A journey of nine emotions

Nov 17 2016

In Emotional Rollercoaster, Claudia Hammond goes on a journey through the science of emotions, exploring nine different emotions on the way. Although harder going and less enjoyable than another book I have recently read and reviewed, this is still full of insights into the science behind emotions as well as anecdotes that illuminate how each emotion fits into our understanding of human behaviour. Let’s take a quick tour of each of the nine.The joy of life

The author starts positively with joy. As she points out, happiness is often the first emotion mentioned when people are asked to name them. The most positive thing to be said about joy is that we often underrate it and under-report it. It’s most often associated with seeing friends, eating, drinking, having sex and achieving success, but there are many more joyful moments that we tend to forget. In one experiment, people were asked to keep a diary of emotions and participants tended to focus on negative emotions. However, when when prompted at random times to check what emotion was being experienced, happiness was twice as common as fear or anger.

Feeling joy is also associated with better decision making, especially when we need to be creative. Mild happiness has been shown to improve everyone’s performance, even the very young. Babies have been shown to smile at the youngest age and even while still in the womb. Joy is associated with mental and physical fitness too – it surely has to be the best way to advertise your charms to others?

The sadness of ….

By contrast, sadness tends to make us more focused on the hear and now, and therefore less creative. For some, this might explain the purpose of sadness in itself, while others argue that it’s a tool to manage the body’s energy levels (stopping us burning  energy on something that will probably not benefit us). Whatever the reason, it is certainly an emotion that we share very openly with others through our facial expressions.

“Down in the mouth” is quite a literal description of how we look when sad, as Charles Darwin noticed and wrote about in a woman sat opposite him in a railway carriage.  Although we all feel sad at times, it differs across cultures and specifically crying differs vastly – from North America where people report crying much more often to Eastern Europe where it is much less frequent.

The bitterness of disgust

Disgust is one of the earliest emotions that we experience. Even new born babies show disgust at bitter tastes, and Charles Darwin observed that the expression of disgust becomes more frequent as we get older. Although disgust is initially an automatic reaction to anything that is potentially toxic (poisonous), we soon learn to react to moral disgust too and learn what is acceptable and what is not within our own culture. It varies a lot, do you feel disgust at eating insects for example?

Again disgust is a very social emotion and one we convey very clearly to others through our face. Anthropologists like Mary Douglas have shown that disgust is cultural and contextual, and that the differentiation between what is edible and what is not leads to the importance of hygiene and ultimately to the disgust that we feel for anything that crosses categories it shouldn’t (i.e., something that belongs inside the body and become visible outside).

The anger of …

Anger exists to help us prepare our body for attack, and is able to keep us at a level of preparedness for longer than any other emotion. This may have been more useful in mankind’s past than it is in the modern world. As I’ve written elsewhere (here and here), anger is much more motivating than fear, and can make us do things we would otherwise not and later regret.

There are many tricks to managing anger, but the most common and best is to feel empathy and practice seeing the world from the point of view of other people. A little bit of empathy can save you a lot of trouble later down the road …

The sound and smell of fear

There is one thing guaranteed to scare everyone, however old they are and whatever their cultural background. Even newborn babies jump when exposed to loud noises, and we don’t get any more used to them as we grow older and wiser. This is know as the startle reflex and is something we try and avoid, for example by swaddling babies.

The startle reflex is a very extreme form of surprise. Someone who is already scared or nervous is far more likely to start when shocked, and it is well known that some people are far more sensitive to this behaviour than others – they are called hyperstartlers. As well as the importance of the sound of fear, the smell of fear is not just a fancy idea and it has been shown that people can pick out the smell of people who have been scared. Only they don’t describe the smell as fear, but as aggression.

The asymmetry of jealousy

Jealousy is perhaps a more complex emotion than those above, comprising a mixture of fear, anger, sadness, anxiety, despair and sometimes even shame. Jealousy is usually an unattractive emotion to feel, and while many people will admit to being worried about a relationship (and happy too), they are unlikely to admit to jealousy. Unlike other emotions, jealousy is not something we communicate to others through our face.

And we definitely don’t turn green, although jealousy is often associated with that colour, perhaps because it also associated with the production of bile. One of the extraordinary findings about jealousy reported in Emotional Rollercoaster is that you are much more likely to feel jealousy if you have one ear longer than the other or have a more asymmetric body in other regards. Similarly couples who are more matched in attractiveness are less susceptible to jealousy.

The look of love

As Claudia Hammond says, it’s not surprising that people pay a lot of attention to looks in the first stages of love (read more about the science of attraction here). Physically attractive people have a lot of advantages in life, they are treated better by others from their youngest years and are considered to be more sociable, interesting and fun (the only fault that is occasionally associated with good looking people is vanity). Even when men expect (but haven’t seen) that a woman is beautiful they behave differently, in turn changing the behaviours of the women they speak to unseen (both become more animated, confident and socially skilled).

Love is not really a basic emotion like the others discussed in the book, and is certainly not a fleeting one. Love is more like a set of behaviours or attitudes that you have towards another person. Some argue that love is a way of framing your expectations of someone else’s behaviours towards you. Intriguingly, the two most commonly mentioned emotions in conversations between couples are love and regret.

The guilt of self-knowledge

Charles Darwin learnt about guilt by observing his young son and the expression he showed when he caught his father’s gaze, on a first occasion after eating sugar when he shouldn’t. The expression could not be fear, as his son had never been punished, but was rather his son, “struggling with his conscience”. So conscience is not something an infant baby can feel, but requires the ability to make judgements about personal responsibility (in Darwin’s son’s case at around two and a half years).

Other scientists believe that we can experience guilt at much younger ages, and point to dentition and the reaction of babies to perhaps the first time that they experience their mother’s anger (they cry). When this biting happens another time, babies will cry even though their mother does not withdraw or react. They have already learned to associate the behaviour with its potential consequences. This is the simplest form of guilt, the knowledge that you have done something that you should not have done. As we age, guilt becomes more complex, and influenced particularly by the presence or absence of other people, but this basic truth remains.

The naivety of hope?

Is hope really an emotion at all? There is no specific facial expression associated with hope, and when someone looks hopeful they might also just be interested in something or even have a spiritual or religious feeling. Although it’s a “quiet” emotion, it has the power to transform the way we think about a situation and ultimately how we then behave. Hope is about how we anticipate future outcomes (in many ways the opposite of fear where we anticipate the worst).

Most of us live relatively hopeful lives – we have to have a basic trust in others and in our circumstances to get through life. Optimism bias is well documented by behavioural economists as our tendency to be see things though rose-tinted lenses, and evolutionary psychologists argue that we wouldn’t have survived if we didn’t. And luck is strongly associated with hope – people who consider themselves lucky are also more hopeful about the future. Ultimately, hope is a key emotion in driving human achievement.

Nine emotions and nine stories. Emotional Rollercoaster is well worth reading for anyone interested in the stories behind different human emotions.


Emotional Rollercoaster: A journey through the science of feelings by Claudia Hammond

The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals by Charles Darwin

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