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What Processes Control Our Emotions?

What Processes Control Our Emotions?

On the other hand—and in support of the Cannon–Bard view—emotions can also be aroused by external cues detected either by the conscious or the unconscious emo- tional system. Thus, emotion can result from conscious thought (as when you fret over an exam) or from unconscious memories (as when you feel disgust at the sight of a food that had once made you sick). Incidentally, cognitive psychologists now believe that both depression and phobic reactions can result from conditioned responses of the unconscious emotional system.

When the Situation Gets Complicated: The Two-Factor Theory As we noted, you can make yourself emotional just by thinking, as any student with “test anxiety” will testify. The more you think about the dire consequences of failing a test, the more the anxiety builds. “Method” actors, like the late Marlon Brando, have long exploited this fact to make themselves feel real emotions on stage. They do so by recalling an incident from their own experience that produced the emotion they want to portray, such as grief, joy, or anger.

Stanley Schachter’s (1971) two-factor theory adds an interesting twist to the role of cognition in emotion. His theory suggests that the emotions we feel depend on our appraisal of both (a) our internal physical state and (b) the external situation in which we find ourselves. Strange effects occur when these two factors conflict—as they did in the following classic study of emotion, which enter- prising students may want to adopt in order to spice up their romantic lives.

An attractive female researcher positioned herself at the end of a footbridge and interviewed unsuspecting males who had just crossed. On one occasion she selected a safe, sturdy bridge; another time, a wobbly suspension bridge across a deep canyon—deliberately selected to elicit physical arousal. The researcher, pretending to be interested in the effects of scenery on creativity, asked the men to write brief stories about a picture. She also invited them to call her if they wanted more information about the study. As predicted, those men who had just crossed the wobbly bridge (and were, presumably, more physically aroused by the experience) wrote stories containing more sexual imagery than those who used the safer structure. And four times as many of them called the female researcher “to get more informa- tion”! Apparently, the men who had crossed the shaky bridge interpreted their increased arousal as emotional attraction to the female interviewer (Dutton & Aron, 1974).

Before you rush out to find the love of your life on a wobbly bridge, we must caution you, numerous attempts to test the two-factor theory have supported the two-factor theory only under certain conditions (Leventhal & Tomarken, 1986; Sinclair et al., 1994). What are the conditions under which we are likely to confound physical arousal with emotion? Normally, external events confirm what our biology tells us, without much need for elaborate interpretation— as when you feel disgust at smelling an unpleasant odor or joy at seeing an old friend. But what happens when we experience physical arousal from not- so-obvious sources, such as exercise, heat, or drugs? Misattribution, it seems, is most likely in a complex environment where many stimuli are competing for our attention, as in the bridge study. It is also likely in an environment where we have faulty information about our physical arousal, as when unsus- pected caffeine in a soft drink makes us edgy (see Figure 9.10).

How Much Conscious Control Do We Have Over Our Emotions? The ability to deal with emotions is important in many professions. Physicians, nurses, firefighters, and police officers, for example, must be able to comfort others yet main- tain a “professional distance” when dealing with disability and death. Likewise, in many social situations, it can be desirable to mask or modify what you are feeling. If you dislike a professor, you might be wise not to show your true emotions. And if you have strong romantic feelings toward someone—more than he or she realizes—it might be safest to reveal the depth of your feelings gradually, lest you frighten the person away with too much too soon. Even in leisure activities like playing poker or

two-factor theory The idea that emotion results from the cognitive appraisal of both physical arousal (Factor #1) and an emotion-provoking stimulus (Factor #2).

The two-factor theory would predict that decaffeinated-coffee drinkers who acci- dentally drank coffee with caffeine could mistake the resulting physical arousal for an emotion. Could that be happening here?

During a break at the Western Psycho- logical Association convention near Van- couver, British Columbia, psychologists Susan Horton and Bob Johnson (one of your authors) reenact the Dutton study of attraction on the Capilano Bridge, where the original study was performed.

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