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Runaway Emotions

Runaway Emotions

The topic of how our emotions can easily run away with us is one that was mentioned briefly in a previous article, but here we’re going to look at it in a little more detail and examine why it is such a big problem.

Prior to Paul Ekman’s research in the 1970s, most psychologists had only looked at emotions in the context of disorder and how we can treat emotional disorders, but Ekman felt that all kinds of emotion were important to look at, and he wanted to have a theoretical understanding of them, rather than just focussing on treatment. Prior to research, it was assumed that the physical expression of emotions was learnt from our society and culture as we grew up, yet this would mean that facial expressions would differ from culture to culture. As Ekman showed after travelling across the globe, people from most world cultures can interpret facial expressions from western culture, even those from tribes, who were not even aware of western culture, suggesting that perhaps our facial expressions have been formed as a product of evolution.

Ekman recognised that there were six basic emotions that are common to and can be understood by anyone across the globe. These were Anger, Disgust, Fear, Happiness, Sadness and Surprise. He assumed that because they were so widely understood, they must be an important part of our psychology as humans. He realised that these physical signs of emotions were also involuntary, and were often displayed before we actually understood the cause of the emotion. It is for this reason that Ekman felt emotions were more powerful than many psychologists had previously given them credit for.

Ekman felt that if emotions could be shown on our faces before we are even consciously aware of them, then they could quickly build up without us knowing why. This also reduces our control over what makes us emotional. Ekman realised that often our most powerful drives in life can be superseded by our emotions, for example a hungry person will be driven to eat, but disgust can turn him away from his original aim. Because of this, Ekman realised that emotions are a very difficult force to hold back, almost like a runaway train.

It is because of Ekman’s early, quite general work into the area that the study of emotions in psychology has come so far now. He proved that emotions were a worthwhile study focus, when at the time, many people believed that there was no more to them than met the eye. He was also perhaps one of the first psychologists to look at emotions from a more scientific cognitive standpoint, as opposed to the psychodynamic view of Freud. This work was probably also significant in the reception of other works on emotions, such as that of Beck or Ellis, which both revolutionised the treatment of emotional disorders. So you may be reading this and thinking that your emotions are relatively simple and under control, but remember that as Ekman showed, what you’re actually dealing with are perhaps the most powerful parts of the human mind.


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