People generally believe that thought and feeling are separate and competing sources of behavior. We think of ourselves as—at least potentially—rational beings who can make conscious logical decisions and then act on those decisions. On the other hand, we see our feelings as unruly forces that can hijack our behavior and make us do things despite our better judgment: We see a piece of cake, feel pleasure as we imagine its taste and texture, and despite thinking “I shouldn’t eat this.” find ourselves doing just that.
As a result, people may conclude that things would work best if we suppressed our feelings and followed our rational thoughts. In reality, thought without feeling doesn’t influence action: thoughts are only as motivating as the feelings they create. So, the problem in the example above was not that we desired the cake, but rather that the thought “I shouldn’t eat this.” wasn’t accompanied by even stronger opposing feelings; if thinking about how eating the cake would impact our weight and health triggered intense disgust and fear, we wouldn’t have eaten it.
Neurological evidence supports this idea. Brain injuries that damage the limbic areas responsible for emotional responses leave people passive and unmotivated. People with injuries that prevent emotional input to the frontal brain areas where planning occurs are incapable of deciding whether to make an appointment on a Monday or a Tuesday. Much of the time people with this lack of emotional input to decision making areas seem unchanged because they rely on habits that they developed before the injury. Indeed, much of what we think and do is a product of force of habit.
So, rather than thinking in terms of thought versus feeling as motivators of behavior, it is more accurate to think of feeling and habit as directing our behavior. Feelings produce habits when they drive us to repeatedly think and do the same thing. On the other hand, emotions can interrupt habitual behavior by producing interfering thoughts and actions: e.g. while following your morning routine, the sight of a piece of cake in the fridge triggers anticipatory pleasure that takes you off track.
Even our store of objective knowledge is based on habits created by feeling-based reinforcement: knowing that 2+2=4 is a mental habit reinforced by childhood experiences of pride when others praised us for getting it right and shame we felt when we didn’t.
How Do Feelings Operate?
Feelings are our animal brains’ way of signaling that something is going on, might occur, or has happened that is important to our survival and ultimately reproduction. Positive feelings signal something that furthers these goals, negative feelings signal something that is against them. (More precisely, they signal something that is important to the proliferation our genes: see my review of “The Selfish Gene.”)
Each feeling has a more specific goal. Hunger motivates us to nourish the body. Fear motivates us to avoid, escape or neutralize danger. Anger motivates us to take control of situations: to stop others from doing things that we believe are against our interests or to get them to do things that we believe will benefit us.
Feelings further their goals in two ways: instinctual responses and problem solving.
Instinctual responses include actions and internal and external physical changes in the interest of the goal. For example, fear promotes running to get away from the danger or freezing intended to make one less visible to predators. Anger promotes loud vocalizations and sudden forward movements that intimidate others. Both fear and anger trigger physical changes which facilitate fight and flight: adrenaline is released into the blood, resulting in increased heart rate and blood sugar; blood flow to the muscles is increased; surface blood vessels contract to limit bleeding if attacked.
Some feelings also trigger facial expressions and physical postures that induce feelings in others that then motivate them to act in ways that further the feeling’s goal. When we grimace from pain, others feel discomfort that motivates them to help us with the dysfunction or injury that has caused it. When we feel sad over losing someone or something we were bonded to, our facial expression and dejected posture elicits concern and consoling behavior that reinforces existing connections and possibly creates new ones.
These physical changes are the “feeling” of the feeling. We literally feel feelings in our bodies.
Feelings also focus attention on the object or thought that is causing the feeling. We see a pothole out of the corner of our eye and the thought of going into it triggers fear, which makes up look at it and continue to pay attention to it. Or someone doesn’t say hello back, we think “He doesn’t like me.” and the sadness or anger we feel makes us keep thinking about that idea. In this situation we may say that “I feel that he doesn’t like me.” Indeed, the emotion we feel makes the thought “feel true.” (Imagine thinking “He doesn’t like me.” and feeling nothing; doesn’t feel true, does it?).
Feelings then activate problem solving and planning in order to achieve the goal. This planning can be quite simple and/or immediate, like figuring out how to pick up a piece of cake and bring it to our mouths. It can be quite complex and/or future-oriented, like planning how to tactfully deal with someone who threatens us. This planning can conflict with instinctual responses: we may realize that, rather than avoiding a situation that frightens us, we need to go into it. In addition, feelings trigger memories of experiences connected to the feeling that can provide information about how to achieve the goal.
Why don’t we understand the role feelings play?
The major reason we understand the role of feelings in motivation is that we aren’t aware the majority of our emotional responses.
Now, we usually are aware of physically-triggered feelings such as hunger, pain and physical pleasure because they direct our attention to related parts of our bodies: We feel hunger in our bellies, pain in specific locations in our bodies.
In contrast, most of our emotional responses focus our attention on the objects or thoughts that trigger them. We don’t pay attention to the physical feeling of the feeling unless it produces a reaction that is unusual enough to draw our attention to it: e.g. shaking knees resulting from fear. We also become aware of feelings when they are so strong that they trigger an instinctual action that conflicts with conscious plans intended to produce the goal, These experiences can lead to the misguided notion of thought and action as inherently conflicting forces.
Which is to say that emotions/feelings are not a problem per se, but intense ones that make us act in spite of our better judgment—or we before we have time to make a judgment—can be. The retrieval of memories associated with an emotion can also intensify the emotion, exacerbating the problem: you feel angry with someone, remember all the times you’ve been angry with them in the past, feel even angrier, and impulsively yell at them. This effect, which interferes with remembering different experiences (e.g. all the other times that that same person has been good to you) can bias our thinking and action. Emotions work best when they are mild and brief, when they serve a “signal” function which draws our attention to things that may be important and leads us to thoughtfully plans and execute those plans.