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What’s behind an emotion?

What's an emotion? How can you manage your emotions better? In this article, we discuss an experiment by Schachter and Singer and the insights it offers about emotions and how to regulate them.
Stefania Montagna

Stefania Montagna

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Understanding what an emotion is and how emotions arise is crucial to the process of emotional regulation.

This knowledge, in turn, can come in handy in the management of our emotional response in the wake of strong feelings.

Are emotions determined by cognition or are they determined by physiology?

But what is an emotion? And crucially, do emotions depend on a physiological mechanism, or on a cognitive interpretation of a physiological experience?

When I am sad … is it because I feel a feeling of closure in my chest and tension built up around my head, or is it because I interpret those sensations as a cause of sadness?

Schachter and Singer’s experiment

Schachter and Singer, inspired by an earlier experiment by Marañón in 1924, decided, in 1962, to try and answer this question.

They did so by experimenting with adrenaline, a hormone that causes an increase in heartbeat and breathing rhytmn, as well as tremors.

To test their hypothesis, they set out to run an experiment with 184 volunteers, establishing three experimental conditions:

1) Activation level: Half of the participants received an adrenaline jab, the other half a Placebo.

2) Level of information: Schachter and Singer divided participants in three groups, based on the level of information each group would receive as to the side effects of the jab:

  • The first group, we’ll call it “well-informed“, received very specific information on the secondary effects of adrenaline. Participants were told to expect symptoms such as a sense of dryness, tremors, palpitations, and so on.
  • The second group, we’ll call it “ill-informed“, also received information on the side effects of adrenaline, but this information was false.
  • The third group, the “uninformed” group, received no information as to possible side effects.

3) Model of behavior to which the subject was exposed:

After receiving the adrenaline or placebo shot, each volunteer was asked to sit in a waiting room. Here they would meet an actor, who was to perform in one of two ways:

  • He was to act euphoric (Condition: euphoria or happiness) OR
  • He was to act angry (Condition: anger).

A short comic illustrating the findings of the Schachter and Singer's experiment from 1962

Findings of Schachter and Singer’s experiment

Based on the results of the experiment, Schachter and Singer found that:

  1. The subjects who’d been given a placebo showed no emotional response
  2. Among the subjects who’d been injected with adrenaline, only those who had been poorly informed of the side effects showed a strong emotional response.
  3. When the subject displayed an emotion, it was attuned to that which the actor had played in the waiting room.

In other words, those who didn’t know they’d gotten an adrenaline shot got angry or ecstatic depending on the actor’s performance.

The experiment run by Schachter and Singer shows that an emotion only arises when the body experiences arousal and the mind can’t find an explanation for the body’s physiological response.

The implication of Schachter and Singer’s experiment for the purpose of emotional regulation

When our body shows signs of agitation, we tend to be more sensitive to external stimuli. Therefore, we tend to seek in the environment the explanation of what we are feeling. This can happen when we feel resentment because we’ve helped another far more than they seem willing to help us, or whenever we feel estranged or alone for not being able to comply with what society seems to be dictating for us. But it can also happen when we miss the bus, and get angry at the driver for being too early.

In all these cases, the body is responding, and, stripped of an explanation, we feel an emotion arise.

Sometimes, we might feel tense for reasons that are entirely internal. Hunger, thirst, a sense of tiredness… these are all states that can trigger an overreaction in face of minor asks. For instance, a child claims attention, or a colleague says “Hey, I need you to redo this.” And we lose it.

Situations that otherwise would not trigger a strong response turn sour, and we attribute our response to the circumstance—rather than to our physiological state.

However, Schachter and Singer demonstrate, an “emotion” is the cognitive explanation we give a physiological sensation.

What to do when you’re feeling blue

Now that you know this, what could you do the next time you’re feeling sad?

You could break down the feeling and focus on the sensations. These might include:

  • Hot or gummy eyelids
  • A scratchy throat
  • A runny nose
  • Soreness in the throat and lungs
  • Heaviness or tightness in the chest and limbs
  • Blurred vision
  • Lack of energy
  • The body feeling cold

Instead of saying “I’m sad” and attempting to move on, listen to the feeling and consider sharing with a friend.

As Esther Perel points out, feeling your emotions is actually a first sign that you’re accepting reality as it is.

You could ask yourself:

  • How does this sadness express itself?
  • What explanations am I finding within myself that could explain what I am feeling?
  • Is that the full explanation?
  • Could it be that there’s an underlying need that this sadness is attempting to communicate?

Recognizing that emotions have a physiological component and a cognitive component means that we’re never trapped. We’re never “hostage” of our emotions.

As the experiment showed, in fact, a physiological response—when accompanied by a proper explanation—doesn’t have to trigger a reaction at all.

This was phrased so beautifully by Viktor Frankl, the Austrian Neurologist and author of “Man’s search for meaning.”

He wrote:

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space, we have the power to choose our response. And in our response lies our growth and our freedom. 

Vikor Frankl

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