What are some examples of things that trigger emotions? Getting stuck in traffic? Being hungry? Watching the news? How your partner squeezes the tube of toothpaste (yes, this is one of my pet peeves!)?
Most emotion scientists believe that emotions are triggered by how we evaluate events.
These events include not only what happens around us, but also thoughts and feelings in our heads, because those thoughts and feelings can themselves trigger emotions.
Appraisal Theories of Emotion
This evaluation process is known as appraisal, and over the decades there have been tons of research that have led to many different appraisal theories of emotion. Although there are differences among them, these theories generally state that there are different emotions are triggered (or elicited) by different ways we appraise or evaluate events, and that different emotions are triggered by different appraisals.
Cross-cultural research on emotion has contributed a wealth of information about many domains of emotion.
In my last blog on understanding anger, we discussed about how that body of research has informed us about what is known about emotion antecedents and appraisals.
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What are Antecedents?
Antecedents are the specific events that people identify to trigger emotions.
Those include things like what are at the top of this blog – getting stuck in traffic, being hungry, watching the news, or the toothpaste fiasco. But as mentioned just above, antecedents can also include thoughts about the future, memories about the past, and even one’s current emotions.
Universal, Psychological Themes
Research has demonstrated that, despite many differences (and similarities) in the specific types of events that trigger emotions in us, there are universal, psychological themes associated with each of the seven universal emotions – anger, contempt, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise.
A psychological theme is the basic, most elemental way in which our minds process and evaluate any event in terms of what the event means to us psychologically. These themes are mostly concerned with our welfare.
The fact that there are universal, psychological themes associated with basic emotions means that the same underlying, psychological themes trigger the same emotion in all humans around the world, regardless of differences in race, culture, nationality and any other demographic characteristic.
In that last blog (hopefully it was helpful for some to deal with their anger episodes), we learned that the universal, psychological theme that triggers anger all around the world is goal obstruction. That is, regardless of whatever the specific event is, if the event is appraised or evaluated in our minds as “goal obstruction,” that appraisal would trigger the emotion of anger.
In the same way, each of the other basic emotions are associated with a universal, psychological theme that triggers it all around the world.
Quick Descriptions of Themes for the Other Basic Emotions
Contempt – Moral Superiority
Contempt is the emotion that is elicited when our minds appraise something or someone as beneath us.
Disgust – Contamination
Disgust is triggered when our minds appraise something that is dirty, rotten, offensive, or contaminated.
Fear – Threat
Fear is triggered when our minds appraise something as threatening, or potentially threatening, or sense of self. The sense of self that is threatened can be our physical self as well as our psychological self.
Happiness – Goal Attainment
Achieving our goals triggers happiness (which makes happiness sort of the opposite of anger, not sadness).
Sadness – Loss
Loss of a loved object or other person elicits sadness.
Did you know? Children as old as 12 have difficulty telling the difference between genuine and fake sadness from facial expressions. Read more here.
Surprise – Novel Objects
Surprise is triggered when something is new. Interesting, surprise tends to be the briefest emotion because things are not new to us for very long.
Where do emotion appraisals come from?
I believe that they are part of our innate emotion system, which we have inherited as part of our evolutionary history.
Having this system and this set of appraisals and psychological themes was helpful in that evolutionary past to ward off threats, fight for food, obtain and keep mates, build families and communities – basically to survive.
Moreover, they helped us humans to survive in many situations that required an immediate response or action. Emotions and the appraisal system helped us respond in those situations with minimal conscious awareness.
For example, what do you think would happen if you started drinking spoiled milk and had to think through the risk-benefit ratio of doing so once you perceived the nasty taste?
By the time you thought that through, you would have ingested that spoiled milk and it would be in your system, along with all the other contaminants in there, which would obviously make you sick and/or even bring about death. That wouldn’t be good for survival!
Thank god we don’t go through such time consuming, risk-benefit calculations for many events that have implications for our health or safety. Those with that system survived and remain here today; those without that system were selected out of existence by nature.
The appraisal process is fast! Extremely fast!
And for good reason. It is so fast that scientists still don’t have an accurate accounting of exactly how fast it is (although we have good guesses!). Thus, changing the appraisal process is very, very difficult.
In actuality, we’re all constantly scanning our environment for possible emotion triggers. Much of time, we appraise events and they don’t trigger an emotion; that is, they are not evaluated as possibly requiring an immediate response from us in order to survive. In fact, some may say that our contemporary human life is pretty cushy, where emotions hamper more than they help.
But when something happens that may require an immediate response, the emotion system kicks in, appraising events and other stimuli extremely rapidly and turning on the emotion system in order to act. Just think about a time that you may have been on a sidewalk and abruptly heard a car or bus coming at you.
What about culture and emotion?
Now, although the underlying psychological themes associated with each of the basic emotions are universal and innate, culture still plays an important role in how we adapt our emotion system for daily use.
Yes, there are some events that universally trigger the same kinds of emotions – spoiled milk, snakes, feces, etc. – all kinds of things that are associated with survival regardless of culture.
But cultures also facilitate our learning to associate our innate emotion systems in culture-specific and individually different ways. That’s why the same event can trigger very different emotions in different people – because they have learned to associate different appraisals for those events in their upbringing.
So the next time you think about an emotion, think about not only the specific event that you think triggered it, but the underlying, psychological theme with which your mind evaluated that event.
That’s the real trigger of the emotion.