People generally believe that thinking and feeling are separate and often opposing motives for 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 emotions 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 emotions and followed our rational thoughts. In reality, thought without emotion doesn’t influence action: thoughts are only as motivating as the emotions they create. So, the problem in the example above was not that we desired the cake as such, but rather that the thought “I shouldn’t eat this.” wasn’t accompanied by negative emotions that were stronger than the anticipated pleasure and excitement of eating the cake. If we instead thought “I’m going to feel angry/disgusted with myself if I eat this now.” the anticipatory anger or disgust might have made us refrain.
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 emotion as motivators of behavior, it is more accurate to think of motivation as the result of emotions and habits. Habits are created when emotions motivate us to repeatedly think and do the same thing. That said, emotions can interfere with habitual behavior: 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.
The things that we know are mental habits, which were originally created by emotion-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 Emotions Operate?
Emotions are our animal brain’s way of signaling that something is going on, might occur, or has happened that is important to our survival and ultimately to passing on our genes to the next generation. Positive emotions signal something that furthers these goals, negative emotions signal something that is against them.
Each emotion has a more specific goal. 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.
Emotions 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 emotions also trigger facial expressions and physical postures that induce emotions in others that then motivate them to act in ways that further the emotion’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.
Our sensation of these physical changes are the “feeling” of the emotion. We feel emotions in our bodies.
Emotions also focus attention on the object or thought that is causing the emotion. 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 avoid 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.” Typically when we say “I feel that…” there we are expressing a thought that is supported by an emotion. Indeed, concordant emotions makes thoughts “feel true.” (Imagine thinking “He doesn’t like me.” and feeling nothing; doesn’t feel true, does it?).
Emotions 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, emotions trigger memories of experiences connected to the emotion that can provide information about how to achieve the goal.
Why don’t we understand the role emotions play?
The major reason we understand the role of emotions in motivation is that we aren’t aware the majority of our emotional responses which are short lived and low intensity.
Now, we usually are aware of motivating physically-triggered responses 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, our emotions focus our attention on the objects or thoughts that trigger them. We don’t pay attention to the physical sensations of the emotion in our bodies unless the emotion is so intense that it produces physical sensations are unusual enough to draw our attention to them, e.g. when intense fear makes our heart race and knees shake. We also may become aware of an emotion when it triggers a behavior that we don’t like: e.g. when the person who thinks of herself as “nice” is shocked to find herself shouting at someone “in spite of herself.” These experiences of intense emotion lead to the misguided notion that thought and action are conflicting forces.
Emotions are not a problem per se; in fact, we need them to motivate action and the creation of helpful habits. That said, emotions work best when they are mild and brief, when they serve a “signaling” function which draws our attention to things that may be important. This allows us to consciously evaluate the importance of those things and, if necessary, consider possible responses and their outcomes. This thinking may then generate other emotions that may reinforce or counter the original signal emotion.