Constructing Emotion: The Fundamental Components of Fear

During a crisis, our behavior can often be unpredictable. Some people might respond with anger, others with fear and still others may show no reaction at all.  The nature of emotion is so basic and automatic that we do not realize how complex experiencing emotions actually is. Previous research separates emotions into distinct categories (i.e. anger, fear, happiness, etc) and these categories are considered the building blocks of emotions. Scientists are still unsure of exactly how we experience emotions but recent work suggests that what is described as “fear” is actually more complicated than previously thought.

Psychologists Kristen Lindquist and Lisa Feldman Barrett from Boston College wanted to explore the idea that the emotions we feel are actually a combination of more basic psychological elements.  In this study, volunteers were prompted to think about anger or fear, by describing a picture of either an angry man or a fearful man.  Participants then listened to music. Half of the volunteers listened to music selected to arouse unpleasant feelings and the remaining volunteers listened to music that was neutral (designed not to cause pleasant or unpleasant feelings in the participants). Just before listening to the music, participants were told to imagine either an unpleasant scenario or a neutral scenario. Participants were told to imagine the situation unfolding while the music played. As the music played, the participants recorded, on a grid, how they felt (pleasant or unpleasant). Participants then completed an Activity Rating Questionnaire where they indicated whether they would engage in the risky behaviors which were listed in the survey. Lastly, participants had to write down a description of what they had imagined when the music played. The researchers then noted how many words were used that related to fear, anger, pleasant and unpleasant feelings in the descriptions.

Participants who listened to the unpleasant music imagined more unpleasant content than the group who listened to neutral music.  The results, which appear in the September issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, indicate that what we experience as fear is actually made up of two more basic components:  the unpleasant feeling of the state of fear.  and our concept of the emotion (what we “know” about fear).

The results show that feeling unpleasant and thinking about fearfulness resulted in fear of the world and made the participants less likely to engage in risky behavior. However, the participants who felt unpleasant but thought about anger were not opposed to risky behavior.  In addition, the participants who thought about fear but listened to neutral music (and did not feel unpleasant), were more willing to engage in risky behavior.  These results help to explain why we react so differently in times of crises. The way we feel depends not only on the situation, but also what we are thinking about at the time.

A better understanding of what causes fear and how to regulate this emotion has implications for people who suffer from anxiety disorders and phobias. “Experiencing the world as threatening does not cause fear—it is, itself, the feeling of fear,” the authors conclude.

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