When are feelings really feelings? November 20, 2018

How many times a day do we express how we’re feeling? Surely so many that we don’t notice the circumstances or pay attention to what our phrasings imply for how we understand behavior. “I feel like having a salad for lunch.” “I’m feeling sleepy.” “I feel sick to my stomach.” “I feel like going to a movie tonight.” “I’m feeling pretty upset with you.” “I feel like getting out of the house.” “I feel a little down today.” Are actual physiological sensations at the root of our many statements about feelings?

Biological or circumstantial?

Chapter three includes a section that describes a number of important issues for behavior analysts stemming from how we learn to talk about our feelings, so there should be no need to review the details here. These core issues are central to understanding the arguments in this post, so if you’re not familiar with them, you should reread the section on emotions and feelings starting on page 60.

In learning to talk about feelings, we suffer from the misunderstandings, limitations, and inconsistencies of our verbal community. The implication of everyday references to feelings is that each of us can detect a variety of inner sensations, although their exact nature is usually vague. Sometimes we recognize that these feelings reflect actual physiological activity. Feeling hungry is the prototypical example. Going without food for a sufficient time has been shown to result in changes in various physiological processes, some of which we can privately detect or sense, as in the case of what we call hunger pangs. Given the consistency of these processes, not to mention how often we encounter them, it isn’t too difficult for our verbal community to teach us to label these sensations as “feeling hungry.”

Skinner insisted that we acknowledge the role of such physical sensations as part of a comprehensive explanation of behavior, in spite of the difficulty of verifying their physical status (Skinner, 1974). His position was part of an overarching strategy of not ignoring private events in trying to understand behavior merely because they are not publically accessible. His approach – radical behaviorism – accepts the possibility of self-observation, though questions the nature of what is felt or observed.

The challenge of teaching individuals to label events that only they can detect encourages our verbal community to go well beyond recognizing feelings as physiological processes, however. We are therefore taught an expansive vocabulary about feelings that are unlikely be rooted in our biology, references that often seem to be conveniently offered as needed to explain our behavior. We learn to casually insert statements about our feelings into everyday conversations as implied explanations of our behavior, as the list of examples in the first paragraph suggests.

This limitless supply of feeling statements seem more often tied to immediate environmental circumstances than to underlying physiological processes. Consider the statement that you feel like getting out of the house. Although it’s always risky to assume that a particular behavior is entirely unrelated to biological factors, it’s pretty unlikely that you could actually sense specific physiological processes and report them as a “getting out of the house” feeling in the same way you might sense hunger pangs as a basis for saying you feel hungry.

What about alternative explanations of your behavior of saying that you feel like getting out of the house? Perhaps you would like a break from what you’re doing. Maybe you looked out the window and saw how nice the weather is. You might want to go somewhere in particular, such as shopping. Maybe you’re interested in going for a drive or would like to see a friend. It’s not hard to imagine a long list of possible explanations for wanting to go outside that have nothing to do with sensing momentary physiological changes. In other words, our ubiquitous references to feelings as implied explanations of our behavior are often gratuitous.

What about “feeling confident?”

In thinking through the details of this argument, it may be a useful exercise to consider what we mean when we talk about feeling confident. As examples, we might say we are feeling confident about doing well on a test or that we aren’t feeling confident that we can find our way to a friend’s house without the aid of our phone’s GPS app.

What is this “confidence” we seem to have varying amounts of from one circumstance to another? Is it a real biological sensation we can somehow privately detect, like when we say we feel hungry, or is it no more than a way of referencing different aspects of our history and immediate environmental circumstance? As a way of determining what we mean when we say that we feel degrees of confidence, let’s once again apply the tactic of considering sources of control over our verbal behavior.

Looking just at the optimistic side of confidence, we seem to say we’re feeling confident when we have a history of success in similar situations or when we assess the possible alternatives to be in our favor. Conversely, when we’re not feeling confident, we probably have a history that has involved failure or we may determine that good outcomes are unlikely. Each particular situation might suggest more details, but these will do as general possibilities.

However long the list, speculations about possible environmental influences do not mean that feeling statements are truly free of influence from concurrent physiological processes, but how would we know? Short of scientific evidence about detectable physiological events specifically associated with what we have learned to say about feelings of confidence, it may be best to turn to what we know about how such verbal behavior is acquired and maintained.

It’s clear that it is difficult for the verbal community to teach children to make feelings statements only in the presence of physiological events that cannot be detected by anyone other than the individual being trained. At least hunger pangs have a narrow and consistent environmental and physiological basis and are easily sensed in the same way across individuals. However, any sensations associated with “confidence” are likely to be much more subtle and difficult for the individual to detect and would have to be consistently present under the wide range of circumstances in which we talk about feeling confident. Given these considerations and the instructional challenges faced by the verbal community, verbal repertoires about feelings of confidence are therefore at best likely to be relatively weak and inconsistent within and across individuals.

This same kind of analysis can be applied to many of the feelings statements that pepper our everyday dialect. For instance, what do we mean when we say we feel grateful? Is this different from feeling appreciative, or indebted, or gratified? What about feeling sorry, or envious, or satisfied? The list of terms attached to feelings statements is long indeed, but how often are these references rooted in physiological phenomena? Although Skinner’s recommendation that we incorporate actual (physiological) feelings in a comprehensive analysis of behavior is strategically important, we should be careful about how we define their parameters.

This is the point at which it might be wise to remember the importance of parsimony in our attempts to explain behavior. In trying to explain a phenomenon, it is better to depend on well-understood processes rather than propose alternatives that lack a solid scientific foundation. In other words, instead of supposing that there is always a physiological basis for our vernacular statements about feelings, in the absence of supporting scientific evidence about underlying physiological processes, it may be more parsimonious to explain most of these statements in terms of a learning history largely – if not entirely – influenced by external environmental circumstances.


Skinner, B. F. (1974). About behaviorism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.


When are feelings really feelings?

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Jim Johnston

Dr. Johnston received his doctorate from the University of Florida in 1970 and held faculty positions at Georgia State University, the University of Florida, and Auburn University. He has published both laboratory and field research with both human and non-human species on a variety of topics. He has longstanding interests in the area of developmental disabilities and founded the Master’s Program in Applied Behavior Analysis in Developmental Disabilities at Auburn University. He has served as editor of The Behavior Analyst and on the editorial boards of the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior and the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, among others. He has served as president of the Association for Behavior Analysis International, as well as for the Florida, Alabama, and Southeastern behavior analysis organizations, and was the first president of the Behavior Analysis Certification Board and the Association of Professional Behavior Analysts.

When are feelings really feelings? November 20, 2018