Instinct, Learning, and Emotion

Instinct, Learning, and Emotion

The face is the main registrar of our emotions. Humans are able to read the most subtle facial expressions, even knowing if a smile is forced or authentic. There are also physiological markers of emotion: heart rate, skin response, and breathing and respiration. And finally, there are behaviors linked to emotions, such as running when scared or laughing when happy. It is not always easy to determine which emotions someone is displaying, however, as these components are only somewhat linked. Researcher Paul Ekman found that displays and recognition of emotions are universal, and not as culturally unique as once believed. His findings were disputed when presented in the 1970s (Hinshaw, 2010).

Emotions are no longer considered irrational or disorganizing, but are now regarded as very organizing factors in our lives. They are considered necessary to human achievement by eliciting goals, needs and motivation. Emotions organize humans in “physiological, behavioral, and cognitive processes to shape our goal-directed behavior.” Without emotions, such as in the case of brain trauma or surgery cases, otherwise intelligent individuals could not make rational decisions. When the power of emotions is missing, action seems to freeze.

If experiencing emotions is vital to our decision making and goal directed behavior, then regulating emotion must be considered equally important. Emotions can have the tendency to overwhelm rational thought. Unregulated emotions are detrimental to our personal, professional and competitive lives. We can see the effect of emotions in social discourse these days and how large-scale decisions politically and socially are often made on emotional rather than fact-based grounds, a tendency which can have very detrimental consequences. Even if we inherit some of our emotional tendencies or acquire them through temperament, there are a number of methods for consciously regulating emotions in stressful situations such as avoidance, changing the situation, being selective about our attention, self-talk, or suppression (the most deleterious choice). In many of the serious mental disorders, there is great difficulty regulating emotions. Most interesting to note, whether we are reacting based on our instincts, learning or emotions, we cannot function rationally without the use of our emotions (Hinshaw, 2010).


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About the Author

Mary McFaddenMary has lived in the Sacramento, California area her entire life. Her undergraduate degrees were in Journalism and Music. Upon graduation she worked for small regional newspapers which launched her career in Sacramento’s city government. She worked several years as an aide to a city councilmember, then moved to the Sacramento Police Department where she worked for over 20 years. Mary worked in a unit providing community policing training to law enforcement throughout California and participated in several curriculum development meetings with the Department of Justice in Washington, DC. She then went on to be a creator and editor for many years of the Police Department’s publications, annual reports and website. While working for the City Council, Mary received her Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology from The Professional School of Psychology (PSP). She is currently pursuing her Doctorate degree at PSP. Mary’s husband is also a graduate of PSP and they have two grown children. Her education in psychology has been an invaluable part of her professional and private life.

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