Actions and Emotions

In a recent Psychology Today article, Dr. Noam Shpancer, professor of psychology at Otterbein College, discusses the relationship between actions and emotions. He asserts that our behaviors shape our emotions, contrary to the popular belief that actions result from our feelings.

Dr. Shpancer cites the 1971 Stanford prison experiment as a prime example. In this study, students were put randomly into two groups: one of prisoners, and the other of prison guards. The researchers had the students act out their respective roles in a mock prison. Though the situation wasn’t real, the students’ emotional states changed so drastically (based on the role that they were given) that the experiment had to be stopped in six days, instead of the planned two weeks. The ‘guards’ had begun to be authoritarian, even subjecting some of the prisoners to intentional humiliation. Many of the ‘prisoners’ became depressed, and developed passive attitudes. Because they were behaving like guards and prisoners, the students developed emotions that corresponded with their actions.

The tendency for television and movie actors/actresses to fall in love while portraying an on-screen couple is cited as another example. “They have to act like people who care deeply for each other. They look into each other’s eyes, they touch each other. They act out the behaviors of love. No wonder the emotion of love often follows.”

Dr. Shpancer further goes on to discuss the work of psychologist/philosopher William James. He was one of the first theorists to notice that “without some kind of bodily response, we would not feel emotion.” James uses the example of striking someone who insults us: we don’t hit someone because we are angry; rather, we are angry because we strike. However, from a physiological standpoint, this doesn’t quite make sense. Hitting someone because we are angry is a very animal instinct. In the wild, one animal will attack another animal if they invade their territory or hurt their young. While the behavior may come before the emotion in many circumstances, our innate “fight or flight” response leads us to recognize and fear danger before deciding what action to take.

The article goes on to say that “the fastest way to change an emotion is to change the behavior attached to it.” Dr. Shpancer cites depression as a prime example. “After many failures and disappointments, people stopped trying and withdrew from the world; withdrawal and inactivity, however, decrease the possibility of positive interactions or experiences, hence isolation and passivity increase, hence depression.”

Mental health professionals have taken the idea of actions influencing emotions and put it towards therapeutic techniques to battle depression. One of these techniques, known as ‘activity planning,’ has patients reintroduce activities into their lives that are associated with achievement and pleasure. Tasks are broken into smaller steps, which “build chains of reinforcement to elicit successful behavior in the world.” This idea seems pretty logical. However, depression can be both situational and chemical. If there is an imbalance of the chemicals involved with our moods (serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine,) no amount of ‘activity planning’ will fix that. In these cases, the patient needs proper medication(s) before embarking on a path to change their lifestyle.

For most people, however, changing one’s behaviors can greatly influence their emotions. As Dr. Shpancer states, “ When you feel bad, don’t wait to feel good to do what you love. Start doing what you love. Good feelings will likely follow.”

What are your thoughts?

More on the Stanford Prison Experiment can be seen in the video below:

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One response to “Actions and Emotions”

  1. user125 says:

    Very very interesting point made. It makes sense but at the same time, I still believe that emotions dictate action. Even in role play scenario, or in the case of an actor or actress, they have to recreate a scene.. A good actor/actress will incite certain emotions to play the part. To play a very sad emotional scene, sometimes, they think about painful memories in order to get them in the mood.. especially if they have to cry.

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