Avoid misinterpreting your emotions

by Kaj_Sotala 7 min read14th Feb 201232 comments


A couple of weeks ago, I was suffering from insomnia. Eventually my inability to fall asleep turned into frustration, which then led to feelings of self-doubt about my life in general. Soon I was wondering about whether I would ever amount to anything, whether any of my various projects would ever end up bearing fruit, and so forth. As usual, I quickly became convinced that my life prospects were dim, and that I should stop being ambitious and settle for some boring but safe path while I still had the chance.

Then I realized that there was no reason for me to believe in this, and I stopped thinking that way. I still felt frustrated about not being able to sleep, but I didn't feel miserable about my chances in life. To do otherwise would have been to misinterpret my emotions.

Let me explain what I mean by that. There are two common stereotypes about the role of emotions. The first says that emotions are something irrational, and should be completely disregarded when making decisions. The second says that emotions are basically always right, and one should follow their emotions above all. Psychological research on emotions suggests that the correct answer lies in between: we have emotions for a reason, and we should follow their advice, but not unthinkingly.

The Information Principle says that emotional feelings provide conscious information from unconscious appraisals of situations1. Your brain is constantly appraising the situation you happen to be in. It notes things like a passerby having slightly threatening body language, or conversation with some person being easy and free of misunderstandings. There are countless of such evaluations going on all the time, and you aren't consciously aware of them because you don't need to. Your subconscious mind can handle them just fine on its own. The end result of all those evaluations is packaged into a brief summary, which is the only thing that your conscious mind sees directly. That "executive summary" is what you experience as a particular emotional state. The passerby makes you feel slightly nervous and you avoid her, or your conversational partner feels pleasant to talk with and you begin to like him, even though you don't know why.

To some extent, then, your emotions will guide you to act appropriately in various situations, even when you don't know why you feel the way you do. However, it's important to intepret them correctly. Maybe you meet a new person on a good day and feel good when talking with them. Do you feel good because the person is pleasant to be with, or because the weather is pleasant? In general, emotions are only used as a source of information when their informational value is not called into question2. If you know that you are sad because of something that happened in the morning, and still feel sad when talking to your friend later on, you don't assume that something about your friend is making you feel sad.

People also pay more attention to their feelings when they think them relevant for the question at hand. For example, moods have a larger impact when people are making decisions for themselves rather than others, who may experience things differently. But by default, people tend to assume that their feelings and emotions are "about" whatever it is that they're thinking about at that moment. If they're not given a reason to presume that their emotions are caused by something else than the issue at hand, they don't.2

So here was my mistake. I had been feeling frustrated about my inability to sleep, and my thoughts had wandered to other subjects, such as my life in general. And then I had automatically assumed that because I was feeling frustrated while thinking about my life, my life wasn't going well, so I should reconsider my plans.

In addition to providing information, moods also affect the way we think: research suggests that sad moods make us more analytical. Or as Schwarz2 summarizes:

When things go smoothly and we face no hurdles in the pursuit of our goals, we are likely to rely on our pre-existing knowledge structures and routines, which served us well in the past. Moreover, we may be willing to take some risk in exploring novel solutions. Once things go wrong, we abandon reliance on our usual routines and focus on the specifics at hand to determine what went wrong and what can be done about it.

So again: I had been trying to sleep, but failed to do so. My failure at the task triggered feelings of frustration. Frustration is a sign that our current approach isn't working, and we should re-evaluate it. In my situation, the right course of action would probably have been to re-evaluate whether I would be getting any sleep at that moment, and spend some time awake until I'd feel more tired again. But I stayed in bed, so my feelings of frustration persisted, and the impulse to re-evaluate things remained. And when my thoughts wandered to other subjects, it was those subjects that my mind started taking apart to find what was wrong with them. The fact that there wasn't actually anything wrong with them didn't matter. Some part of my mind presumed, quite reasonably, that if I was feeling frustrated then there had to be something wrong with what I was doing, so if I thought otherwise I had to be mistaken. And this line of reasoning would have been correct, had it not been applied to the wrong problem.

I am slowly learning when I should be taking my negative moods into account, and when I shouldn't. I've noticed that on days when I haven't had enough sleep, I also feel skeptical about what I'm doing with my life. When I'm more rested and in a neutral mood, those doubts seem overblown. So I try to discount such doubts when they seem to be caused by mere physical fatigue. On the other hand, some negative feelings are such that I've generally come to regret overriding them. Sometimes I've gotten a bad vibe about a person, and when I've decided to trust them anyway, I've afterwards realized that I shouldn't have.

Positive emotions, too, can be correct or mistaken. I have a tendency to get quite excited about new projects, and be much more certain of their value than I should be. At such times, I try to make sure that I'm not rushing ahead with the project and making commitments that I shouldn't.

Thinking in such a way is an example of taking the outside view. When someone takes the inside view to a problem, such as the task of predicting how long something will take, they focus on the case at hand, consider the plan and the obstacles to its completion, construct scenarios of future progress, and extrapolate current trends3. On the other hand, the outside view essentially ignores the details of the case at hand, and involves no attempt at detailed forecasting of the future history of the project. Instead, it focuses on the statistics of a class of cases chosen to be similar in relevant respects to the present one3. For instance, when considering how long it will take you to write an essay, the inside view might respond by looking at how well you've done so far, and how long it would take if you kept up the pace. The outside view would simply look at previous occasions when you've had to write an essay, and ask how long it took on those occasions. If on several previous occasions you've thought that you'll get the essay written in no time, but then always finished just before the deadline, then it's most likely that you'll again finish right before the deadline.

It's generally beneficial to take the outside view on your emotions as well. In a strongly emotional state, you cannot rely merely on the inside view, because a large part of your reasoning process is working on the basis of assumptions which may not be correct. Instead, you should ask questions like: On previous occasions when you've been in a similar situation and felt similarly, has the advice from your emotions been reasonable? What's their historical accuracy in these circumstances? Is your emotional state being influenced by something that has nothing to do with the issue at hand? If you were a neutral observer looking at the situation from the outside, would you think that the emotional judgement was a reasonable one, or that you were just being silly?

For a long time, I thought that if I was feeling miserable and it was making me think negative thoughts, I only had two options. A, I could get rid of the negative thoughts by distracting myself or finding something that would cheer me up and get me out of that mood. Or B, I would fail to get out of the mood, and thus keep thinking negative thoughts. For whatever reason, I never realized that I also had option C: keep feeling miserable, but stop thinking negative thoughts. Depending on exactly how strong your emotion is, you might not always be capable of getting rid of the thoughts, but at least you can realize that they're not true.

So that's what I did. I thought, "I'm feeling miserable because I can't sleep and I'm frustrated, but that has nothing to do with whether my projects and ambitions will be successful or not. My current emotions convey no information about that topic. So it's pointless to doubt myself because of these emotions." (Not in so many words, but that was the general idea.) So I stopped thinking those thoughts. And while I still felt generally miserable, the thoughts stopped making me feel even worse.

Possibly the most vivid example of taking the outside view that I've seen comes from Ferrett Steinmetz:

I was suicidally down yesterday for no reason except brain chemistry, waking up with the belief that everyone I knew would be much better off if I killed myself.  And I did my usual ration-checks to see if what depression was saying was correct – because, like bullies, occasionally the cruel will tell you what the kind will not.  So I looked at the evidence.

What the evidence told me was that as a polyamorous man, I had several women who loved me deeply, women who had the choice of other partners and yet still cared about me enough to send me texts and emails, and this should be evidence that I was not a worthless human being.  At which point my depression started in on me: See?  All these women who love you, and you just write them off.  That’s how selfish you are, ignoring the adoration of these women.  You’re such a self-centered asshole, you should kill yourself.

Fortunately, I knew my old adversary well enough to understand where it was leading me.  I stepped away from the self-destructive sequence my depression was trying to guide me down, recognizing that when I’m in this mood every path goes straight to off-yourself-ville, and understood that the facts would have to be enough.

Depression is a bully in that it’s fundamentally out to destroy you.  You can’t quite get away from him, like any good bully; the best you can do is come to an understanding that this is unpleasant, but it’s nothing you should take too personally.  And hope, one day, that you’ll become strong enough to walk away.

Major depression is the extreme case. If your depression is serious enough, your brain is broken. The mechanisms which would usually kick in when you were doing something wrong will be engaged even when you're doing nothing wrong, and they will be in overdrive, taking apart everything in your life in order to find ways by which you are screwing up.

But you don't have to believe them. You can realize that the thoughts that pop up in your mind aren't based on reality, and that you don't have to act on the basis of them. It won't stop you from feeling miserable, but it might stop you from feeling even worse.

Edited to add: Of course, it's also possible to use this view for self-deception. Maybe we're deceiving ourselves about how our lives are going, and that self-deception will persist if we try to examine it while in a neutral emotional state. Perhaps it is only when we fail badly enough to get a strong negative emotion that the barriers of self-deception break, and we will be mistaken to dismiss our thoughts in those states because they don't seem reasonable in other emotional states. When you use this technique, be careful to make sure that you are actually genuinely curious about what your emotions are telling you. Don't just come up with excuses for ignoring them, ask whether you should ignore them or listen to them.



1: Clore, G.L. & Gasper, K., & Garvin, E. (2001). Affect as information. In J.P. Forgas (Ed.), Handbook of affect and social cognition (pp. 121–144). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

2: Schwarz, N. (2010) Feelings as information. In Van Lange, P. & Kruglanski, A. & Higgins, E.T. (Eds.), Handbook of theories of social psychology, Sange.

3: Kahneman, D. & Lovallo, D. (1993) Timid Choices and Bold Forecasts: A Cognitive Perspective on Risk Taking. Management Science, vol. 39, no. 1.