*How Emotions are Made*

That is the new book by Lisa Feldman Barrett, and the subtitle is The Secret Life of the Brain.  I am not well-informed in this area, but here were some of my takeaways:

1. The previous dominant view of emotions, sometimes associated with Paul Ekman, suggests that emotions are a natural and pre-programmed response to changes in the environmental.  Imagine a wolf snarling if a potentially hostile animal crosses its path.

2. According to Barrett, the expressions of human emotions are better understood as being socially constructed and filtered through cultural influences: “”Are you saying that in a frustrating, humiliating situation, not everyone will get angry so that their blood boils and their palms sweat and their cheeks flush?”  And my answer is yes, that is exactly what I am saying.” (p.15)  In reality, you are as an individual an active constructor of your emotions.  Imagine winning a big sporting event, and not being sure whether to laugh, cry, scream, jump for joy, pump your fist, or all of the above.  No one of these is the “natural response.”

3. Immigrants eventually acculturate emotionally into their new societies, or at least one hopes: “Our colleague Yulia Chentsova Dutton from Russia says that her cheeks ached for an entire year after moving to the United States because she never smiled so much.” (p.149)

3b. There is also this: “My neighbor Paul Harris, a transplanted emotion researcher from England, has observed how American academics are always excited by scientific puzzles — a high arousal, pleasant feeling — but never curious, perplexed, or confused, which are low arousal and fairly neutral experiences that are more familiar to him.” (p.149)

3c. It can be very hard to read the emotions on faces across cultures, and Barrett is opposed to what she calls “emotional essentialism.”

3d. From her NYT piece: “My lab analyzed over 200 published studies, covering nearly 22,000 test subjects, and found no consistent and specific fingerprints in the body for any emotion. Instead, the body acts in diverse ways that are tied to the situation.”

4. One reason for my interest in this work is that it potentially provides microfoundations for thinking about how “culture” matters for economic and other social outcomes.  It also helps explain the importance of peers for education, and for that matter for religious experience, in the same outlined by William James.  It may help explain Jonathan Haidt-related research results about disgust.  It also provides potential microfoundations for explaining how individuals with different cognitive profiles (autism, Williams and Rett, Down syndrome, etc.), will, for related reasons, process some emotions differently too, although Barrett does not explore this route.

5. The concepts of a “control network” and an “introceptive network” are explained and presented as critical for controlling emotions, and in terms of the broader theory the mind is fundamentally about prediction.  From my outsider point of view, the emphasis on prediction seems a little too strong.  For instance, there may also be a need to make ourselves predictable to others, even if that lowers out own ability to predict.

6. “Affect is not just necessary for wisdom; it’s also irrevocably woven into the fabric of every decision.”  And she refers repeatedly to: “…your inner, loudmouthed, mostly deaf scientist who views the world through affect-colored glasses.”

7. I found the chapter on animals the most problematic for the broader thesis.  It seems to me that the Ekman view really does handle the snarling wolf pretty well and that is a case of emotional essentialism.  Barrett tries to outline how humans are different from other mammals in this regard, but I came away thinking the truth might be a mix of her view and the Ekman view.  It seems to me that some version of emotional essentialism provides an overarching constraint on the social construction of emotions, and furthermore there might be some regulating process at a higher level, mixing in varying proportions of essentialist and social construction features of emotional responses.

My apologies for any errors or misunderstandings in this presentation!

I can say this book is very well-written, it covers material not found in other popular science books, and it comes strongly recommended by Daniel Gilbert.  I asked a friend of mine who researches directly in this area, and she reports that Barrett’s view is in fact taken seriously by other researchers, it has been very influential, and it is has been gaining in popularity.  Make of that what you will.

Here is a very useful interview with the author.  Here is her Northeastern home page.  I recall reading somewhere that she is a big fan of chocolate, but can no longer find that link.  Should I laugh, cry, or shrug my shoulders in response to that failure?

I thank Benjamin Lyons for the pointer to this work.


A lot of academic books are basically: "No, the glass isn't half-full, it's half-empty!"

Darwin wrote the half-full book a long time ago: "The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals."

Sounds a little too half empty for me.

"Imagine winning a big sporting event, and not being sure whether to laugh, cry, scream, jump for joy, pump your fist, or all of the above. No one of these is the “natural response.”"

Consider the famous poster of Muhammad Ali in 1965 snarling in exultation at the fallen Sonny Liston:


That was fairly novel at the time in American culture because it was so unsporting. Joe Louis didn't do that. But it was certainly natural. It was a milestone in the deconstruction of the social construction of Anglo-American sportsmanship.

This deconstruction of traditional sportsmanship makes sports on TV more entertaining -- all those in-yo-face touchdown dances -- but it has probably gotten tens of thousands of young African-American men murdered by other young African American men over the last half century due to our culture becoming less controlling of natural impulses.

But he's not happy in that photo, he's angry. He suspected Liston was throwing the fight, and was saying "get up, get up".

It sounds like the author of the book is mixing up how people show emotion and how much emotion a culture allows a person to show. Everybody understands Ali's snarling exultation, in any culture, but when America was more civilized, it was thought proper to not show it. A smile shows friendliness and happiness, genuinely or insincerely, but in America you're expected to show more friendliness than in other countries (and maybe it's genuine, too).

For example, Russians tend toward stoic affects on their faces, but their literature is extremely emotional.

They might have been fighting over the turf created in the process of establishing pharmaceutical monopolies/oligopolies, some of which legal and some of which otherwise.

"I recall reading somewhere that she is a big fan of chocolate" - aren't most women chocolate lovers? It's a female aphrodisiac as I recall.

This is a perfect example of the variability of emotion. Most people would be ashamed to post such a stereotype, but a misogynist doesn't bat an eye. Chocolate contains theobromine, a stimulant - for those of us who are human.

So you like it to, Li? Does it give you an orgasm? Why are the Asians so ashamed of sex? During Japanese porn, the girls all pretend they are being raped and not enjoying it. Total turn off, I can't watch it.

Don't be a dick, Ray, you know perfectly well what Li Zhi meant, namely that not everything you (Ray) assume is universal is actually universal.

Ray understands exactly what Li was trying to do. Li tried to establish dominance by threatening Ray's livelihood. Little did Li know that Ray has no livelihood to threaten. Ray did what most would do when a potentially deadly attack falls flat, he took a dump on the attacker.

+1 Ray!

+1 to Alain! Alain wins!

Bonus trivia: I am eating "Chocolove" Extra Strong (77% cocoa with "fair trade" cocoa in it); in the wrapper they have very lame--something lost in translation--sonnets by a certain Bill Shakespeare in them, supposedly as love poems but they don't make any sense to me, as a native English speaker. I suspect the company did this because they don't have to pay copyright to anybody.

I see no sign that anyone above has read the links. The "useful interview" was the "somewhere." Intentionally or not, Tyler posted a trick question. But let's not wrestle with the content at all. Let's play the game we always play.


Li - why do you think that "most people would be ashamed"? Most women I've met and asked about chocolate are chocolate lovers and most of them say that most women are. On the other hand, most educated people (outside of the ridiculously politically correct university town USA) do not indulge in random drive-by accusations of mysoginy.

Do women like chocolate more than men do?

Misogyny is a pretty extreme word, for guys who speak (or worse) in all sorts of awful ways about women.

This could be a simple misunderstanding at worst.

This is something I've been curious about for some time, I might have to buy this book.

Every now and then social constructionists find someone to champion their views with respect to the emotions, but they almost always go too far in denying naturalism and universality (not universality of each and every emotion but of the underlying structures that make emotions possible).

Well, Dr. Barrett isn't actually a social constructionist. She's a psychological constructionist (important difference), and the evidence for universality is very, very weak. I'm happy to send you loads of (empirical) journal articles that provide support against universality.

Translation for the Perplexed: Some academic somewhere looked into the literature on the cause(s) of emotion and tried to do a meta-analysis. Finding that decades of noise mining via NHST has produced nothing but a mountain of noise tailings and nothing else she chose not to do the right thing - make a hunch about emotions, model her hunch, deduce its predictions. run a pre-registered study and publish the results - but rather to do the wrong thing - make up a story out of whole cloth that is merely explanatory and neither robust nor testable. Thereupon she began peddling it to the sort of people who love good stories (TED Talk groupies) spun from dorm room bull sessions rather than hard truths wrought from hard work.

You know who's really at risk from machine learning? Not the refinery welder who does something that looks routine from 30,000 feet but is really non-stop problem solving when viewed up close; no, it'll be the academics who don't do anything useful and can't even do that very well.


One of the more interesting results in psychology, proving Darwin right and Margaret Mead wrong, was Paul Ekman who showed a group of photographs to some Fore tribesmen in Papua New Guinea. They could all recognize the emotions being displayed by White Americans despite not having had any contact with other human beings before.

If anyone wants to dispute this they will either need some pretty strong evidence, or they will have to find some other uncontacted group.

I don't feel as strongly about this as those academics who physically assaulted Ekmans. But I am disinclined to change beliefs because of a pop psychology book. If that is what she is in fact doing.

For a brief, clever questioning of the Ekman Fore work (penned by the book's author), see https://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/02/opinion/sunday/what-faces-cant-tell-us.html. The story isn't as simple as "the Fore recognized the faces." Her book goes into much more detail about a these experiments and what they mean (chapter 3).

FYI, it's probably a wise idea to look at the book before guessing that it's "pop psychology." The author has published over 200 peer-reviewed scientific papers on emotion, and the book's bibliography section runs to 40+ pages in a tiny font. You can disagree on the research, but pop psych this is not.

Also the author has tested her findings in two remote groups, the Himba of Namibia and the Hadza hunter-gatherers of Tanzania.

I defer to Tyler Cowan who called it pop psychology. At least I expressed some doubt about how pop it was. But then I also feel free to judge this book by its cover. Which is pretty pop-y. Also a popular, not academic, press.

All in all, not a lot of reason to doubt Ekman is it?

Hollywood movies have done pretty well around the world. Charlie Chaplin appears to have been highly popular all over almost immediately.

I wouldn't be surprised if there are stories of cultures that just didn't get the expressions on the faces of early movie actors, but, off hand, I can't think of any.

There are of course big differences in tastes between cultures and between eras. Colby Cosh has pointed out that while Buster Keaton is timeless, Chaplin is very dated to the post-Victorian age. But that's tasted.

I'd be fascinated to hear that there is some tribe somewhere that just didn't get the emotions being expressed in, say, "City Lights."

Good point. We always have to be suspicious of researchers who end up supporting the null hypothesis of no differences between groups but rely on bad data and bad analysis.

Probably the debate between the superiority of science versus philosophy, or vice versa, will be resolved very soon.

Tomorrow, perhaps.

Can you please ensure to incldue at least 3 decimal places (units not specified) in your estimate of when this debate will be resolved?

I have a much more parsimonious explanation. Russians don't express happiness differently, they are just happy less often. But everyone expresses happiness with a smile. Some people are happy when their team wins a sporting event and some are exultant. But everyone expresses exultation by raising their hands.

Studies have been done on people blind from birth, their facial expressions and gestures are basically the same as sighted people's. QED.

Russians are happy just as much as anyone, they just don't see any reason to act happy when they are merely calmly going about their business. The only time Russians would smile and act happy with nothing behind it is when they are trying to ingratiate themselves. When I worked in Moscow I had a Russian colleague who did a six month stint at our New York office. When he came back he commented "the smiling gets really tiring, they do it all the time and you can't figure out what they want from you".

My theory is that Russians expect that if they are too happy, other people will notice and they will end up being sent to a labor camp in Siberia. So because they distrust other Russians so much, and expect them to react badly to someone else being cheerful, they keep their emotions well hidden.

Whereas I think that if Americans show any other emotion except those normal to a young labrador puppy, they will be subject to an intervention from their friends and will be medicated within an inch of their lives.

Despite that I expect that the emotions are pretty much the same in both populations adjusted for weather. If you moved more Americans to, say, Churchill and provided them with nothing but Black bread and vodka, they still would be upbeat and cheerful in public while being as depressed as Russians in private.

Based on first-hand experience in Russia, Russians think if someone smiles in public there is something wrong with them. As in, that person is somewhat looney-tunes. They don't trust it, and they don't like, in most circumstances, the sort of public display of fun, joy, or happiness that Americans currently find in some favor. I do recall that our US culture was more like this in the 50's and 60's - i.e. less demonstrative.

The book sounds very interesting though. If the theory holds up, this functionality could be playing a significant role in some subculture situations I can think of.

"I have a much more parsimonious explanation. Russians don’t express happiness differently, they are just happy less often."

That is not inconsistent with the theory. From the useful interview:

"Culture is not an independent variable with emotion as the dependent variable – culture does not cause emotion. Instead, emotions are performances of culture, enacted and structured through the conceptual knowledge that is enacted and transmitted as part of socialization and acculturation. "

As an aside, I once linked to a paper in some busy comment pages. Some disagreed with with the conclusions. But here's the trick. The download page included a download count. In the 24 hours downloads went up by one. Not strong evidence that commenters are working hard to acquire and process new information. Most use the opportunity to present, yet again, their preexisting beliefs.

Ha! Reading on I see a test of who has read it an who not. I won't spoil it.

I buy this. If you grow up in a family of depressed alcoholics, chances are that "normal" to you is being depressed and alcoholic. People running around being cheerful all the time will seem extremely wierd. And if you are around a bunch of people who all seem to believe that it's normal to be depressed and drink heavily, then even if you aren't depressed and don't drink heavily you will tend to act depressed and drink socially because that's what normal public behavior is. It would be inappropriate to be cheerful, and you probably won't even feel inclined to be cheerful because cheerfulness is a social signaling behavior that you never learned.

There was a point in my life where, while I wasn't particularly depressed, I would wonder what the hell the question "how are you?" was supposed to mean, and whether anyone ever wanted a real answer. Of course, nobody wants a real answer. They want you to reassure them that you are "fine" and pretend that you like them. This is one of those American cultural forced cheerfulness behaviors that the author is talking about. You are expected to project happiness and contentment to others. Projecting unhappiness makes people worry that you might go on a shooting spree.

To a Russian, fake smile is a horrible thing.


My only comment is to express my surprise that anyone, especially a supposed expert in the field, finds the homo economicus/rational behavior meme a good starting point for economic models. At least, that seems to me to be what TC is implying; that he hasn't bothered to carefully consider the science of decision making in the real world. Or am I missing something (oh, oh, doubt is another emotion, innit?)
I remember my first econ course in college back in the early '70s. The textbook as well as the lecture by the dean of the Krannert Business School, explained homo economicus to the packed lecture hall, and I just sat their with my mouth open trying not to laugh (or groan) out loud. (Of course, I'm an arrogant SOB.) It's got to be complicated. Fear isn't simply an arbitrary response which is learned, although it is that too. The nature/nurture debate is just plain silly, we know better, so speaking about what is and is not "hardwired" (talk about an overused (and misleading) term...) is pointless (at least for the foreseeable future). Emotion both communicates and (internally) motivates. It is neither "just" social nor "just" physiological.

You missed something. To put it in your framework, it is not merely that real economic agents are not homo economicus, they are vastly more complicated than standard psychology predicts.

How you behave (and feel!) in a "game" might depend on your childhood neighborhood, as well as if Econ 101 has put its stamp on you.

The study of economics as emotional regulation ..

Well, I think the problem is really that real people are too complicated to *model* as anything other than homo economicus. Also some of the "irrational" behaviors of humans turn out to be rationally self-interested in particular economic contexts. There's almost always a lengthy explanation for why some particular bizarre human behavior is actually adaptive in a evolutionary context, which is another way of saying that it actually fits the homo economicus model if you extend the scope of self interest to family, tribe, social survival and such.

The rational / irrational division is useful, but only in gross terms. We say "irrational' when we mean something is ill-considered and / or counterproductive.

There is a lot of human action that doesn't fit neatly into one of those who baskets.

It was a foggy morning, so I stayed in bed, did not go out and participate in commerce. Rational or irrational?

The outputs of behavioural economics are not yet readily applied in a widely agreed upon manner for building up for modelling, etc.

So unless you're specifically addressing some issue in behavioural economics which demonstrates the ways in which homo economicus is (insert preferred method of questioning this here and send to Brig Brother please) ... then the only practical option for most budgets and time constraints is to just work with "homo economicus".

Is this new?

A story. During the Yugoslav civil war I was working on a project with a fellow born in Croatia. After a week or so I came home and told my wife that I finally understood what was going on over there.

A second one. Someone remarked at the difference between flying into the Montreal Airport at Dorval and the Toronto Airport. In Toronto everyone was buried in a newspaper, few people talking. In Montreal everyone was talking and gesturing.

Culture matters greatly. Learning a language is about learning a different way of thinking. We learn emotional responses as much as we learn language when we are children. We can learn a different language, even become fluent later in life, as we can learn a different way of expressing emotions. As there is natural variance in the abilities and skills at using language between individuals in the same family, so there will be variance in expressing emotions.

"Is this new?"

Well, your paragraphs have little to do with Conceptual Act Theory. It is not "a different way of expressing emotions," it is a culturally shaped way of generating emotions.

Language is such a high barrier, I wonder if it's an evolved response. I guess having your own "secret code" language was a big advantage. But why did human brains in different locales generate such radically different languages?

If you stuck 100 people on each continent, they would create different languages over time.

The surprising part is the similarities between them, not that they are different. To observe language changing over time, just listen to some high school kids.

Think of language as a more evolutionary process. Brains did not "generate language". Rather, language evolved over time in cultural settings.

Allison Stanger on the emotions of the students at Middlebury College: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/13/opinion/understanding-the-angry-mob-that-gave-me-a-concussion.html?ref=opinion I recently saw a television commercial for a drug that controls inappropriate, uncontrollable crying and laughing that is sometimes triggered by a stroke. In my own experience I have laughed when presented with sad news, cried when presented with happy news. I suspect most people have. It's as though the "wrong" emotional response is nature's way of providing balance.

The animal angle is entirely irrelevant and ought have been omitted. But the understanding of the different emotional responses and signals between cultures is quite important to diplomacy, and argues in favor of a professional, permanent diplomatic corps.

Experience, unfortunately, demonstrates the clear attraction to diplomatic service of those with more allegiance to some internationalist ideal over American national interests, which they are employed to advance.

"If we hanged every traitor at Foggy Bottom, we would need a revitalized domestic hemp industry just to supply the rope."

Are you going to send a back stabber or someone who believes that good things come from pursuit of mutual interest?

Back stabbers should stay at home where they will not make enemies (at least, not foreign enemies anyways).

This made me recall Albert Ellis, who wrote "A Guide to Rational Living" and practiced Rational Emotive Therapy , which now seems to be called Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). From wikipedia -

"The A-B-C model states that it is not an A, adversity (or activating event) that cause disturbed and dysfunctional emotional and behavioral Cs, consequences, but also what people B, irrationally believe about the A, adversity. A, adversity can be an external situation, or a thought, a feeling or other kind of internal event, and it can refer to an event in the past, present, or future.[13]

The Bs, irrational beliefs that are most important in the A-B-C model are explicit and implicit philosophical meanings and assumptions about events, personal desires, and preferences. The Bs, beliefs that are most significant are highly evaluative and consist of interrelated and integrated cognitive, emotional and behavioral aspects and dimensions. According to REBT, if a person's evaluative B, belief about the A, activating event is rigid, absolutistic, fictional and dysfunctional, the C, the emotional and behavioral consequence, is likely to be self-defeating and destructive. Alternatively, if a person's belief is preferential, flexible and constructive, the C, the emotional and behavioral consequence is likely to be self-helping and constructive."

In a nutshell, he believed that harmful emotions were caused by unexamined, irrational beliefs. I think it is a very useful philosophy. I looked at Barrett's index and no mention of Ellis or RET(REBT). No mention of Stoicism, or Epictetus. Her first pages told about her tears listening to Ct. Governor Malloy talk about the Newtown murders. I wonder how she feels about gun control, support for which Newtown was supposed to increase.

That seems entirely consistent with the "useful interview" and the "look inside" at Amazon.

And not only what the individual believes about A, but also what the culture around the individual thinks about A and what they expect the individual to feel as a result of A.
I could point at rape in modern American culture, for example. We've expanded the definition of "rape" from violent forced sexual intercourse to getting drunk and being fingered, but we haven't modified society's expectations of how traumatized you're supposed to feel. Thus, being groped while drunk is assumed to produce just as much trauma as being violently assaulted, and thus we wind up with campus safe spaces with coloring books for a person whose been drunkenly fingered to go to have flashbacks after witnessing someone questioning rape statistics.

Stopped reading after "being socially constructed".

there is a youtube video interview here (as part of a yale open courses class):


Reference for her liking chocolate:
"Eating chocolate. I have a limitless appreciation for chocolate (preferably dark, and sampled with friends)"


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Re: Haidt's work on disgust, constructionism throws this into question as well. See here: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1088868314566683

Also, the emphasis on prediction is pretty critical for the theory of constructed emotion, but it can be sort of confusing for the uninitiated. Why it's so critical can be understood in this paper from Barrett, although it's pretty dense for non-neuro/psych folks: http://www.nature.com/nrn/journal/v16/n7/abs/nrn3950.html

For a more accessible intro to prediction, see here: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/behavioral-and-brain-sciences/article/div-classtitlewhatever-next-predictive-brains-situated-agents-and-the-future-of-cognitive-sciencediv/33542C736E17E3D1D44E8D03BE5F4CD9

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