This book is so dense with ideas that my tightly typed summary covers 22 pages. From the first chapters, where Feldman Barrett explores what do we mean by emotion? are they universal? I was hooked.
"How Emotions are Made" lifts the curtain on our own emotional creation and describes a world where emotions are constructed. We create mental concepts and categories to help us navigate the world. Emotions are not reactions to the world, they are our constructions of how we will react to the world.
Most striking is her description of our brain as a scientist, trapped in a dark box, it uses the data we provide to form predictions about how to keep us safe, what is happening and what we need to do about it. Her approach is that we construct our emotions - we do not react to stimuli but we are responsible for how we feel about other people and events. As she points out, if we just reacted to things, we would be dead. It is too slow a way to function effectively.
Just like a scientist sometimes our brain gets the prediction or hypothesis wrong. If our brain is a good scientist then it will re-calibrate and try again. If it is a bad scientist, it will be selective about the data it uses or even worse ignore the data.
Why do we invest all this effort into the brain and its predictions? because the brain is trying to keep us alive. It is managing our body budget which monitors all of our systems to keep us functioning. When we are not in balance our brain will search for an explanation and a plan of action.
One key lesson is that she warns we must give up on the fiction that we know how other people feel, as she puts it "being curious is more important than being right".
Do you sometimes wonder why someone digs in their heels and refuses to change their mind even when it makes no sense? Do you sometimes see people make illogical or irrational decisions which they cling to in the face of all evidence? Then you like me need answers. This is one of my all-time favourite books.
"Mistakes were Made (but not my me)" explains the power of self-justification to make rational that which is not rational. In respect of some decisions, we make an emotional decision, we will then use our cognitive powers to rationalise this decision. The authors describe how we make a decision based on how we feel and then use our mental tools to support it.
The book starts with the work of Leon Festinger and his research into doomsday cults (where the spaceships don't come on the scheduled date!). It examines different areas of human experience: criminal work / relationships / politics / etc. Tavris and Aronson explain how we can start down a path from which the return journey is all uphill. From how people interact within a marriage to historical examples from Nazi Germany, the power of our minds to convince us is astonishing.
In terms of understanding others decision-making, the authors explain how we each essentially want to think of ourselves as good people. We may do things that are wrong or inflict pain on others but we are good people. The gap between our belief in our own goodness and the wrongness of our actions leads to cognitive dissonance. We desperately need to resolve this dissonance. We are good people, therefore we must have a good reason for acting in that way. It can't be that we would do something wrong, or behave badly? there must be a reason.
How do we do resolve the cognitive dissonance? we convince ourselves that there is a justification for our behaviour. Our memory becomes a "self-justifying historian" who is able to provide the proof that the person we have harmed is bad / wrong / evil / not human.
It can be uncomfortable confronting the truth about some of our strongly held beliefs and justifications. However, if we can understand how cognitive dissonance drives our decisions and beliefs, we have the opportunity to be free of it and, importantly, to let go of the need to be right.
As the weather in HK finally turns cooler, I wanted to share some of the books that I have really enjoyed reading this year. Over the next few weeks, I will highlight some of the great reads that have helped me think about things in a new way or given me new ideas.
In addition to having ideas worth considering, they are also well written.
So get ready to boil the kettle, plump the cushions and settle in for a good read.
A campaign group in Finland has decided to crowdsource a forgiveness emoji. Their website, Forgivemoji shows the submissions so far which they intend to submit to the Unicode Consortium and request the creation of a new emoji.
Looking at the emojis is an interesting way of seeing how people think about forgiveness. The emojis focus on healing (.e.g a heart with bandaids). However, many of the emojis show an exchange between one person and another. They use clasped hands and hearts being exchanged.
However regular readers will know that Dr Fred Luskin has a fundamentally different view of forgiveness. From his perspective it is a choice we make for ourselves. Forgiveness may be a group activity but it does not have to be. These emojis communicate that forgiveness is part of an exchange between the wronged and the offender. However, this traps us in a bind. If they do not apologise, if we are not in contact how do we ensure release from pain?
Forgiving someone else is a gift we give ourselves. Dr Luskin gives examples of forgiving people who are dead, who we have lost touch with or who we do not wish to communicate with. Forgiving in these circumstances highlights that forgiveness is a release we can control. Rather than being absolution for the other person, forgiveness frees us to move on.
In life, I find this concept of forgiveness very comforting. It restores power to the wronged person. Even if the other person does not apologise or seek forgiveness, we can still be free. We can choose to focus on our own health and not on the offender. Dr Luskin gives clear steps as to how to achieve this forgiveness. It is not an instantaneous process, however, he manages to show the benefits for everyone in learning these skills.