Dr. Thomas Swan studied cognition and culture at Queen's University Belfast. His work explores theories of emotion, attention, and memory.
How Might Emotions Influence Beliefs?
It is widely accepted that our beliefs about the world shape our emotional states. If we believe someone is to blame for our problems, we exhibit anger. If we believe there is danger on the horizon, we exhibit anxiety. In fact, psychologists have devoted an entire theory to the ways in which beliefs preface emotions (cognitive appraisal theory). Far less effort has been spent exploring the ways in which emotions influence the beliefs we form. As such, this article will describe three types of emotional belief that deserve further investigation.
On a purely conceptual basis, if we know that beliefs about stimuli in the environment shape our emotions, then we know that as the behavior of the stimulus changes, our beliefs must be updated accordingly. Clearly, our initial emotional reaction to the stimulus will inform the updating process. The three examples that follow will elaborate on this concept, before a generalized theory of emotion-based belief formation is discussed.
1. Attribution Theory of Emotion
The emotions we experience are sometimes difficult to explain. Indeed, as emotions are naturally evolved states, their triggers are often automatic. When we fail to consciously identify the cause of our emotions, we can form new beliefs in order to justify them. This is called emotion attribution.
For example, feeling jealous when your partner is talking to someone else may lead to the belief that they are having an affair. This might contribute to overly suspicious thoughts about things like stray handkerchiefs or frequent showering. In the unlikely instance that your partner is cheating, the subsequent distress may lead to the belief that all members of the opposite sex are untrustworthy.
Furthermore, envy may cause us to readily accept hurtful gossip about celebrities, or lead us to despise the methods used by people to acquire the envied goods (e.g. bankers). Feelings of guilt frequently lead to an unnecessary acceptance of blame, whereas misplaced anger causes people to find others to blame. Anxiety can lead one to interpret events as threatening, while a happy person will be more optimistic. Finally, love may generate a belief that one is loved in return, or convince us that the loved person has admirable qualities.
These are all examples of emotion attribution, and they occur when an emotion is based on intuitive beliefs that are not the subject of conscious thought. As a result, the mind forms or changes beliefs in order to make sense of the emotion. In general, pleasant emotions are likely to be attributed to success, while unpleasant emotions are attributed to failure. Though both types of attribution can form new beliefs, attributing failure leads one to change existing beliefs, while attributing success tends to reinforces their validity.
2. Mood Attribution
Moods last far longer than emotions, though they are typically saturated with the signals of a particular emotion. For example, depression includes a degree of unresolved anxiety, while hostility is punctuated by unresolved anger. Psychologists might describe moods as states in which the cognitive appraisal process is incomplete, leading to feelings that endure. As a result, the initial cause of the mood is largely forgotten.
Therefore, much like emotion attribution, the mind may attempt to explain a mood by attributing it to people, objects, modes of thought, or events within one's current environment. For example, a depressed mood may cause one to think pessimistically about current events. In general, the mind will attribute the mood to whatever appears to be the most likely cause.
Mood attribution can be eliminated if the object of the mood is identified. Individuals who attend to their feelings; have clearly defined meanings for their feelings; or have their feelings brought to their attention will be more likely to eliminate it.
3. Emotional Sentiments
Sometimes the mind will store experiences as emotionally-charged memories, such that reliving aspects of the event causes the emotion to resurface. When the emotion resurfaces or is recalled, the mind may try to make sense of it by forming new beliefs (like emotion attribution). For example, an experiment showed that people who were angry with another person for making an error were likely to form negative beliefs about the person’s trustworthiness. As a result, subsequent encounters with the person caused the anger and mistrust to resurface.
These latent memories are called sentiments. They describe `events of concern' in which an emotion forms part of an effective strategy for dealing with the concern. Thus, when the emotion is relived, it works as a shortcut to bias thinking in a useful way. For example, when you see someone that has wronged you in the past, your anger may resurface, putting you "on guard" for future transgressions.
Sentiments usually apply when the cause of the event is a person or animal. This is because living organisms have dispositional tendencies (e.g. an inconsiderate person or an aggressive dog). Sentiments are also likely to form when the emotion is seen as particularly useful, the event is likely to reoccur, or there is social encouragement for having the sentiment (e.g. other like-minded people have the same sentiment).
The Affect Infusion Model
The ways in which emotions influence beliefs depends on one's mode of thinking (cognitive processing), which depends on the type of event (stimulus) that triggers the emotion.
When a stimulus is simple to understand, largely irrelevant, or there are insufficient cognitive resources for thinking about it, we engage in a mode of thinking called heuristic processing. This involves forming a belief quickly using whatever shortcuts are available. Thus, examples include emotion and mood attribution, which both use emotional arousal to infer new beliefs.
When a stimulus is difficult to understand, important for personal goals, and there are sufficient cognitive resources, we engage in a mode of thinking called substantive processing. This is characterized by extensive information gathering and interpretation, and an effort to relate the stimulus to preexisting beliefs and knowledge. This extensive use of memory increases the chance that emotionally-charged information (such as sentiments) will be incorporated into thinking.
Therefore, both heuristic and substantive processing are capable of creating new beliefs that are biased by the emotion being felt. Unpleasant emotions lead to unwelcome beliefs, while pleasant emotions lead to happier beliefs. This is called the Affect Infusion Model. In contrast to what may be expected, substantive processing is better at generating affect infusion, suggesting sentiments are particularly important for influencing beliefs. This also means that complex, atypical, and uncertain stimuli are more likely to lead to affect infusion. As a result, anxiety (which is caused by uncertain stimuli) may be an effective emotion for generating new beliefs.
Example of Motivated Reasoning
When someone becomes aware of their negative emotional state, their mode of thinking may switch to motivated processing (also known as motivated reasoning). This involves a search of internal and external information in a single-minded effort to reverse the unpleasant effects of negative affect infusion. For example, an experiment found that people who were made to feel sad formed beliefs about themselves that were infused with negativity. However, after a few minutes, these beliefs spontaneously changed to become more positive. Interestingly, discussing the negative self-beliefs within a group increased the rate of motivated processing.
In summary, the affect infusion model shows that emotional states can create congruent beliefs, but only up to a point. At some threshold, motivated processing instigates homeostatic mood management. Indeed, if affect infusion could continue unabated, there would be costly maladaptive consequences.
In recent years, the most innovative advances in psychology have come from cognitive psychology. Unfortunately, this has led to a focus on cold cognitions, in which emotions are viewed as distant products of cognitive processes. However, it's clear that an intricate interplay exists between cognition and emotion. Indeed, beyond their direct effect on beliefs, emotions are the cause of numerous cognitive biases that affect our attention and memory. As a result, these biases influence the information we assimilate, and the beliefs we subsequently form. Thus, without a renewed focus on emotional beliefs, cognitive psychology may prove to be a limited explanatory tool.
© 2013 Thomas Swan
Missy Smith from Florida on January 14, 2016:
I love this article. I've always been interested in psychology, probably because I analyze everything. I identify with this. I used to be one that attributed to my emotions; I made mountains out of mole hills, if you know what I mean. I would think just like you pointed out; if my boyfriend talked to someone else, I would wonder if he was having an affair. Especially, if he got in the shower straight after work or something like that. I absolutely hated this part about me, and tried never to let my jealousy show. This was in my twenties. Over the years, I would stop and talk myself through things like that with a logical way of thinking; basically, just get out of the negative and place myself in only positive mind thoughts. Even if it was to happen to be true, and he was cheating, I would not dwell and know it would all come out when it needed to.
I get to your emotional sentiments, and just know that I am doing pretty well. Because let me tell ya, I have been done wrong in this lifetime by the people I love and trust more times than I care to count. However, somehow, I have found a way not to hold grudges. I do think it is all up to how we program our psyche. I am extremely grateful that I have noticed my ways of dealing with things. If I'm depressed, I don't bother showing it in daily life, I just put it in perspective and keep going. I'm happy to say I have found a way to release though; I now write poetry and get to release pinned up emotions. :)
Your detailed thinking processes were all very interesting; really engaging article. I'm sure I'll be back when my time allows me to read more.
peachy from Home Sweet Home on March 16, 2015:
anxiety, emotional beliefs, sometime not able to control, is it addicted?
f_hruz from Toronto, Ontario, Canada on October 14, 2013:
On going self analysis and personal discovery should be part of a lifelong development program for any individual, if you ask me ...
Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on October 14, 2013:
Well, I'm not too well versed on CBT, but whatever is shown to be an effective treatment should be used as much as possible. I do agree with being able to master our emotions by locating the core triggers, and becoming aware of our emotions when we're experiencing them. If we understand why we act the way we do, we can begin to control it. So what I'd prescribe is more psychology in the school education system!
f_hruz from Toronto, Ontario, Canada on October 13, 2013:
Knowing all this, how important do you feel it is, to assist more individuals through cognitive behavior therapy to develop the kind of mental skill set, so a pre-processing of their emotions can take place in light of their latent bias, with the goal of raising their objective cognitive abilities?