiological state and its environmental context is how we define our emotion.

    I’m also not about to say that William James theory from the 1900s is perfect! I really think that portions of his idea are worth considering, especially when we add Amy Cuddy’s TED talk along with it.

    I’d still say that taking action is a very effective means of producing the mood and emotions you want compared to just ruminating about change!

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