Monday, August 1, 2011

Emotions: What are they good for?

This week I'll be going back to my roots. See, when I was in graduate school, I was mentored by Carroll Izard, a psychologist who has had an incredibly long, incredibly prolific career in the field of emotions research. He also happens to be a really nice guy who has helped launch a lot of psychologists in their careers.

Cal's Differential Emotions Theory (DET) posits that human beings, no matter what culture they're from or how old they are, have a set of basic emotions. These emotions are universal, and have evolved as a way for us to be able to predict how others are feeling and thinking, which is pretty essential to social functioning (keep in mind, there are other theories of emotion as well, and researchers get pretty feisty when they argue about this stuff).

If you're a writer, emotions are pretty key. After all--you're trying to evoke them in a reader, right? Using ONLY WORDS. So ... it's good to be familiar with them. Today, I'm going to give a quick overview of the purposes of the different emotions. On Wednesday, I'll talk about emotions in general--and how we feel about them. Yes, how we feel about feelings. It's called meta-emotion.

Now--if you buy into DET, you will believe that there are about seven core emotions, and that each one has its own adaptive function. Of course, any emotional response can become maladaptive if it isn't well-regulated, if it overwhelms or floods or stuckifies (sure ... that's a word) you, and I've posted about how to write those kinds of moments here and here. But what I'm talking about today is how emotions work for us. Because, if they only existed to get in our way ... why would we ALL have them?

FEAR: It protects us. Tells us to run or fight. Without fear, the human race probably wouldn't have survived very long. Sure, it can get in the way, but it's healthy to fear things that are actually dangerous.

ANGER: It motivates us. Without anger, we'd all be doormats. Wet noodles. Anger gets us going, fighting for our rights, trying to change the world or just a single situation.

SADNESS: It shows us what we value, and also draws others to us for social support. Recently, I tweeted  that my day wasn't going well, and within a minute people were reaching out to me. First, that shows how awesome the writing community is, but also, it shows how, even electronically, communication of sadness elicits social support, compassion, and assistance from others.

GUILT: It keeps us from hurting each other, or, if we do, drives us to try to fix things. Without guilt, we'd be psychopaths.

SHAME: It keeps us in line with general social expectations. I know, that's not always a popular idea, but shame as an emotion is part of the glue that holds society together. Shame at least gets us asking ourselves if our behavior is appropriate.

JOY: It draws us together, helps us share triumphs with each other, allows us to connect with each other and create lasting bonds.

There are other emotions, of course, including disgust/contempt, surprise, and (according to some theories) love. How about it? Can you think of other functions of these emotions? Do you embrace emotion or are you wary of it? Are you expressive or buttoned-down? And what about your characters?

It's Monday, check out Lydia's Medical Monday post and Laura's Mental Health Monday post!

18 comments:

  1. I think I'm too emotional and it definitely transfers to my characters. But that can only be a good thing in the world of writing. I don't know about real life though ... :o)

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  2. I think that's what Blake Snyder refers to when he says to make your stories primal - anyone can relate to the emotions.

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  3. Great post and so much to be done with the main core emotions- the mixing and matching and how one event can set off one emotion that sets off another. Like feeling envy which leads to anger and then feeling guilt about it.

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  4. Hmmm. What is love, according to theory, if it isn't an emotion?

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  5. Good post Sarah. Emotions are so important to me in characters - they are what make or break a book for me. I have to be able to get into it and feel for them...so I guess that makes me a fairly emotional reader/writer as well.

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  6. It's nice going back to the basics. As obvious as they are, sometimes it's good to remember what we all have in common. Great post! Hope to hear more on this topic...

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  7. Great post, Sarah. Stories that are void of emotions keep the reading from connecting to the characters. A lot of genres rely heavily on emotion. As a writer, developing the ability to convey emotion is super important if you want your readers to be unable to put your book down.

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  8. hi miss sarah! yikes! for sure im way emotional and show it and lots of me gets in my characters. i got a emotion i call happysad cause i could feel both all at one time. did you ever hear of that. now you got me thinking on a question. how come we could cry when were happy?
    ...hugs from lenny

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  9. Very cool! I almost sort of kind of remember learning something about that... *scratches head* I swear having kids means they steal your braincells. That's my theory anyway. I also remember something about emotions being our interpretation of biological reactions based on situation? It's probably a totally different theory that has nothing to do with this though. :D

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  10. Excellent post, Sarah! Emotions are what makes us human.

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  11. This may sound a little nuts to you, Sarah, but the first thing I thought was how interesting it is that DET defines emotions as relational. I certainly identify with that, but am always fascinated by/jealous of people who experience their emotions so powerfully that the emotions seem to have a life of their own. It seems like those emotions are only about that person. I only do that in extreme emotional states, like intense grief or love (which seems emotional to me!:-))

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  12. I love emotion! For me it's very important to feel my characters and know what they're going through. Emotions are the key way in doing it. I don't normally go overboard, in fact I pull back a little to often. Thanks to my crit partners they'll tell me I can get a little more creative... and I do just that!

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  13. Or if you're "Oprah", there is only LOVE or FEAR :-)

    Yeah, I tend to lay it on thick like 'Buttah! And sometimes have to cool it. But man, oh man, is it important to draw your reader in!

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  14. Interesting, as always. My family is an emotional bunch, so I don't really know anything else. And by emotional, I don't mean crying all the time, or upset; I just mean we feel things, and we feel them deeply, no matter what it might be. I've always considered it a blessing to feel so much...to me, that is what life is all about, feeling--everything, the good and the bad. I still recall something one of my high school teachers signed in my yearbook. He said: "May your life be filled with great happiness, tinged with enough sadness so that you always know the difference."

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  15. Clearly, your SADNESS example demonstrates why man evolved a twitter.

    But it sounds about right. ANGER and FEAR are about the only things that will motivate me to get up and away from this computer these days.
    They're also the only things that motivate me to vote...

    Hmmm...

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  16. What a great post. All huge emotions but I like your example about sadness, how people will respond and reach out even via digital ways.

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  17. I have a hard time telling people when I'm upset.

    I saw this and thought of you:

    http://www.cracked.com/article_19336_6-beloved-characters-that-had-undiagnosed-mental-illnesses.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+CrackedRSS+%28Cracked%3A+All+Posts%29

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  18. Love your break down of the emotions. I hadn't actually thought of anger in that way. I've learned to be wary of anger (it's got me in trouble many times because when I'm angry I forget to edit my words).

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