Reading 4.4 – You can’t understand feelings and emotions without behavior

Chapter 4 – What Is Really Inside?

Reading 4.4 – You can’t understand feelings and emotions without behavior

Even passing contact with the mainstream research literature on feelings and emotions suggests that most investigators are content with trying to understand these phenomena without considering the role of learned behavior. This approach typically collates psychological and physiological elements to fashion explanations that somehow seem to avoid any need for bringing learned behavior into the mix. Emotional phenomena are left to arise entirely from brain and mental activities.

More IFLScience!

A recent post on the IFLScience! website prompted my latest brush with this traditional explanatory strategy. Posing the question “Why do we feel intense emotions in our chest?” readers were linked to a brief answer by Robert Emery and James Coan, psychology professors at the University of Virginia, published in Scientific American a few years ago and then to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Nummenmaa, Glerean, Hari, & Hietanen, 2013).

Emery & Coan acknowledged that science has not yet answered this question, but noted a possible pathway between the mind and the body. They pointed out that the anterior cingulate cortex can “respond” to a stressful experience by increasing the activity of the vagus nerve, which connects the brain stem to the neck, chest, and abdomen.

Nummenmaa and coauthors conducted a study in which participants were asked to indicate the bodily regions where they felt reactions to varied words, stories, movies, or facial expressions. Putting aside the study itself, they summarized the emotional processing literature as “assum[ing] that subjective emotional feelings are triggered by the perception of emotion-related bodily states that reflect changes in the skeletomuscular, neuroendocrine, and autonomic nervous systems. These conscious feelings help the individuals to voluntarily fine-tune their behavior to better match the challenges of the environment.”

It is important to note the key role of mental processes in this traditional understanding of how emotions might relate to behavior. First, feelings are assumed to arise only when we are aware of certain bodily conditions. That is, certain bodily states are preconditions that must lead to conscious recognition of them to result in emotional feelings. Second, these feelings are then brought to bear on behavior only voluntarily – that is, through some mental process. In other words, behavior is affected by emotions only under these conditions.

The matter of causality

Behavior analysts take a rather different approach to explaining feelings and emotions (the terms are often used interchangeably). Contrary to the assumption of many outside of our field, behavior analysts do not ignore feelings and emotions. Instead, they view feelings as real bodily conditions that must be acknowledged and incorporated into a comprehensive explanation of behavior. The fact that these physical conditions are often private is inconvenient but does not discourage us from admitting their status as physiological variables that must be considered in explaining behavior. The challenge is to explain the role played by the environment and behavior in what we call feelings and emotions without falling prey to mentalistic distractions.

The key to avoid slipping into a mental domain is properly addressing the matter of causality. The traditional view leans toward the assumption that feelings and emotions are largely independent of behavior in their origin. The alternative view preferred by behavior analysts is that without a particular learning history, the physiological events that that we call feelings do not acquire emotional impact or characteristics. These physiological events must occur in the context of social contingencies in order to have what we would consider emotional effects on behavior. We learn to respond to certain physiological stimuli in ways that we label emotional as a result of this history. We learn to cry under varied environmental circumstances, for example, as well as to describe that behavior as emotional.

It might seem reasonable to concede that in this arrangement the physiological events serve as the cause of the resulting emotional behavior. After all, it seems that the physiological events occur first and are only then followed by some behavioral reaction. This assessment is a trap, however, because it begs the question of what causes the physical feelings to occur in the first place. What we must not do is assume that they autonomously originate from biological or mental processes. The most parsimonious origin of such feelings lies in the environment, the same environment that is also responsible for the emotional behavior that we observe. In other words, both the physical feelings and emotional behavior should be traced back to a common source – the environment. So, an environmental event such as the death of a beloved pet results in both the physiological processes associated with crying and the emotion we call sadness.

And then there’s more

Getting the matter of causality straight is only the beginning. Chapter 3 explains a number of complications associated with feelings and emotions, such as the fact that we often have difficulty detecting them because we are not especially well wired to respond to the details of what is going on in our bodies. We simply cannot detect most physiological activity or distinguish one kind of private event and another. We might be able to reliably detect what we call hunger pangs, for example, but we are generally unaware of our blood pressure, among many other physiological conditions.

This limitation complicates acquiring the skill of responding to particular internal conditions, a skill that does not develop without a special kind of learning history. This history requires a verbal community that arranges contingencies to teach us to respond to what is going on in our bodies. This training task is straightforward when stimuli are public (an object in front of both trainee and trainer) but difficult in this case because the trainers often cannot detect the physiological events they are trying to bring our behavior under control of. This is the challenge parents face when teaching a young child to report a tummy ache, for example. As a result, the resulting repertoire of identifying physical sensations is comparatively weak and varies considerably from one person to another.

A further complication is that we learn is to respond to the same physiological goings on differently under different circumstances. That is, we are taught to label our feelings and emotional behavior differently depending on the situation. The same physiological events may be at work across varying circumstances, and yet we may describe our emotional reactions in different terms. For example, we may say we are happy when crying at our best friend’s wedding but sad if we cry when our pet dies.

Fundamental contrasts

The contrasts between traditional and behavior analytic approaches to feelings and emotions are fundamental. In the customary model, feelings and emotions arise in a mental domain in response to physiological factors and are defined in terms of mental processes. Their impact on behavior is also said to be mediated by mental processes. The environment is assigned little role along the way, and learning histories are not usually considered.

For behavior analysts, the contribution of the environment is seminal in the origin of the physical processes we call feelings and of the behavior we call emotional. Feelings and emotions would not emerge as a discernable phenomenon without an ongoing, multifaceted relationship with environmental events and behavior. As a bonus, properly recognizing this relationship minimizes the temptation to assign physiological processes undue influence and to create a role for mental processes.


Nummenmaa, L, Glerean, E., Hari, R., & Hietanen, J.K. (2013). Bodily maps of emotions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111 (2), 646-651.