Fooled by Feelings

I mentioned earlier in the course the idea that we understand our emotions by interpreting our physiological reactions; sweating palms, increased heart rate, wobbly legs: I must be nervous. Since the physiological reactions for different emotions can be similar, it is possible for us to misinterpret the signals. An illustration of this came from a study in which an attractive female experimenter interviewed males in the either at in the middle of a narrow footbridge over a deep ravine or solid ground at the side.[1] Following the interview, she gave each of them her telephone number. Males who were interviewed in the middle of the bridge were twice as likely to call her later. The explanation: the danger from being in the middle of the bridge created greater physiological arousal which was then misinterpreted by the male as sexual attraction. This research is consistent with other research which shows that how we interpret our emotions is dependent on context.[2] Therefore be aware that your interpretation of a situation may be distorted by how you are feeling.

Infant Attachment

There is another, possibly more important, reason why our brains are hard-wired for relationships. An infant human is virtually helpless for the first years of its life and depends on others. Since this is the period when the brain is at its most plastic, strong connections will form that link reward (I have just been fed) with other people. Helplessness and frustration will be linked to the absence of others.

“As development continues, children become increasingly interested in mental states, both their own and other people’s. They are born psychologists, always wanting to know the psychological whys and wherefores of other people’s behaviour.”[3]

A number of distinct attachment patterns[4] have been identified by child psychologists and there is evidence to suggest that these patterns correlate to patterns of behaviour as adults. These patterns are influenced by the behaviours of the child’s carers, though as discussed earlier, since each child is wired differently from birth, it is not possible to prescribe perfect parenting. What we can say, however, is that we are predisposed towards assessing and maintaining good relationships.

Although Maslow places love and belonging and esteem in the middle of his hierarchy of needs[5], we have seen that the brain processes social threats in the same way as physical threats; hunger and ostracism from a group activate the same cell assemblies. Because these primal pathways were originally associated with life-or-death situations, they can exert a powerful grip on your thoughts and feelings. 

[1] D. G. Dutton and A. P. Aron, ‘Some Evidence for Heightened Sexual Attraction Under Conditions of High Anxiety’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

[2] Schwarz, N. (2010) Feelings as information. In Van Lange, P. & Kruglanski, A. & Higgins, E.T. (Eds.), Handbook of theories of social psychology, Sange

[3] Attachment Across the Lifecourse: A Brief Introduction by David Howe.