The Emotion Pendulum
Call me paranoid, but I do not trust when things go too well. What goes up, must come down. What am I talking about? Well … are we nudging towards the end of the Big Emotion Wave of the 20th Century? Is the pendulum coming back, and will emotion research eventually shrink and wane?
The Golden Age
I remember one of my first courses in psychology at the University of Giessen in Germany was Klaus Scherer’s Psychology of Emotion, possibly in 1981. At the time, Klaus appeared, as many were at the time, fascinated by Robert Plutchik’s Emotion: A psychoevolutionary synthesis, which was published in 1980. Plutchik’s book, for those who do not know it, is a blend of review of emotion history and theory as well as an attempt at an integrative theory, much like Magda Arnold’s Emotion and Personality in 1960, or to make a long arc, Ross Buck’s Emotion a Biosocial Synthesis that came out just a couple of weeks ago. These books can be exhilarating in making sense of a bewildering matrix of findings, theories, and ideas. All three of them are well worth your consideration, if you are not yet familiar with them. But the times of publication of these three pieces could not be more different!
In 1960, emotions were still a fringe topic – not very central compared to motivation and methodologically stifled under the shadow of behaviorism. In contrast, in 1980 the emotions were on the rise, and intriguing studies started being published in top journals, from Richard Lazarus’ demonstration that cognitions affect physiological responses, to Paul Ekman’s work on facial expressions. It is no coincidence that the International Society for Research on Emotions (ISRE) was founded in the 80s – born out of the excitement that emotions, after all, were a topic worthy of scientific investigation. And, since the very beginning, ISRE has been vocationally interdisciplinary and international, with its founders coming from a variety of disciplines and countries. This has shaped ISRE’s mission, which has always been to offer a meeting ground for theorists from different disciplines, and more recently, to stimulate younger researchers to pursue the scientific study of emotions.
Over the next three decades, emotion theory has truly exploded as a research subject. It now looks as though no investigation of the human mind and its capacities can be complete without a proper consideration of the role of emotions. While emotions have always been central in clinical contexts, it is only in the current golden age of emotion research that even “hard core” areas traditionally explored under the heading of “cognition” have become emotion-dependent, ranging from decision-making to perception.
In fact, recent work in Affective Neuroscience, starting perhaps with Jaak Panksepp’s tome of the same name, has made it clear that the very separation of cognition and emotion is highly questionable, despite its intuitive plausibility and reputable historical pedigree. Cognition and emotion are like two hands clapping: it is increasingly hard to imagine any sound produced without their interaction. This is not truly a surprise, or at least it should not be, but it is nice to see neuroscience making this point quite conclusively. So life for emotion researchers has been exciting and challenging for a while now.
What about 2014, the year Ross Buck’s book appears: are we still in the middle of the golden age of emotion research? Perhaps, but some changes may be gathering on the horizon. “Emotion” is becoming a contentious term. “Affect” is slowly becoming the term of choice to designate the disparate mental states we are trying to understand, in part because it is perceived as being broader and more encompassing. Many of us are arguably starting to feel that they study affect and not emotions, in the sense that emotions are the tip of a larger iceberg of appetitive and aversive motivational states.
I am not sure there are substantive issues at stake here. Whether we call ourselves emotion researchers or affect researchers does not make much of a difference. What about the actual research? Is it changing in important ways? On my highly idiosyncratic reading of the emotion literature, research questions appear to be shifting from trying to define emotions to investigating how paradigm cases of emotions interact with other processes. I sense a certain fatigue in the definitional project, but renewed interest in exploring how emotions affect attention or memory, how the brain engineers emotional changes, how genetics and the environment contribute to emotional phenotypes, how mind and body interact in regulating emotion, and so on.
In other words, perhaps research on emotions has shifted from a focus on itself to a focus on how emotions affect other core systems at the biological, psychological, or physical level. I consider this to be a welcome development. In the extreme, even if we never came to an agreement as to what emotions are, we could still make a great deal of progress by focusing on how emotions affect other processes we want to understand. Is this shift really happening in the scientific study of emotions, or is this one of my odd perceptions? You decide.
Are We Leaving The General Public Behind?
But what about the real world? What is the impact of all of this exciting and integrative research in the real world? Well, this is a completely different story. On the pages of women’s and men’s magazines it still feels like it’s 1970. It is common to read that we can read straight from the face how someone feels, as if years of research showing the importance of the social and cultural context for the encoding and decoding of facial actions had never happened. What might appear simple to us emotion scientists, such as the usefulness of a dimensional framework of valence and arousal to explain certain phenomena, is completely unknown even to science journalists. Affective neuroscience also suffers from problems of public perception, as it has morphed in the eyes of some into a sort of fancy and expensive phrenology 2.0. This is due in part to the use of untenable localization approaches in some iffy research, but more significantly to bad journalistic reporting, which glosses over all methodological caveats researchers spell out in search for sensationalistic headlines (Yes, New York Times, I am talking about you as well!).
Additionally, many folks with no real professional qualifications or expertise wear the hat of emotion experts. This has led part of the public to form the false impression that most of the stuff we do is either trivial or irrelevant. In fact – and here is perhaps my most contentious statement – we are not entirely innocent about this state of affairs. As a community, we have failed to properly communicate what emotion research has discovered over the past three decades. Either we simplify too much, or we get lost in arcane debates about details that obfuscate, rather than shed light on, how emotions are generated, how they manifest themselves, how they interact with other organismic systems, how they are affected by culture, and so on. I think we can and should do a much better job at communicating where we stand as a community of researchers. It would also help people understand why their tax dollars/euros/currency of your choice should pay for such research.
But maybe we also need to communicate better amongst ourselves. It is not rare that I sense at our meetings, or in our exchanges online for that matter, the lack of a common ground. There is a canon of acquired knowledge in emotion theory that every emotion scholar should know. Our insular proclivities, I am afraid, often stand in the way of sorting the issues of contention from what is, or at least ought to be, shared background knowledge about what we have already discovered about emotions. I am convinced we can do a much better job educating each other, a key preliminary step toward educating the public at large. Perhaps the grass is always greener on the other side, but I have attended meetings in other disciplines where I have experienced a more coherent body of background knowledge than at emotion conferences.
Should we identify some core curriculum for emotion research? Clearly, such a curriculum would be a child of the present time and the current fashions, but I think there is room for improvement even starting with something biased by the here and now. Having a curriculum of some sort would allow me to get a better sense of what I do not know but should know about what my colleagues have discovered, and improve my ability to appreciate where their views are coming from.
I do not think I am alone in sensing this lack of common ground. In fact, I have been in touch with people who have left ISRE (fortunately not many) because they felt researchers at conferences were too insular and not sufficiently interested in getting up to speed on the central findings in disciplines other than their own. I think this is a central challenge for ISRE, and it reflects the high degree of interdisciplinarity that is inherent in our society. Yet, I think this is an area with much room for improvement. This brings me to a final concrete proposal to make things better.
And now, discuss …
At this point, I would expect some of you to have strong opinions about what I have just said. Perhaps you think I got it all wrong, or you are persuaded by these ideas, and want to add thoughts of your own. What is the proper venue to share your opinions, and more generally to debate issues of common interest? So far, we have had our biennial meetings, and intermittent spurts of animated dialogue on the listserv. After a long debate inside the executive committee of ISRE, we have concluded that we need a new online forum specifically devoted to discussion. A forum is much better than email – a) because not every post becomes an email that fills our already overflowing mailboxes, b) because debates are much better archived and can be retraced in a forum than in our email black hole, and c) because forums have many more tools to allow for interaction and collaboration. I have set up an online platform suitable to our needs, but before making it public I would like someone to take over the administration. I am looking for a host of the ISRE forum who takes care of allowing people in and doing some of the household chores. Particularly at the beginning, I would like this forum to be restricted only to ISRE members. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested. The executive committee of ISRE will ultimately decide who gets to be ISRE Forum Host, but I’ll be happy to be the intermediary. Note, you must be a member in good standing to take this job!