At a recent research talk, an audience member suggested that, since we all ruminate, this must be programmed by the human genome and, therefore, must have adaptive value. Eyebrows were raised; not all we do reflects our DNA, and not all of evolved human nature is necessarily good for us.
But, after exploring potential benefits of rumination, and suggesting it can be useful to examine the cognitive appraisals that evoke emotions, it makes sense to consider how we might benefit from ruminating about the basis of the cognitive appraisals that evoke negative emotions.
What’s So Negative About Negative Emotions?
Richard Lazarus, a prominent emotions theorist, wondered why certain emotions are labeled “negative”. Is it that their antecedents are negative, that they feel unpleasant, or that they have deleterious consequences?
There is plenty that is negative about anger, fear, distress, sadness, shame, and guilt. But do they have good points?
Many hold that emotions reflect evolved mechanisms that, at least at one time, had adaptive value for the human species. But there is the separate question of their value in the individual lives of the experiencing individual and of those who are affected by their expression. After all, the world we live in now differs significantly from the one that shaped much of our evolution.
Anger and Virtue
Source: Andrea Piacquadio / Pexels
Aristotle was interested in the possibility that anger can sometimes benefit the individual and society despite its well-deserved reputation as a destructive force. Of course, this was before technology expanded the ability of politicians, political pundits, and many others to express outrage at those with whom they have fundamental disagreements, causing further damage to anger’s reputation. Still, when expressed appropriately, genuine righteous anger in response to violations of deeply-held views can change hearts and minds, sometimes with good effect.
Deeply-held views about how things ought to be are one type of goal—defined broadly as an internal standard for judging the relevance and import of what we observe—whose obstruction is part of the cognitive appraisal patterns that can provoke various negative emotions. In general, when reflecting on our own or others’ anger, it is useful to look beyond the feeling and its immediate trigger to determine whether it stems from the application of some worthy principle or value.
Anger is one of several emotions considered, at times, to be a moral emotion because it can arise in response to a perceived moral transgression. Others include shame and guilt, sometimes referred to as self-conscious emotions, in which we see ourselves as having violated an important internal standard.
Source: Liza Summer / Pexels
Care must be taken to distinguish moral justification of a negative emotion from its rationalization. We may feel our anger was caused by the moral failure of another, and we may be quite able to argue convincingly why this is the case. But our anger may actually arise from something else, even something as simple as dislike for the person with whom we are angry. The moral principle that leads us to find fault with another may occur to us after the fact; the anger’s true cause may lie elsewhere.
Analogous insights may be derived from other moral emotions, where unpleasant feelings and judgments are aimed at ourselves. Reflection on episodes of shame and guilt may serve to remind us to live up to our own standards for appropriate behavior. Alternatively, it may reveal perfectionistic standards or other dysfunctional beliefs that needlessly cause negative self-directed feelings. Identification and modification of such beliefs are useful components of cognitive-behavioral techniques for dealing with emotional difficulties.
Negative Emotions as Information
If anger, shame, and guilt can be responses to perceived violations of standards for judging right and wrong, certain benefits follow: Reflecting on these emotions can (1) alert us to our own and others’ possible violations of important beliefs and values, (2) encourage critical evaluation of the principles involved, (3) and help us to decide whether those principles actually provide a valid basis for judging the behavior. This self-examination may uphold the appropriateness of our negative emotional response.
However, we may find that our feelings of anger, shame, or guilt signal the application of standards that are too strict, or misplaced in that they simply do not pertain to the event. Moreover, reflexive application of some moral/ethical principle may be a convenient mental tactic for covering up an unjustified negative judgment of the target of our negative feelings—whether it is ourself or someone else. That judgment may reflect a negative aspect of our self-concept, of our view of some other person or group, or of our beliefs about people in general.
Emotion and Motivation
Emotions also involve motivation. Motivation, in turn, can translate emotional feelings, and the judgments they represent, into action. Through effects on motivation, emotions can both direct, and increase or dampen the energy available for behavioral activity.
A feature of anger that distinguishes it from other negative emotions is that it may involve approach motivation, something it shares with positive emotions. Approach and avoidance are motivational tendencies to move toward or away from something. When anger is aroused due to obstruction of efforts to achieve any outcome, whether an abstract principle or something tangible like a pay raise or new job, aggressive action tendencies and energizing physiological changes are typically aroused. These may direct and support a redoubling of approach motivation aimed at attaining the obstructed outcome. Here again is a potential benefit of anger.
Thus, the information value of emotions includes what they say about our motivations. Rumination about our negative emotions will often reveal a problem in the relationship between the current state of affairs and relevant evaluative standards. These may involve morals, ethics, aesthetics, pleasures, concerns, fears, dreams, or life’s meaning and purpose.
There are distinctions among these, but all are mental representations either of desired conditions or ways of being, with which actual conditions may appear discrepant, or of undesired conditions, with which actual circumstances may appear all too similar. Both are sources of motivation.
The nature of these internal standards, when violated, will have a lot to do with which emotion we experience, its intensity, and whether it activates approach motivation, avoidant motivation, or both—which is one basis for internal conflict and ambivalence.
In many ways, they define the kind of person we are, or would like to be.
Copyright 2023 Richard J. Contrada