The Social Construction of Emotion: Myths and Realities


James R. Averill, Department of Psychology, University of Massachussetts, Amherst

An interview with Andrea Scarantino (July 2017)

James (Jim) Averill is Professor Emeritus in the Psychology Department at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and past President of the American Psychological Association’s Division of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology. He has written more than 130 articles, book chapters and reviews on various aspects of emotions, most influentially on physiological markers of emotions, the language of emotion, and emotional creativity, as well as on specific conditions as grief, stress, anxiety, love, anger, hope, happiness, solitude, and aesthetic experiences. Averill is widely considered one of the founding fathers of the social-constructionist approach to the study of emotions, which characterizes emotions as transitional social roles and questions the assumption that they just unwittingly “happen” to us.


Where did you grow up? What did your parents do? How was your family like? Do you remember what your career dreams were as a young man?

Until I was 9 years old, I grew up in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, east of San Francisco. My parents ran a winter and summer resort called Pinecrest, on a lake by the same name. In the summer, we stayed at the resort and in the winter in Sonora, the largest nearby town. The resort was built by my mother and her brother, but he died young. My father met my mother while working for the government, surveying public lands (e.g., national forests). They had three children, two daughters and myself, the youngest. When I was about 8, I came down with bulbar polio. It was not diagnosed correctly at the time: there was no obvious paralysis, except that I had difficulty swallowing and periodically lost consciousness. The assumption was that I had encephalitis. My eldest sister came down next with spinal polio, which left one leg paralyzed. Diagnosis was then obvious. My parents were advised to move to a warmer climate for my sister’s sake. We therefore moved to Glendale, a suburb of Los Angeles, where my father resumed work as government surveyor; he was in the field, away from home, about six months out of the year. My mother therefore managed the household. When my father retired, we moved to Oceanside, north of San Diego, where my father had grown up.

As far as my career dreams as a young man are concerned, they were never coherent. It took a considerable time and much experimenting before settling on a career. After graduating from High School, I spent the summer quarter attending Mexico City College. Instruction was in English, so I learned little Spanish. In general, I am very poor at learning languages. However, I did gain an appreciation for Mexico: It is a country with rich potential, yet to be fully realized. Returning to Oceanside, I didn’t know what I wanted to pursue as a career. I therefore enrolled in the local community college. At the end of a year, I had taken all the courses that interested me, yet I still couldn’t decide on what to do next. So, in 1954, I joined the Army. It was the tail-end of the Korean war, but the armistice had not yet been signed. By joining when I did, I not only preempted the draft, but became eligible for the Korean G.I. Bill, which would help pay for college when I got out. The Army sent me to language school for a six-month immersion course in German, which is somewhat ironic considering my poor aptitude for learning languages. I spent the remainder of my tour stationed in Frankfurt, Germany, where I had ample opportunity to travel throughout much of Western Europe.

In 1959-1960, you spent one year at Düsseldorf Medical Academy and University of Bonn, Germany. Why did you go to Germany, and what are your memories of that experience abroad?

To Germany noch einmal, this time as a student 1959-60.

When I was discharged from the Army, I still had no clear career objective. Procrastinating yet again, I enrolled at San Jose State College (now University), which had a combined program in philosophy and psychology that looked interesting. I enjoyed both disciplines, so I split the major and got degrees in both psychology and philosophy. Now, I had only to decide between them as a career. I doubted that I could make a meaningful contribution to philosophy, a field with a rich history stretching back several thousand years. I therefore applied to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) for graduate work in psychology, a discipline less than a century old and still trying to define its subject matter. However, before I was enrolled in the graduate program, I received a Fulbright fellowship for a year of study in Germany. I was sent to the Medical Academy in Düsseldorf (now part of the Heinrich Heine Universität Düsseldorf, founded in 1965, a few years after I left). The Medical Academy was not my choice, but like the Army, the Fulbright Commission sends you wherever there is an opening that seems remotely appropriate to your interests.

At the Medical Academy, I was assigned to work with a psychologist in the psychiatric institute. My major task was to score some psychological tests to see if they might help identify patients who had suffered possible brain injuries on the job, even though they showed no signs of neurological damage. Workmen’s compensation depended on an accurate diagnosis. Not surprisingly, the results of this exploratory study were inconclusive. In the fifty years since that time, techniques for neurological and neuropsychological assessment have advanced considerably, but are still far from definitive. So, a basic conundrum remains: Unmoored from identifiable (and potentially treatable) organic processes, suffering becomes like many other psychological phenomena, sensitive to rewards and punishment. Since monetary compensation can serve as a ”reward” for suffering, a vicious cycle may be set in motion: the greater the suffering the greater the compensation (reward), and vise versa. How can suffering be alleviated when compensation is linked to its intensity and continuance? Like any good conundrum, this one has no simple solution. It is, however, an issue that calls for attention from a social and not just a psychological perspective; that is, we must take into account the institutions (especially the legal and health-care systems) that may benefit from the woes of individuals, and also cultural influences, such as romanticism, that elevate suffering to a status symbol (Averill, 1989).

For my second Fulbright semester I transferred to the University of Bonn, where the International Congress of Psychology was scheduled to be held. At Bonn, I was most influenced by a laboratory course in ethology (a branch of zoology), observing the behavior of bees. I did not find the bees particularly interesting, but I did learn a valuable lesson: To understand behavior it is important to know how the behavior fits into a person’s everyday life. Of course, humans cannot be observed constantly as they go about their daily business, as can bees. However, surveys, self-reports, and like methods can provide useful information, especially when supplemented with experimental studies on component processes.

Upon my return to UCLA, I planned to enter a program in Clinical Psychology. I found the problems fascinating, and still do. However, I soon realized that I have neither the patience nor the temperament to be a good clinician. Fortunately, after my first year, I was offered a four-year fellowship with only one stipulation, that I pursue a degree in biopsychology, or what was then commonly called physiological psychology. It was an opportunity I couldn’t resist although it involved some major retooling, for I had little background in physiology and related disciplines. The fellowship also provided the time to continue my interests in philosophy, with an emphasis on “analytic” or “ordinary-language” philosophy.

You got your PhD at the University of California Los Angeles. Who were your mentors and role models back then? What were the topic and the main results of your dissertation?

My primary sponsor at UCLA was Marion Wenger, a major figure in psychophysiology, which uses physiological measures to evaluate psychological processes (as in lie detection). Wenger was a meticulous researcher. At that time, however, he was approaching retirement and was heavily involved in University administration. I seldom saw him personally and worked only occasionally in his laboratory. Still, I believe I owe much to his behind-the-scenes support. And I did my dissertation on a problem closely related to his concerns.

Wenger’s psychological research focused on the emotions, which he conceived of as patterns of activity in organs innervated by the autonomic nervous system (Wenger, 1950). In this, he followed the lead of the Danish physician, Carl Lange (1885/1922). In contrast to William James, with whom Lange’s name is often associated (cf. the James-Lange theory of emotion), Lange conceived of emotions as responses of the cardiovascular system. “Is it possible”, he asked  rhetorically, “that vasomotor disturbances, varied dilation of the blood vessels, and consequent excess of blood, in the separate organs, are the real, primary effects of the affections, whereas the other phenomena, — motor abnormalities, sensation paralysis, subjective sensations, disturbances of secretion and intelligence — are only secondary disturbances, which have their cause in anomalies of vascular innervation?”. Lange answered his question affirmatively, with numerous hypothetical examples. James (1884) framed his theory somewhat differently: “My thesis,” he stated, “is that the bodily changes follow directly the perception of the exciting fact, and that our feeling of the same changes as they occur is the emotion” (emphasis in the original).

These two formulations might seem very similar. James evidently thought so, for when revising the original 1884 publication of his theory for inclusion as a chapter in his Principles of Psychology (1890), he quoted long passages from Lange as support. But there is an important difference between the two. How the basic concepts of a theory are defined is fundamental to the further development of the theory. For Lange, an emotion is a vasomotor response, all else is secondary, including “subjective sensations”. For James, an emotion is a feeling, a perceptual experience, albeit of bodily changes. “Let not this view be called materialistic”, James admonished his readers. Although Lange was not as explicit on the topic, I doubt that he would have objected to his view being called materialistic.

In a sense, James and Lange stand at a crossroad on how emotions might best be defined. At the crossroad, the view ahead may seem similar. But once one road is chosen over the other, the landscape may quickly change. James’s conception of emotions as feelings leads in a phenomenological direction; Lange’s, in a physiological direction. Wenger chose to follow Lange. The major difference was that Wenger included in his definition of emotion all responses mediated by the autonomic nervous system (both sympathetic and parasympathetic branches), not just vasomotor responses.

I emphasize this point because I have proposed a still different definition of emotions, namely, as transitional social roles. Initially, at least, this conception does not diverge greatly from the paths chosen by James and Lange. Down the road, however, the landscape quickly changes. But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me turn to the second part of your question, concerning the topic and results of my dissertation.

One implication of the James-Lange-Wenger tradition is that each emotion involves a unique pattern of visceral responses. Testing this implication had been the topic of considerable debate and research during the first half of the 20th century, but without resolution, due, in part, to the narrow range of emotions sampled (primarily fear and anger, both of which may involve strenuous physical activity) and the limited number of physiological responses typically assessed. For my dissertation, therefore, I compared two very different emotional experiences, sadness and mirth, on a variety of autonomic response variables. There were differences which I will  not discuss here, for they are not directly relevant to the topic of this interview (Averill, 1969). One finding, however, did start me on a line of investigation that ultimately led to a social-constructionist view of emotion.

During the sadness condition (viewing a film of the funeral procession of the recently assassinated President Kennedy), participants showed physiological arousal, characteristic of the “fight or flight” response, but without any discernable impulse toward physical activity, overt or covert. This does not mean that sadness is generally marked by physiological arousal. Much undoubtedly depends on the eliciting condition and whether the sadness is an immediate, short-term reaction to events, or a more enduring response to a chronic condition.  In the context of my dissertation, “sadness” could just as well have been described as a “mild grief response”. However described, a consideration of sadness leads almost ineluctably to the larger question of grief.

Many of the behaviors of individuals during grief seem paradoxical from a biological point of view. For example, a bereaved person (following, say, the death of a loved one) may not only show a high degree of arousal, as in acute sadness, but also may withdraw from social contact, refuse to eat, engage in self-mutilation, be susceptible to disease, and much more. From a biological perspective, it would seem more fitting for the bereaved to return to normal social activities as quickly as possible. Why does the opposite seem to be so common?

Avoidance of pain is a stronger motivator to action than is the prospect of a reward. Grief is a painful reaction to loss (e.g., separation from a loved one). Most losses are not irrevocable; mitigating the pain of grief may thus be an important incentive to repair a loss. When repairing a loss is not possible, as when a loved one has died, grief reactions may nevertheless run their course, even to the detriment of the individual (Averill, 1968). In other words, grief may in fact serve an important evolutionary function, namely, maintaining social bonds by making separation a painful experience. Grief becomes dysfunctional primarily when occasioned by an inappropriate occurrence (such as the loss of a pet canary) or excessive in degree or duration. Of course, what is considered inappropriate or excessive depends, in part, on individual circumstances and social custom.

The above ideas, I soon discovered, were not original on my part. John Bowlby (1961) and David Hamburg (1963) had previously reached similar conclusions, from psychoanalytic and biological perspectives, respectively. Which brings me to a tangential but important lesson I learned from my studies of sadness and grief: If ever you believe you have an original idea, a few hours in any good library will typically disabuse you of any such conceit. Of course, your library search will not be random; you must have some vague idea where to look, probably from sources you no longer recall explicitly. Einstein captured the situation succinctly when he supposedly observed: “Originality is forgetting your sources”. (Variations on this theme have been attributed to a many different authors; its actual origins seem to have been forgotten.)

I learned another important lesson from the studies of sadness and grief. I originally made a theoretical distinction between grief as a biological reaction to separation or loss, and mourning as socially prescribed responses to bereavement (Averill, 1968). For example, some symptoms of grief, such a loss of appetite for food or sex, sleep disturbances, and even self-mutilation, occur in infrahuman animals, particularly primates, where the maintenance of social bonds between individuals (e.g., epitomized by the reciprocal attachment between an infant and its care giver) is an important biological adaptation. Other responses, including elaborate funeral practices, are social in origin and vary widely from one culture to another. Upon further consideration, however, I concluded that such a distinction, while it may make sense in the abstract, does not do justice to the actual experiences of bereaved individuals. From a subjective (phenomenological) point of view, socially based mourning practices may be experienced as compelling (“instinctive”) as any biologically based response.

In addition to whatever biological functions grief might serve, it also has important social and psychological functions (Averill, 1979). For example, the death of an important cultural or political leader may be used to reinforce group loyalties even among persons who may have disagreed with, or seldom even thought about, the deceased. As the great French sociologist, Emile Durkheim (1915) observed: following a cruel loss, “One weeps not simply because he is sad, but because he is forced to weep. It is a ritual attitude which he is forced to adopt out of respect for custom”. This is an over simplification, perhaps, but for an individual experiencing a meaningful loss, does it really make a difference whether he or she weeps as a biological necessity or out of respect for custom? And how would you tell the difference?

You began your academic career as a lecturer at the University of California Santa Barbara in 1965, then became Assistant Research Psychologist at UC Berkeley in 1966, and finally moved to University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1971, where you have taught until your retirement in 2006.  What made you elect the University of Massachusetts as your life-long academic home?

I went to UC Santa Barbara as a one-year replacement for a faculty member who was on sabbatical. During that year I also completed my dissertation. I then accepted a research position with Richard Lazarus at the University of California Berkeley. Lazarus had been asked by the U.S. Rehabilitation Services Administration to establish a five-year program to train graduate students to do research related to rehabilitation, for example, recovery from cancer, stroke, and spinal injury. He agreed, provided he could hire an assistant to help with the day-to-day operation of the laboratory, which involved psychophysiological recordings. I became that person. For me, it was like an extended post-doc, but with better pay and benefits.

Earlier, you asked me about role models I may have had, as well as mentors. I had many fine mentors at UCLA, whom I respected but did not identify with on a personal level. On the other hand, Richard Lazarus was less a mentor and more a role-model, at least as I conceive of the difference. He was highly disciplined in his work habits and a prolific writer, characteristics that can be modeled but not taught. As much as I would have liked to emulate him in these respects, that was not possible. I am constitutionally disorganized, and writing has always been a bit of a chore for me. Lazarus served as a role model in another respect, and, I hope, more successfully. In spite of keeping a very busy schedule himself, he always found time to give to others. As head of the Laboratory on Stress and Coping in which I worked for five years, his influence was often subtle but pervasive. If I were to describe in a few words the atmosphere of the lab, they would be “nonauthoritarian”, “collaborative” and “free.” In addition to common goals, Lazarus encouraged those who worked with him to pursue their own interests and ideas. That is an atmosphere I have always tried to create with my own students.

On a more intellectual level, Lazarus also had an important but indirect influence on my approach to the emotions. He is perhaps best known for his “appraisal theory”, which focuses on the way a person evaluates a situation as central to stress and coping. While I agree with that focus, it is not central to my own theorizing. Lazarus was trained as a clinician and his primary emphasis was on psychodynamics, that is, on the ways that individuals cope with threatening situations. My own interests were more on group than individual processes, whether the group was a species (evolutionary psychology) or a society (history and culture). That difference in emphasis, although minor in the short term, leads in different directions in the long run. Anyway, Lazarus’s emphasis on appraisal paved the way for a more cognitively oriented approach to emotion (Lazarus, Averill, & Opton, 1970), which, in turn, opened the door to considerations (including social constructionism) not traditionally associated with the study of emotion.

Jim Averill, UMass 1974.

When the grant from the Rehabilitation Services Administration ended after five years, I accepted a position as Associate Professor at the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Amherst, where I remained until retirement. The move from Berkeley to Amherst required some adjustment, especially with regard to the cold winters, but I could not have asked for a warmer or more supportive environment than UMass in which to pursue my academic interests. Moreover, Amherst is a lovely town in which to raise a family (I had two preschool daughters at the time). Amherst is located in the valley of the Connecticut River, about 100 miles west of Boston and 200 miles north of New York City. Education is the major “industry” in the area. Amherst College, Hampshire College, Smith College, and Mt. Holyoke College (four private, distinguished undergraduate institutions), and UMass Amherst, the flagship campus of the University of Massachusetts system, are all in commuting distance of one another. Each maintains a schedule of invited speakers, as well as first-class musical and theatrical events. The town of Amherst is thus unique in having many of the cultural advantages of a city, while being in a semi-rural setting.

You became a member of ISRE at its founding in 1984/5. What are your earliest memories of it? Do you have a favorite ISRE conference? Do you like the way the society has been developing in the past few years, and do you have any advice concerning ISRE’s future?

I do not have a favorite ISRE conference, although I did enjoy earlier conferences more than later ones. When ISRE was first formed, the number of people doing research on emotion was relatively small and qualifications for membership were strict; for example, all members had to have a record of research and publication in the area of emotion, and new members were subject to review by a membership committee. As a consequence, most members of ISRE were personally acquainted; conferences were small, often located in a college dormitory or similar facility; parallel sessions were not scheduled, so everyone could attend all presentations; and ample time was set aside for informal gatherings. Such an arrangement had many advantages, but also serious limitations. Most important, it tended to exclude young investigators just starting their careers and discouraged even established investigators working on the fringes of what is now commonly called “affective science”. As an organization ISRE thus ran the risk of becoming sclerotic and increasingly irrelevant in a rapidly expanding field.

But expansion has also presented difficulties. There are only so many conferences an individual can attend, because of time and expense. Physiologists and neuroscientists, who have always played an outsized role in emotion research and theory, have organizations better suited to their specialties. The same is true of sociologists and anthropologists. As a consequence, ISRE has become less interdisciplinary than originally envisioned. There is no need to call attention to this problem, for it is well recognized. Unfortunately, there is no simple solution. It is up to the present membership of ISRE to decide what kind of organization they want and how best to achieve it.

However, I do have several ideas that might be worth mentioning. To help preserve both the international and interdisciplinary aspects of ISRE, perhaps adjunct and honorary categories of membership could be established and committees appointed with the goal of recruiting worthy candidates. Also, as important as ISRE conferences are in facilitating interpersonal contacts, I believe its publications are even more important. The Emotion Review, under the leadership of Jim Russell, Lisa Barrett and Christine Harris has become an excellent journal.  Rather than simply waiting for submissions, Jim, Lisa, Christine and their “Special Section” editors have solicited target articles and commentaries from experts both within and outside of ISRE, with an emphasis on potential future as well as past developments..

You started your career as a physiologist of emotion in the 1960s, and in the mid-1970s you became one of the founding fathers of the modern social constructionism movement. Can you pinpoint to the events that led your perspective on emotion to shift from the physical to the social? In other words, why did you come to think that the social dimension of emotions was important and neglected?

My first publication (Averill, 1980a) presenting in detail a social-constructionist (then labeled “constructivist”) view of emotion may have seemed like a radical departure from generally accepted theories of emotion. But I did not view it that way. It had its origin in my attempt to achieve a unified view of grief and mourning, discussed in response to an earlier question. Also influential was my work with Dick Lazarus on the role of appraisal in stress and coping, mentioned earlier. And, of course, there was ample precedence in the work of others. Particularly noteworthy was Ted Sarbin’s analysis of hypnotic trance as a form of role-playing; this had a direct influence on my own interpretation of emotional states as transitional social roles. And no discussion of social constructionism would be complete without reference to Ken Gergen’s extensive and erudite publications on the topic.

Still, the path to a social-constructionist perspective was not without obstacles. Along the way, a major question had to be addressed: Why had the social dimension of emotions been so long neglected or, when recognized, relegated to a secondary role, as a mere patina on the underlying real emotion? Surely, so many people for so long a time could not be wrong. But they were, I came to believe, and it is important to understand why. A key to that understanding is to be found in a phenomenon I call psychophysiological symbolism (Averill, 1974), that is, the association of psychological processes with physiological structures and activities on the basis of shared symbolic meanings. Psychophysiological symbolism plays a particularly important role in the localization of function when actual physiological evidence is weak. For example, the ancient Greeks had little knowledge of brain function. Therefore, it seemed reasonable to Plato to localize rationality in the head. Rationality, he believed, involved the circular movement of thought. Rationality being the highest manner of thought and circularity being the most perfect kind of motion, it seemed reasonable to Plato that rationality should be localized in the head, the part of the body most spherical in shape. And what about the emotions which, in Plato’s view, often interfere with rationality? He located them in the torso, separated from the head by the neck, a narrow passage, so that they might interfere as little as possible with rational thought. And the less desirable an emotion, the lower in the body it belonged, the basest emotions being localized below the midriff.

Plato had other reasons for his localization of function (e.g., the head is closer to the heavens), but they were equally symbolic. Plato’s theorizing in this regard seems quaint by today’s standards, but only because we know more about the actual functions of different organs in the body. Still, from the ancient Greeks to the present day, psychophysiological symbolism has played an important role in how we conceive of the relation between emotions and bodily functions. For example, emotions are generally considered involuntary (e.g., we are “gripped”, “seized”, and “overcome” by emotion); hence, it seems reasonable that emotions be associated in some way with the “involuntary” (autonomic) nervous system. To take another example, emotions are often described as “brutish”, “bestial”, and the like; hence, it seems only reasonable that emotions are remnants of our biological (animal) heritage, mediated by phylogenetically more primitive parts of the brain, e.g., the limbic system and paleocortex.

In short, our body is as much symbol as substance; our emotions, too, are imbued with symbolism. When a coincidence of symbolism exists between body parts and emotions, it seems reasonable to assume the two are related.  And when the relation gets embedded in our ordinary language, the localization of function becomes self-evident and especially difficult to dislodge.

At the heart of your theory of emotions is the notion of the “myth of the passions”. Can you explain what the myth is, where you think the myth comes from, and why it is important to dispel it? What is the connection between the myth of the passions and the way we talk about emotions (e.g., the metaphors we use)?

I borrow the phrase, “myth of the passions” from Robert Solomon (1976), who contrasted it with a corresponding “myth of reason”. Both myths have their origins in classical Greek thought. For the Greeks, reason or rationality was the defining feature of human nature. By contrast, passions (a generic term that included what we now call emotions) were believed to interfere with reason, often to the detriment of the individual or society.

In response to the previous question, when discussing psychophysiological symbolism, I suggested one way in which the concept of emotions as passions has influenced theories of emotion. At that time, I was not familiar with Solomon’s work. His phrase, “myth of the passions’, is particularly apropos in highlighting how the concept of emotions as passions has had a pervasive influence on theories of emotion, beyond psychophysiological symbolism. And it suggests why that influence has been so resistant to change. Myths are not ordinary beliefs; they are beliefs we live by, even when we recognize that they have little basis in fact. To take a trivial, everyday example, I do not walk under ladders, not because I think it brings bad luck, but because it is a myth I act on without thinking. Not all myths of the passions are as trivial or inconsequential as this example might suggest.

The distinction between passions (things that happen to us) and actions (things we do) was given its most influential formulation by philosophers like Plato and Aristotle; however, even before their time the distinction was deeply embedded in the Greek language and thought. Specifically, pathē was the Greek term for what we now call “emotion”. Pathē could refer to any object, animate or inanimate, that was undergoing (“suffering”) change through the action of an external agent. A piece of wood, for example, could suffer the blow of an ax. Emotions were one category of pathē that a person might suffer; diseases were another. Hence, from pathē we get such medical terms as “pathology,” “pathogen,” “idiopathy,” as well as such emotional terms as “pathetic,” “empathy,” and “antipathy.”

The Greek pathē was incorporated into Latin as a form of the verb, pati, which also means “to suffer”. In the transition, pathē lost some, but not all, of its pathological connotations. The past participle of pati is passus. Hence, the emotions, or at least the more turbulent emotions, came to be knows as “passions.”

Dixon (2003) has traced the use of the term “emotion” as it came to be preferred over “passion,” first among the Scottish moral philosophers (e.g., Thomas Brown) and later by such theorists as Bain, Spencer, Darwin, and James. The switch in terminology from “passion” to “emotion” did not, however, eliminate the connotation of passivity (“suffering”) that marked the basic concept for the preceding two millennia, nor did it do much to debunk the Myth of the Passions. On the contrary, according to Dixon, the contemporary concept of emotion has lost many of the subtleties associated with earlier analyses of the passions; hence, if anything, the myth has only grown stronger because it is less evident.

A conceptualization of emotions as passions continues to have a profound influence on the way we talk about emotions in everyday life. It may help explain, for example, why emotional concepts with a negative connotation outnumber positive concepts by a ratio of about two to one (Averill, 1980b). After all, who wants to suffer gladly?

As implied by your question, the “myth of the passions” could also be labeled, “passions as metaphor”. That rephrasing highlights an important point. Metaphors have played an important role in theories of emotion (Averill, 1990), and in science generally. For the most part, that role has been positive. For example, during the late Middle Ages the conception of the universe as a huge clock-like mechanism, with God as the master clockmaker, helped advance the Scientific Revolution. However, by making some lines of thought seem natural and hence unquestionable, metaphors can also have a stultifying influence. Because its implications are so broad, I believe the myth of the passions has had more of a negative than a positive influence on theories of emotion.

Constructionism is all the rage these days. What are the main tenets of your own version of social constructionism about emotions?

“Social constructionism” is often contrasted with “realism” as a philosophical doctrine. Realism comes in many varieties; what the varieties have in common is the assumption that reality, however conceived, exists independent of human thoughts and desires. Put most simply, reality is to be discovered, not made. Social constructionism, by contrast, asserts that reality is always relative to the human condition at a specific time and place.

On a practical level, social constructionism emphasizes the role of language (discourse) as a tool for constructing the realities we know, or think we know. Of course, language is not the only tool in the social-constructionist tool-box. Art, music, ritual, even technological innovations, are also important. But language is fundamental.

An emphasis on language is not specific to social constructionism. As the existentialist Martin Heidegger observed: “Language is the house of Being. In its house man dwells”. Heidegger could not be considered a social constructionist. On the contrary, a main goal of his philosophy was to escape from the house of language and discover the true nature of Being (Dasein).  For the social constructionist, that is a vain attempt. However that may be, my concern is primarily with the emotions, and the contrast is not with reality (or Being) in general, but with biological and psychological determinism; that is, with the notion that emotions exert an influence on behavior independent of, or contrary to, a person’s reason or will. I leave the broader implications of social constructionism for others to debate (Parker, 1998).

Specifically, with regard to emotions, a social-constructionist view rests on three assumptions: first, emotions are complex syndromes (systems of behavior) comprising diverse, semi-autonomous components; second, no one component or class of components — physiological, behavioral, or cognitive — is essential to the whole; and third, social beliefs and rules are the primary principles by which the various components are organized into wholes.

The first assumption (a componential approach) is becoming increasingly common among emotion theorists of diverse persuasions. It is based on the recognition that emotional terms such as “anger”, “love”, and “fear” do not refer to specific responses, but to syndromes. Briefly stated, an emotional syndrome is a set of interrelated responses, including an appraisal of the situation (what the emotion is about), the expected outcome (objective), and the way the whole — the manifest thoughts and responses — are experienced (interpreted), namely, as a passion (something that happens to us) rather than an action (something we do). When emphasis is placed on social influences or “rules” as the primary source of coherence (mutual interaction among the elements of a syndrome), we may speak of the social construction of emotion. This is in contrast, say, to disease syndromes where the interactions among symptoms is due primarily to physiological principles, such as homeostasis.

The second assumption (non-essentialism) also has ample logical and empirical support. Without going into detail, emotional concepts cannot be defined “classically” (in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions). Rather, they refer to conditions that are related by what Wittgenstein called “family resemblances”; that is, overlapping features none of which need be shared by all members of the group.

This brings me to the third and most controversial assumption underlying a social-constructionist approach, namely, social beliefs and rules are the primary principles by which emotional syndromes are organized and interpreted. I presume we will return to this issue in more detail in response to future questions. I will therefore conclude these introductory remarks by drawing a few contrasts between a social-constructionist approach, as I conceive of it, and more traditional theories of emotion.

All theorists recognize that emotions are regulated by “display” rules, for example, in most cultures it is considered inappropriate to laugh at a funeral. Less commonly appreciated is that many rules have a constitutive as well as regulatory function. To illustrate what I mean by a constitutive function, let us consider a non-emotional example: the rules of English grammar help regulate how to speak properly, for example., in well-formed sentences that are easily understood. More fundamentally, English grammar helps make (constitute) the language what it is: English as opposed, say, to German or Chinese. Simply put, without the rules of English grammar there would be no English language to regulate. Similarly, without the rules of anger, say, there would be no anger to regulate, only inarticulate rage reactions, or perhaps some other socially constructed emotional syndrome (such as envy or jealousy).

You distinguish between emotions as episodic dispositions, cognitive schemas and transitory social roles. Can you say more about these distinctions?

It is a commonplace expression that you have to break an egg to make an omelet. Social constructionism is not about making omelets; it is, rather, about the living, clucking chicken that develops from an egg under normal conditions. Episodic dispositions, cognitive schemas, and transitional social roles are three overlapping features or principles that help us understand how emotional responses are organized into coherent syndromes. Any discussion of one presumes the other two. Nevertheless, they point in somewhat different directions for further analysis, as I will try to illustrate briefly.

The phrase episodic disposition refers to the emotional state a person happens to be “in” at the moment. Stated more formally, an emotional state is a short-term, reversible (episodic) tendency (disposition) to respond in a manner characteristic of an emotional syndrome. This is a simple but often misunderstood formulation. The misunderstanding stems mainly from the manner in which emotional episodes are often identified, namely, by letting part of a syndrome stand for the whole. For example, “sweaty palms” is commonly used as a stand-in for fear; a frown, as a stand-in for anger; and so on for other emotional syndromes. But as already explained, fear can be expressed in a great variety of ways, as can anger, and most other emotional states.

At the risk of being repetitious, let me reiterate what I have already said, namely, that emotions (conceived in the abstract) are syndromes, not specific responses, and no single response or type of response counts as a sufficient or necessary manifestation of the whole. This means that when a person is in an emotional state (episode), he or she may respond in any of a variety of ways consistent with the emotional syndrome. To account for the diversity of ways in which an emotion may be expressed, an emotional state can best be conceived of as an episodic disposition: It is “episodic” because the state is temporally delimited, typically with a specifiable onset and offset; it is a “disposition” because being in an emotional state is not per se a response, but only a readiness to respond, or not respond, depending on the person and situation.

To further illustrate this point, consider the distinction commonly made between emotional states and traits. Both are dispositions, but they may differ both in duration (short-term vs. long-term) and breadth (a narrow vs broad range of potential responses). For simplicity, I will focus here primarily on the temporal dimension.

First, consider trait-anxiety, one of the most frequently assessed dimensions of personality (often labeled “neuroticism”). It is a relatively enduring disposition (it can last a lifetime) to perceive and respond to situations as threatening. Contrast this with state-anxiety, which is a short-term, reversible (episodic) disposition to respond at the moment to a threatening situation. Emotional states, because they are episodic dispositions, are often limited to only a few modes of expression (sometimes called “occurrent responses”). As already mentioned, this restriction of responses has often led researchers to identify an emotional state with one of its prototypic manifestations; then, generalizing from emotional states, emotions as a category may be identified with only one or a few responses. Carl Lange’s identification of emotions with vasomotor responses is a good example of this type of generalization.

Let me turn now to cognitive schemas as they relate to emotions. By “schema”, I refer to mental structures (e.g., beliefs, concepts, goals, and plans) on which emotional appraisals are based,  responses organized, and stimuli and responses connected. I also interpret “cognitive” broadly to include both emotional (“hot”) and intellectual (“cold”) schemas.

Some schemas are shaped by our evolutionary past; others are a legacy of our culture; still others are a product of individual experience; and most are a combination of all three sources, in varying degrees. Whatever their source, without cognitive schemas, the world in which we live in would be, to paraphrase William James, a blooming, buzzing confusion.

The study of cognitive schemas belongs to many disciplines. For example, identifying the relevant dimensions along which emotional schemas may differ from intellectual schemas, and how emotional schemas relate to specific emotional syndromes, are the subject matter of “appraisal theory”. The way responses are organized and interpreted has also been a traditional concern for emotion researchers, both physiologists and behaviorists.  And between the appraised object and an emotional response, many intervening steps may occur (cf. Freudian defense mechanisms, such as repression, sublimation, projection, reaction formation, and the like). More recently, computer scientists have gotten into the act, exploring how an affective component might be added to their algorithms, thus making problem-solving more effective, even if less rational.

In short, there is no common terminology to describe cognitive schemas, no less an integrated theoretical approach. I will therefore leave the topic at the level of ordinary language; that is, schemas are the “concepts”, “beliefs”, “goals”, and “plans” by which we make sense of experience and guide behavior. The only thing I would add for emphasis is that schemas are dynamic, not static structures; they may undergo continual and dramatic change during the course of an emotional episode. To say more at this point would add more jargon than clarity to the discussion.

I want to turn now to the third part of your question: What is added to dispositional and schematic analyses by referring to emotions as transitory social roles? Or, as I now prefer to phrase it, transitional social roles, for the role itself is not transitory, only the time people engage in the role as they transition from one nonemotional state to another.

Both dispositional and schematic analyses refer to aspects of the individual. Indeed, schemas are one way of characterizing the structural variables that make emotional dispositions possible. With few exceptions, however, emotions are social phenomena. The concept of emotions as transitional social roles helps to bridge the gap between the individual and the social, and it raises issues that can only be addressed on a social level of analysis. Chief among the issues associated with social roles are legitimization, privileges, restrictions, and obligations.

But before getting to that, let me say a few words about social roles in general. We are all familiar with the concept of a role from its use in theater. An actor who plays Hamlet in Shakespeare’s play by that name is, redundantly speaking, “playing a role”, that is, following a script and other stage directions. The notion of a social role builds on this idea, except the stage is the world in which we live and the script is written by society, albeit with ample opportunities for individual improvisation.  Shakespeare also recognized this point when he wrote in another play: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts”.  He then went on to describe an emotion that tends to dominate each of seven ages of a person’s life, for example, during the third (young adulthood) stage, we find “the lover sighing like a furnace” (As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII).

Currently, to say that someone is playing a role has a mildly pejorative connotation, as though the person is not being authentic. That connotation does not necessarily carry over to social roles. Indeed, it does not always apply even to theatrical roles. Accomplished “method” actors, for example, may become so engrossed in the roles they are playing that the script temporarily constitutes their reality.

Broadly defined, role-playing is a form of rule-following behavior. To illustrate, consider the role of a judge in a court of law. To engage in that role, a person must know the law and follow the rules of behavior expected of a judge. But that is not enough. A delusional schizophrenic might play the role of a judge, following all of the rules relevant to the role and sincerely believing that he is a judge. Yet, he would not be a judge. Engagement is a social role also requires legitimation, a concept that has meaning only on the social level of analysis. To gain legitimacy, a person engaged in a social role generally must meet certain entry requirements, such as having passed the bar exam in the case of a lawyer or judge.

Similar considerations apply to emotional roles, although the entry requirements are seldom as obvious. A good example is the legal requirement for attributing a homicide to anger, thus mitigating the charge from murder to manslaughter (a “crime of passion”). Not only must the defendant have conformed his or her behavior to relevant rules, but the jury must also confer legitimacy on the performance by having it pass the so-called “reasonable man test” (about which I will have more to say shortly). A more familiar example might be the case of an adolescent who becomes infatuated with a youngster of the opposite sex. The emotion is not likely to be legitimized as true love, not because the couple lacks sincerity, but because the individuals do not occupy an adult social status, and hence cannot fulfill all the obligations of the role. Of course, customs change. In Shakespeare’s time, the relationship between Romeo and Juliet might have been considered a paradigm of love; today, the couple might be treated as juvenile delinquents, had they not killed themselves first.

In addition to questions of legitimation, social roles are associated with privileges, restrictions, and obligations. Emotional roles are no exception. Brief references to anger, love, and grief will suffice to illustrate the point. Extrapolation to other emotions is relatively straight-forward.

Privileges. Emotional roles allow a person to engage in behavior that would be discouraged under ordinary circumstances. As just described, for example, an angry person can literally get away with murder (i.e., have a charge of homicide mitigated from murder to manslaughter). When in love, a couple may engage in sexual behavior that might otherwise be discouraged. And while grieving, a person may be exempted from obligations related to work and entertainment.

Restrictions. Privileges have their limits; a person can only do so much when emotional and “get away with it.” In spite of presumably being beyond personal control, emotional responses should be appropriate to the situation: They should not be too mild or too intense, too short or too prolonged, or too idiosyncratic. For example, a plea of anger will not be accepted in a court of law if the crime is committed in too cruel or unusual a manner. Similarly, lovers are expected to be discrete and honorable in their affairs, and their liaison should last for more than a few hours. And if a bereaved spouse begins dating very soon after the death of a partner, the genuineness of his or her grief may be called into question.

Obligations. Whereas there are some things a person cannot do while in an emotional state (restrictions), there are other things that should be done. An angry person, for example, is expected to take action to correct the appraised wrong, or else the sincerity of his anger, or even his character, may be questioned. Love, too, has its obligations, for example, a commitment to the well-being of the other. And, with regard to grief, the bereaved person who fails to comply with socially prescribed mourning practices may be subject to severe sanction.

In sum, conceiving emotional syndromes as transitional social roles adds a new dimension to their analysis. Not only do emotions involve episodic dispositions to respond, mediated by cognitive schemas, they also have irreducible social aspects having to do with legitimation, privileges, restrictions, and obligations.

Some emotions do not seem to fit especially well your view that emotions are transitional social roles interpreted as passions, as there doesn’t seem to be anything social about them. Just to pick an example, it is hard to understand how the sort of fear one experiences when suddenly losing support may amount to a social role. Should we then conclude that social constructionism is a theory that sheds light on some rather than all emotions?

That is a reasonable conclusion. Emotions form a heterogeneous category and no one formulation is equally applicable to all affective states. Social constructionism is least applicable to (a) reflex-like reactions, such as fright experienced on the sudden loss of support, and lashing out at a source of pain; and (b) broad affective dispositions, such as states of undirected excitation, anxiety, and depression. The relevance of a constructionist view increases with the complexity of the emotion and the involvement of cognitive mediating mechanisms (schemas). Thus, as important as the above exclusions may be, a social-constructionist view is applicable to the majority of discrete emotions recognized in ordinary language.

Having said that, I would like to add a qualification: from a social-constructionist perspective, it is a mistake to take the simplest manifestation of an emotion as representative of the general category, for example, fear of falling as representative of fear in general. In one sense, fear of falling is a prototypic fear, especially among very young children and the elderly. But it is not a typical fear for most people. In contemporary American society, fear of terrorism (and its derivatives, Islamophobia and xenophobia) has a far greater influence on behavior than fear of falling, even though very few people have been injured by terrorists (especially relative to the tens of thousands injured in automobile accidents each year). The role of society in many fears is particularly evident from a historical perspective. For example, if we go back a few centuries in most Western societies, anyone who did not manifest a fear of God, and act accordingly, was likely to be roundly condemned; in the extreme, he or she might even be executed as a wizard or witch.

In short, most fears are thoroughly saturated with social beliefs and rules. It might be argued that societies only use a primordial fear for their own purposes, by attaching it to socially relevant objects and socially constructed responses: that somewhere between the eliciting condition and sanctioned response, a basic fear exerts its influence. Unfortunately, no one has been able to find or describe to everyone’s satisfaction the nature of that basic fear.

In making this last observation, I do not wish to gainsay the excellent research done by Jaak Panksepp, Joseph LeDoux, and others on neurophysiology of a few “primary” or “basic” emotions, fear chief among them.  It is worth noting, however, that the results of such research  are abstractions, what is left over when individual experience and (in the case of humans) social and cultural influences have been subtracted. The extent to which such findings can provide the basis for a general theory of emotion is thus open to question. (Although I do believe they can provide important insights into some emotional disorders.)

You have written about several specific emotions, so I would like to ask you about a few of them. Let us begin with stress. What is your understanding of stress and why do you consider it to be an important emotion to understand? What are the best ways to regulate stress?

The phrase “stress and emotion” is commonplace, implying that the two are conjoined. But in what way? On one interpretation, stress is another emotion among many, albeit one that is vaguely defined. An alternative interpretation is that stress is a generic category that includes emotions as members, much as a forest includes trees. In the following discussion I will focus primarily on this latter interpretation. The choice of examples (stress as a generic category or as a specific emotion) will be primarily a matter of suitability to illustrate a point.

The concept of stress has long been used in physics to describe changes that may occur in a material after it has been subjected to external forces, as when a metal becomes brittle after being subjected to repeated or continuous pressure. The stress concept was introduced into medical science by Austrian-Canadian physician, Hans Selye, who had observed that a standard set of physiological changes occur when an animal or human is subjected to any of a wide variety of potentially harmful events. Selye called this the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS). The GAS begins with activation of the pituitary-adrenal hormonal system and the sympathetic nervous system. The purpose of this initial stage is to ward off the immediate threat and heal any injury that might have occurred. This is followed by a stage of resistance in which homeostatic balance is restored but resistance to further injury remains high. Eventually, if the stress continues, a stage of exhaustion may occur, during which the stress responses themselves may cause tissue damage, such as stomach ulcers and enlargement of the adrenal glands. Selye named these potentially dangerous consequences, “Diseases of Adaptation”.

In Selye’s original formulation, stress could be considered another tree in the emotional forest; the GAS is a well-defined syndrome, that is, a set of coordinated responses that develop in a predictable manner over time. However, Selye and others quickly saw the usefulness of “stress” to describe almost any response to a situation that exceeded a person’s, or animal’s, ability to cope. “Stress” thus came to be used as a generic term to include all kinds responses to taxing events (“stressors”), whether positive, as with the birth of a child, or negative, as with the death of a child. In other words, stress ceased to be another tree in the forest; it became the forest itself — and an inevitable part of life.

Central to this broader conception of stress is the notion of “appraisal”. As defined by Magda Arnold (1960), an appraisal is an intuitive recognition of an event as potentially beneficial or harmful, as when a sheep immediately recognizes a wolf as a potential danger. To this “primary” appraisal, Lazarus (1966) added the notion of “secondary” appraisal; in addition to recognizing threat, an appropriate coping response must also be determined. The terms primary and secondary might suggest a temporal sequence, but that is not necessarily the case. As with perception in general, a focal stimulus is always interpreted within a context that includes potential responses, what Gibson (1979) has called “affordances”. For example, observing a bear behind a cage in a zoo is very different than meeting a bear while walking in the woods, in part, because the two situations afford different avenues for response.

Generally speaking, each commonly recognized emotion, with the possible exception of “free-floating” anxiety, excitement, and depression, is associated with a different kind of appraisal. To illustrate, ask yourself what distinguishes anger from envy, joy from gladness, shame from guilt? Responses, such as patterns of physiological arousal and expressive reactions, may provide part of the answer, but only part. The primary factor that distinguishes one emotion from another is the appraised object. Stress as a generic category is also associated with the way a situation is appraised, that is, as taxing or not. Stress being a generalized response, research has focused on such nonspecific stimulus variables as intensity, novelty, and uncertainty, as they might interact with individual differences in the desire for personal control (Averill, 1973).

A common misinterpretation is to assume that an appraisal is the cause of an emotion. For example, I am angry because I believe I have been unjustly criticized. But that is only partly true. As Dewey (1895) suggested in response to the question posed by William James’ (1884), What is an Emotion?, the way a person appraises a situation is part of, not antecedent to, the emotion. Some theorists go so far as to argue that emotions are in principle a kind of appraisal or evaluative judgment (e.g., Sartre, 1948).

As already noted, stress and emotions can be manifested in various ways, including appraisals, physiological arousal, expressive reactions, instrumental responses, and more. Once one component is activated, others may be recruited to complete the whole. That is part of what is meant when we speak of stress and emotions as syndromes.

Of course, not all components of stress and emotions are of equal importance, and of all the components, the way the situation is appraised is the most important. This fact lies at the heart of many cognitive theories of emotions. On a more practical level, the centrality of appraisals means that the best way to short-circuit stress and emotions is to alter the appraisal, for example, by interpreting a presumed insult as a constructive criticism. But a benign reappraisal is not always possible or reasonable. Sometimes an insult is truly an insult; in which case, some other component of the syndrome might be altered. Breathing is especially important in this regard. Breathing exercises are a significant part of nearly every stress-reduction program. Not only does measured breathing help calm physiological arousal by assuring a healthy supply of oxygen to the brain and other organs, but a focus on each inhalation and exhalation as it occurs helps to concentrate attention on the here and now (“mindfulness” in the current argot of stress management).

You have suggested that emotions emerge when there are “norms which simultaneously encourage and discourage a particular kind of behavior”. For example, in your early work on anger you have argued that anger leads to the kind of behavior discouraged by norms against violence and encouraged by norms in favor of protecting one’s own rights from infringers. By being “overcome” by anger, individuals manage to protect their rights by inflicting violence and are justified in so doing so because anger allegedly overcame. Is this your theory of anger? How do you see the role of anger in the election of Donald Trump?

In making the above suggestion I was referring primarily to anger and, in particular, to anger as adjudicated in courts of law, where “adequacy of provocation” is one of the major criteria for legitimizing a response (homicide) as angry, that is, as a crime of passion. And what counts as an adequate provocation? An affront that would arouse a “reasonable man” to violence. Note that the homicide is still a crime, but one that is treated more leniently than a similar act committed with “malice aforethought” (murder). In other words, by committing homicide, the perpetrator upheld one set of norms (as validated by the “reasonable-man” test) but in doing so has violated another set of norms (against deliberately killing another person). The conflict is resolved by convicting the perpetrator of a lesser offense, voluntary manslaughter, a crime of passion, rather than murder. In a sense, the “victim” (the one who provoked the angry response in the first place) is put on trial as well as the perpetrator (the killer), and is found guilty.

How far this line of reasoning can be extended to everyday experiences of anger, I will leave it to the reader to decide. I will only point out that, when a person becomes the target of another’s anger, the most common response is, “Why, what did I do wrong?” Not: “How do you know?” or “How does it feel?” If the anger proves justified, an apology or some other form of restitution by the target typically ends the episode (Averill, 1982).

Considerations that apply to anger may not apply to other emotions without qualifications, and in some cases not at all. Still, the use of emotions as an excuse for otherwise unwarranted behavior is more common than generally recognized.

You also ask: How do I see the role of anger in the election of Donald Trump? It is an interesting question. I believe it is too facile an explanation to attribute Trump’s election primarily to anger; more importantly, it short-circuits the need to ask more relevant questions. A reasonable assumption is that Trump voters, like most other voters, based their choice, not on anger, but on perceived self-interest. Postulating anger as a motive is akin to saying that a vote for Trump was an electoral “crime of passion”. Depending on one’s political orientation, that may be a satisfying description. However, it may only succeed in making Trump supporters angry, even if they were not so already.

In what sense is love socially constructed? Has our understanding of romantic love changed significantly over time? What would you say of a theory that proposes that love is just an evolutionary adaptation aimed at passing one’s genes to the next generation?

Making love is a common euphemism for having sex; yet, a couple can have sex without being in love, and can be in love without having sex. If that were not the case, the world’s oldest profession would have gone out of business long ago. Having said that, it is nevertheless the case that in Western societies love is one of prime justifications for having sex, which, until recent years, was (ideally) delayed until after marriage.

But if not sex, what motivates love? Perhaps it will help to make a long story short if I draw a comparison between having sex and eating food. Without eating, a person will die within a matter of weeks; without sex, a species will become extinct within a generation. Not surprisingly, then, there are strong biological incentives to both eat and have sex. Yet, how the “hunger” for each gets satisfied varies greatly as a function of culture. Take eating. The food a person prefers is one of the markers of his or her ethnicity or social identity. For example, French are distinguished from Japanese, in part, by the way they prepare their food, even though from a biological (nutritional) standpoint Japanese and French cuisine may be equally healthy.

Now take romantic love (and hereafter when I refer to love, I mean the romantic variety as opposed, say, to parental or fraternal love). Are there cultural differences in love, as there are cultural differences in the way we eat? Most assuredly. A need for sex may be universal, but love transforms sexual desire into an emotional syndrome that meets social ends as well as, or even in place of, sexual satisfaction.

In many societies, procreation – begetting and rearing the next generation – is too serious a business to be left to the vagaries of sexual infatuation. For example, collectivist societies, where communal values are emphasized over individualistic values, may treat sexual infatuation as akin to a disease, of which a couple should be “cured” before they embark on the serious business of procreation. Individualistic societies have found a different solution to getting couples to marry and have children, even when cultural norms might encourage a more self-centered lifestyle.  That solution is falling in love, a condition – like a crime of passion – that is ostensibly beyond individual control.

The Western ideal of romantic love is often traced to the courtly love of the middle ages, when a knight would pledge allegiance to a noble lady other than his wife. Sex between the knight and his lady was discouraged, at least in theory; hence, a wife (often wed for social or political purposes) was excluded as a potential object of courtly love.

Western societies have undergone many changes from feudal to modern times; so, too, have conceptions of romantic love. In particular, the courtly ideal has changed from a nonsexual commitment to a partner outside of marriage, to a state that supposedly emerges between a couple after marriage, and, more recently, to a precondition for marriage. And love continues to evolve. No longer is love limited to couples of the opposite sex, and, contrary to the words of a popular song from the recent past, love and marriage no longer “go together like a horse and carriage”. Still, some of the memes that characterized courtly love (e.g., only one lover at a time, an idealization of the person loved, and willingness to sacrifice for her or him) continue to influence the experience and behavior of persons as they “fall” in love (Averill, 1985).

Are you religious? What role do you think emotions play in becoming religious?

According to the French mathematician and philosopher, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), some people are “so made that they cannot believe”; to which Christopher Hitchens (2007) has added, “and there are more of us [nonbelievers] than the faithful would like to think” (p. 138). No, I am not religious, and the reason is, as Pascal insinuated, as much temperamental as intellectual. I was raised in an Irish Catholic family (on my mother’s side), and I attended parochial schools for six years. The theistic parts never “felt” right. No matter how strongly I tried to convince myself I should believe, I couldn’t. Nevertheless, I retain an aesthetic appreciation for the music, art, and architecture inspired over the centuries by religious faiths of many varieties. Moreover, it is impossible to ignore the fact that religion plays an important role in human affairs, mostly for good but too often for ill. It strikes me as more than a little odd that something as important as religion in human affairs has received relatively little attention from psychologists. As far as the emotions are concerned, I am particularly interested in how spiritual or mystical experiences, which are often cited as evidence for believing, might be explained in nonreligious terms (Averill, 1999a).

Without going into detail, I will outline briefly how a secular explanation might proceed. The first thing to note is that descriptions of mystical experiences are surprisingly uniform the world over (see, for example, the anthology compiled by Aldus Huxley, 1985). The most commonly mentioned characteristic is a sense of oneness, a dissolution of boundaries that distinguish one thing from another and the self from all others. Second, the experience is described as highly meaningful, even life-changing. And, third, mystical experiences are associated with a sense of aliveness or vitality which, in the extreme, is often described as ecstasy or bliss.

The above three features (a sense of oneness, meaningfulness, and vitality) characterize what I will call classical or full-blown mystical experiences. Such experiences are extreme and hence, by definition, unusual. But so, too, are full-blown anxiety attacks or bouts of deep depression. And like anxiety and depression, mystical experiences can range in intensity from the mild to very intense; mild experiences are commonplace, and even moderately intense experiences are surprisingly frequent (Laski, 1968).

How might such experiences be explained? The common denominator, I suggest, is a controlled breakdown or deconstruction of the cognitive schemas by which we differentiate objects in the world. The result of such a breakdown would be the oft described “oceanic” feeling of oneness that is the hallmark of a mystical experience. However, in a world full of dangers, like the one in which humans evolved, such a condition could not last without fatal consequences. Cognitive schemas would have to be reconstructed quickly, and a new and perhaps more meaningful world created: hence, the sense of insight and greater knowledge frequently reported by mystics. And what about the experience of vitality, even ecstasy? An explanation of this feature is best approached indirectly. In everyday life, an inability to distinguish threatening from benign events would be stressful, to say the least. And, in fact, periods of anxiety and depression are commonly reported preludes to a mystical experience, what the Christian mystic, John of the Cross, described as “the dark night of the soul”. However, with adequate preparation, and in familiar surroundings, the experience of oneness and a new sense of meaning can be life-affirming, even ecstatic.

And how does the concept of emotions as transitional social roles fit into this picture? It doesn’t, at least not without some qualifications. If a mystical experience involves a controlled deconstruction of cognitive schemas, it follows that the schemas that help constitute emotional roles would also be rendered inapplicable. However, the deconstruction of schemas is seldom complete. If the experience is to be blissful and not terrifying, a residual cognitive structure must remain (usually a religious or social ideology) that lends the experience some meaning. Otherwise, the experience would be like a psychotic breakdown.

Although drugs are seldom reported as triggers for mystical experiences (as opposed, say, to beauties of nature or sexual intimacies) drug-induced states are nevertheless suggestive: novice drug users often find their first experience disappointing, if not frightening; they must learn to be “high”, often under the tutelage of more experienced users. The same could be said of would-be mystics, who may undertake strenuous spiritual exercises in order to achieve their goal. Often, especially for lay persons, the “training” is more implicit than explicit. In a national survey, Greeley (1974) found listening to music to be the most frequently mentioned trigger for a mild mystical experience. I assume that most people do not listen to music as a training ground for mysticism, but for persons who have undergone extensive musical training, a mild or even intense mystical experience may occasionally be an unexpected byproduct.

A common criticism of your theory of emotions is that it neglects the biological dimension of emotions. What is the proper role of biology in a social constructionist account of emotions? Do you consider the basic emotion perspective to be irreconcilable with your own?

Social constructionism does not deny the importance of biology. Some components of an emotional syndrome may be largely innate (e.g., certain facial expressions), and some neural structures (e.g., the amygdala) may play a greater role in emotional than intellectual behavior. More broadly, biological systems of behavior — what used to be called instincts, such as aggression, sexual attraction, attachment, and flight from danger — may singly or in combination contribute to the formation of some emotions (e.g., sexual attraction and attachment in the case of romantic love). However, no one-to-one relation exists between biological systems of behavior, either singly or in combination, and specific emotions (not even those that used to be called “basic”).

The “basic emotion perspective” is not necessarily irreconcilable with my own, especially as the former has evolved over the years. I do, however, have an argument with earlier versions, especially the tendency to link presumably basic emotions with certain facial expressions. What do facial expressions actually “express”? That is a question worth asking, but the answer should not rest on any a priori assumptions about the nature of emotions. Having said that, I believe that the basic emotion perspective has led to valuable research on the importance of facial expressions as an adjunct to spoken language, whether emotional or not.

As I alluded to in response to an earlier question, language provides a good analogy for understanding the role of biology in a social-constructionist account of emotions. Language is one of the most important biological adaptions of the human species. The full extent of the neurological correlates of language remains a mystery; however, the localization of some part-functions have long been known, for example, Broca’s area for the production of speech and Wernicke’s area for the perception of speech. But if you want to account for the difference, say, between English and Japanese, even the most sophisticated neurological assessment is unlikely to be of much aid. Rather, you must look to historical and comparative linguistics, and to the societies in which the languages are spoken today. And so it is with regard to emotional syndromes. If you want to understand the difference between anger in Western cultures and, say, ikari among the Japanese, it is best to look at historical and social factors and not neurobiology.

In short, a social-constructionist approach does not diminish the importance of understanding the biological and physiological bases of either language or emotion, especially when it comes to disorders of each.

In response to the difficulty of providing an all-encompassing theory of emotions applicable to ordinary folk notions like anger, fear, shame, disgust, and so on, some theorists have doubted that ordinary emotion terms are proper objects of scientific investigation. What is your view on the matter?

The notion of “proper objects for scientific investigation” can be interpreted in two ways that are sometimes conflated. (a) Can folk concepts be used as uneliminable variables (i.e., indispensable constructs) in a comprehensive theory of emotion? My answer to this question is No. (b) Are folk concepts of emotion relevant to the development of a theory of emotion? My answer to this question is Yes.

Let me illustrate the reasons for these answers with an historical analogy, namely the theory of evolution originated by Darwin. With regard to point (a) although Darwin’s theory concerns the origin of species, no biological species enters the theory as an indispensable theoretical construct. This is because, as explained by Hull (1976), species are “logical individuals”. This concept requires some explication.

The most familiar example of an individual is, of course, a specific human being. You and I are individuals, born at a specific time and place and destined to die at another, and there will never be another you or me (even as a clone or in some alternative universe). Viewed as a unit, a species such as Tyrannosaurus Rex can also be considered an individual, that is, the species came into existence at one time and place and went extinct at another; and outside of a trick of genetic engineering, another species will not evolve that is exactly like Tyrannosaurus Rex. Historical events, such as the burial of Pompey by the eruption of mount Vesuvius, can also be considered individuals from a logical point of view.

Contrast the concept of a logical individual with a law of nature. A law, if it is a law and not simply an empirical generalization, must be spatiotemporally unrestricted, at least within its domain of applicability. For example, Newton’s law of gravity is not restricted to one particular time, nor to one location (although it may be superseded by an even more general law, such as Einstein’s, which has a greater range of applicability). It follows that no law of nature can contain an uneliminable reference to logical individuals, for that would limit its applicability to a particular time and place. So much for point (a) mentioned above.

Let me turn now to point (b), namely, how species, although not uneliminable variables in a theory, may nevertheless be relevant to a theory. Prior to Darwin, biological species were generally viewed as “natural kinds”; that is, it was believed that a species could be defined in terms of essential features, much like a mathematical construct. As long as species were so conceived, the evolution of species was inconceivable. One species, it was reasoned, could no more evolve into another than a circle, say, could evolve into a square.

One of the major innovations of Darwin was to offer an alternative conception of species, namely, as sets of interbreeding individuals (Mayer, 1972). Since individual members of a species vary one from one another, species — being nothing more than aggregates of individuals — can evolve depending on which individuals reproduce more than others (assuming some degree of heritability).

As mentioned earlier, all constructionist approaches reject essentialism and thereby open the possibilities for change. But the lesson I want to draw from present analogy is somewhat different. If Darwin had not accepted species as theoretically relevant entities, but not as indispensable theoretical constructs, he would not have developed a theory to explain their origins by natural selection. Analogously, I suggest that if we do not take everyday emotions seriously, we will never develop a theory to explain their origins — and the possibilities for their change. Which brings me to your next question…

You have written a lot on emotional creativity: which emotions help creativity and why? Are there emotions that hinder creativity as well? Is there a way of becoming more creative by working on one’s emotions, and if so how?

Persons tend to be more creative, regardless of domain (art, science, or whatever), when in a positive mood. Research supports what may seem intuitively evident: when in a positive mood thinking becomes more fluid, broader associations may be made among ideas, and the possibility of failure seems remote. Unfortunately, things are seldom as straightforward as this description might suggest. For some persons, or for some phases of the creative process, a negative mood can also be helpful. The potential positive influence of negative states is illustrated most dramatically by the fact that creative writers and artists (but not scientists) are more prone to clinical depression than is the general population. But even that may not be an anomaly: among persons suffering from clinical depression, creative episodes tend to occur as depression lifts and the person enters a mildly manic phase.

My concern, however, is not with emotions that may facilitate or hinder creativity, but with emotional syndromes themselves as creative products. The possibility, almost inevitability, of emotional creativity is a straight-forward consequence of a social-constructionist view of emotion. What societies construct, individuals can reconstruct. If the reconstruction is not only novel, but also authentic (reflective of the individual’s core values and interests) and effective (adaptive for the individual or group), we may speak of it as creative. If it fails to meet one or more of these criteria (novelty, authenticity, effectiveness), which, incidentally, are applicable to creativity in any domain, the emotional response may be regarded as eccentric or, worse, neurotic (Averill & Nunley, 1992).

Like most ideas, “emotional creativity” has ample precedents. Otto Rank (1932), a student of the arts and onetime disciple of Freud, believed that many neurotic syndromes reflect creative impulses that are expressed in ways detrimental to the individual. Starting from a different perspective, and focusing on the positive end of the neurotic-healthy spectrum, Abraham Maslow (1971) defined “primary” creativity as the ability to be inspired, to become totally immersed in the matter-at-hand, and to experience those “peak” moments that are “a diluted, more secular, more frequent version of the mystical experience” (p. 62). I would only add that emotional creativity is not limited to a few extreme (peak or mystical) experiences; a “spiritualization of the passions” (Nietzsche’s phrase) can apply to a wide variety of emotions experienced in everyday life (Averill, 2009).

If emotional creativity is implicit in a social-constructionist perspective, why has it not been more generally recognized, both in theory and in practice? One reason is that it is difficult to elicit an emotionally creative response in the laboratory, and hence to study its causal relations. I have therefore taken a different approach, namely, exploring the correlates of people who differ in emotional creativity as a trait. For this purpose, my students and I have constructed a 30-item Emotional Creativity Inventory (ECI).  I want to acknowledge Carol Thomas-Knowles and Jenny Gutbezahl, in particular, for their assistance on this project.

The results of studies using the ECI have been presented elsewhere (Averill, 1999b). I will offer only a brief qualitative summary here. People who score high on the ECI, in comparison with their low scoring counterparts, tend to be more agreeable and open to experience, including mystical experiences in the sense discussed earlier, and they are better able to profit from solitude. High scorers are also better able to express their emotions creatively in images (drawings and collages) and in writing. These latter finding might reflect greater artistic or verbal talents on the part of high scorers, although attempts were made to control for such possibilities.

What emotional creativity is not is as important as what it is. For example, scores on the ECI are unrelated to general intelligence as measured by SAT scores. Emotional creativity can also be distinguished from emotional intelligence on both conceptual and empirical grounds (Averill, 2004, 2007). Finally, emotionally creative individuals are not especially reactive, that is, prone to respond with frequent or intense emotional outbursts.

The last point deserves brief elaboration because the stereotype of an emotionally creative persons might be someone who is flamboyant or who constantly seeks excitement and adventure. Of course, the stereotype may sometimes fit the case, but it is not necessarily the norm. Art, literature, and especially poetry may be better expressions of emotional creativity than is, say, sky diving or climbing a sheer mountain cliff (Oatley, 1999; Sundararajan & Averill, 2007).

Wordsworth (1805/1952) famously described poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility” (p. 84). The operative word here is tranquility. Inspired by Wordsworth, the philosopher John Stuart Mill (1833/1981) took the issue a step further. Mill considered poetry to be a way of educating and expanding the emotions; in other words, as a way of being emotionally creative. In this respect, he drew a distinction between the poet and people who “are perpetually engaged in hunting for excitement from without, [the latter] are invariably those who do not possess, either in the vigor of their intellectual powers or in the depth of their sensibilities, that which would enable them to find ample excitement nearer home.” That is an over generalization, clearly, but let’s follow Mill’s reasoning, for it leads to some relevant conclusions concerning emotional creativity.

Most literature (e.g., prose, drama, and rhetoric, no matter how eloquent) may also afford emotional excitement, Mill conceded, but also “of the kind that comes from without.” Poetry is different: Its object is “to paint the human soul truly.” “Great poets,” Mill asserted, “are often proverbially ignorant of life. What they know has come by observation of themselves: “they have found within them one highly delicate and sensitive specimen of human nature, on which the laws of emotion are written in large characters.” It follows, Mill concluded, that poetry “is the natural fruit of solitude and meditation,” not of active engagement in external affairs.

What should we conclude from this brief excursion on the relation between poetry and emotional reactivity? Not that all poetry involves emotional creativity (see Cupchik, 2016, Ch. 9, for a much more nuanced approach to the relation between emotions and poetry). And certainly the implication is not that we should all strive to become poets. Mill was no poet, although he was one of the major 19th century British philosophers. In fact, poetry is not even the issue. Rather, the issue is the source of a person’s “excitement” (to borrow Mill’s term). Emotional creativity presumes a rich inner life, and a willingness to explore and learn from it. The manner and extent that inner life gets expressed depends on an individual’s talents and circumstances.

Please list five articles or books that have had a deep influence on your thinking.

Wittgenstein, L (1953). Philosophical Investigations (G.E.M. Anscombe, Trans.). New York: Macmillan.

It is sometimes quipped that Wittgenstein’s goal was to dissolve problems, not to solve them. This quip may contain a grain of truth, but it is also misleading. Many of the problems that plague us are due to what might be called word jams, that is, the piling up of words, usually taken out of context. Like log jams that impede the flow of a river, word jams impede the flow of thought. And as with log jams, sometimes dissolution is a necessary step toward a solution. Be that as it may, Wittgenstein’s suggestions for dissolution do not come easy. The Investigations consist of a series of loosely connected paragraphs that place considerable demands on the reader.

Ryle, G. (1949). The Concept of Mind. London: Hutchinson & Company

This is a felicitous complement to Wittgenstein’s Investigations. Both Wittgenstein and Ryle are classed among a group of “ordinary language” or “analytic” philosophers, although the extent to which they influenced each other, if at all, is unclear. The Concept of Mind is an extended critique of Cartesian dualism, which Ryle dubs the legend of the “Ghost [mind] in the Machine [body]”. To exorcize the ghost, Ryle replaces talk of mental events with references to behavioral dispositions (although he denies being a “behaviorist”). He draws on the emotions for many ghostly examples.

von Uexküll, J. (1957). A stroll through the worlds of animals and men. In C. H. Schiller (Trans. & Ed.), Instinctive behavior: The development of a modern concept (pp. 5-80). New York: International Universities Press. (Original work published 1934).

Would you like to know how the world appears to a tick? von Uexküll shows you that, with illustrations by G. Kriszat. And not just ticks, but animals of many kinds. Theoretically, one of von Uexküll’s major contribution is the concept of a “functional circle”, in which the perceived object is not only the bearer of stimulus properties (“releasers”), but also the bearer of cues that suggest a response, or what Gibson (1979) would later call “affordances.” Changes in the internal state of the organism following an initial response may add another dimension, as the functional circle spirals toward a goal.

Ford, C. S., & Beach, F. A. (1951). Patterns of sexual behavior. New York: Harper & Brothers.

To me, this is a model of how the study of emotion should proceed: choose a topic of interest and bring to bear on it as many sources of information as might be relevant. My only regret is that the book has not been updated by a third party, incorporating new information acquired over the past sixty years, especially with regard to possible biological and social determinants of gender identity. But that is a minor quibble; it is unlikely that additional data would alter the basic thrust of Ford and Beach’s analysis, nor greatly modify the many examples they present of cultural variations in sexual behavior.

Berger, P. L., & T. Luckmann (1966). The social construction of reality. New York: Doubleday.

Written in almost telegraphic style, the authors bring the sociology of knowledge (cf. Scheler, Mannheim, and others) down to earth. Berger & Luckmann define “reality” as anything “that we recognize as having a being independent of our own volition”; that is, as anything we cannot “wish away”. Although they give scant attention to the emotions per se, their definition of reality definitely includes the passions as traditionally conceived.

What are the most pressing questions emotion theorists should try to answer?

The integration of various perspectives (biological, psychological, social) is clearly a pressing issue. For as long as I can remember, people have been saying that, of course, all behavior is a function of both heredity and environment, but little progress has been made beyond reiterating that truism. Recently, however, a subtle change in emphasis is taking place; according to Henrich (1916), evidence from a variety of disciplines suggest that culture has been the driving force behind the biological evolution of Homo sapiens. In other words, human beings as a species may be a social construction (see, also, Laland, 2017).

Another pressing need is to investigate a broad range of emotions as they function in everyday life. In the past, our theories have been built on too narrow a base — only a few emotions out of the hundreds recognized in everyday English, not to mention the many more recognized in other languages and cultures. I am encouraged by the variety of emotions currently being investigated, not just those considered biologically basic or socially important. Comparisons between closely related states, such as anger and annoyance, or loving and liking, I find particularly informative.

Which emotion, or set of related emotions, might yield theoretically significant insights is difficult to predict; so, it is important to keep an open mind. Before Darwin landed on the Galapagos Islands, who would have predicted that such mundane birds as finches would play a pivotal role in the development of a theory of evolution? So, too, may commonplace emotions yield unexpected theoretical insights.

What are you working on these days?

Jim’s retirement dinner, with wife Judy and daughters Laurie and Andrea.

Since retirement, I have been working on having fun. In part, this involves sleeping late, traveling, and reading novels, mostly mysteries. More important is participation in a “Learning in Retirement” program. Currently roughly 300 people participate in the program — mostly former faculty from the five colleges in the area, and other retired professionals (teachers, physicians, engineers, lawyers, business people, artists). For each ten-week “semester” (Fall and Spring) some members propose seminar topics. Anyone who signs up for a topic is expected to prepare a presentation and lead a discussion. These are not occasions for “passive learning” (e.g., listening to a lecture). I usually sign up for two seminars a semester, one in the sciences and one in the humanities. That, together with occasionally consulting with students and reviewing manuscripts, keeps me busy. Of course, not all is fun. Increasingly, I waste time looking for misplaced items, such as my car keys and cell phone.



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