What if emotions are things we construct?

A lot of the challenge of working with groups is dealing with the powerful emotions that are triggered when people work together. Lisa Feldman Barrett's book, How Emotions are Made, raises some fascinating questions about what emotions actually are. (Her TED talk is also worth a look.)

The prevailing view is that there are core emotions that are common across all human cultures, and easily recognised from core facial expressions. But Barrett challenges this view.

She argues that much of the research establishing this idea of core emotions is flawed. Emotions are, she argues, constructed in our minds. Instead of being universal, with familiar neural patterns, they are complex and varying. We learn to group and label them as we learn language. In that sense they are constructed socially. Because much of this learning takes place early in life we don't realise that we are creating these categories ourselves, instead we believe they are innate. "Reading" emotions is actually more prone to error than we realise.

She argues that when we see bands of colour in a rainbow, it's not because there are actual bands there, it's because our brains have learnt to sort into colours that way, and a similar process applies to our emotions.

She suggests that we work to develop a richer vocabulary for emotions, not settling for simple categories like anger and sadness. It also suggests that we might want to avoid knee jerk responses to emotions we think we easily recognise.

This resonates with us. People often panic in the face of what seem to be clear and strong emotions, and much of what they do in that response can be counterproductive. We try to practice slowing down and being willing to examine emotional responses to see what we can learn. What we first experience as anxiety, provoking a need for urgent escape, might on reflection be a form of excitement and enthusiasm for something - which we might miss uncovering if we rush to fix things.

Barrett's book is very thought-provoking and we can't do it justice in a short review. But her thinking is sparking ideas for us to use on our unhurried leadership workshops. We'd love to hear your thoughts about her work.

(Thanks to Pamela Kinnear & Stephen Mugford for pointing us to this book.)