By Phineas Upham
[Part four of a four-part essay]
Construal applied to theories of emotion
Emotions and construal are intricately linked. We feel emotions about the way we believe the world is (at least for those emotions which are instrumental) and the world is as we construe it. But the relationship also goes the other way – not only do we feel emotions through the lens of construal, but we construe through the lenses of emotions! Thus there is a very strong feedback loop between these two concepts. Our emotional states deeply affect the way we perceive the world around us. This implies that even in identical situations, our emotional state will be a very important moderator to our interpretation and construal of the world (and vice versa).
The debate between Lazarus and Zajonc is one in which construal is very central. The central question is whether or not cognition (which crucially includes construal) proceeds emotion. Lazarus claims that in almost all cases (he allows for the possibility that some hardwired emotions are an exception) cognition precedes – is necessary and sufficient for – emotion. His claim can be glossed with the idea that the world must be mediated with cognition since one must at a very minimum understand/interpret the objects of the world around oneself before one can emotionally react to it. In dealing with the counterargument that emotion seems to come very, very quickly and at the very beginning of some situations before full understanding has been processed (before the world has been fully digested and construed), he argues that cognition can be partial and, once internalized, very quick. The disagreement can be seen in the statement “I would certainly agree that a person need not be aware of his or her cognitive appraisals… but I would argue against the idea that some appraisals (Zajonc refers to preferences) are non-cognitive” (1022). But if we are defining cognition as any sort of appraisal, then it does seem logically true that we must unconsciously appraise a situation before we can have an emotion to it. One some level it seems we must register “edge” or “snake” or merely “snakelike characteristics” upon which our fear and emotional reactions proceed.
If we had just gained our eyesight (after being blind) the world around us would have no meaning and would just be flashes of undifferentiated color and light – i.e. we would not construe meaning into the world we would just observe the meaningless colors and shapes. This seems too weak a definition for “thinking” or true “cognition,” and this is exactly the point Zajonc pounces, but then he goes further and I do not follow. “My definition of cognition required some form of transformation of a present or past sensory input. ‘Pure’ sensory input, untransformed according to a more of less fixed code, is not cognition” (118). This seems like a perfectly fine necessary condition for cognition but he treats it as a sufficient one, which clashes with my earlier point (and Lazarus’s argument is suddenly back from the dead – pun intended). A man who has never seem a snake/poison toad will not react emotionally to it, will not construe it as an object of danger either consciously or unconsciously. Clearly, one must register it as a snake (perhaps globally, or tentatively, or incompletely) and then ones automatic emotional reaction can occur. I am not sure what Zajonc, who I believe has the better of the argument in general, would respond to this. Nevertheless, I think Lazarus is begging the question with his definition of cognition and that more is required – that some sort of construal is necessary.
Isen and Baron’s piece, speaks of “positive affect, defined as pleasant feelings induced by commonplace events or circumstances”. Whether we are going to define such “moods” or “states of mind” as emotions is questionable and, to be fair, the authors never claim to. The essay claims that a positive state of mind, often easily induced by giving someone candy or a warm welcome, significantly effects their actions and social behavior for the better. This change is significant enough for Isen and Baron to suggest that the field of OB might be benefited from looking at this effect for workplace and sales applications. In its essence, we consrue the identical actions or things in certain moods than in others.
The world of Taylor and Brown is especially illuminating to the idea of construal. It made the argument that wearing rose-tinted glasses (as Shakespeare put it) could be (and generally is) an adaptive strategy. It thus put itself at odds with the literature which defined mental health as having an accurate picture of self and with the normative claim that this would even be desirable. It shows us yet again that the central tension in construal between truthfulness and usefulness is real. Rose tinted glasses may be useful (for some hard-wired cognitive reason, or some intrinsic-structural ego reason) but it is not necessarily illustrative of ones real abilities or skills.
If construal theory, in this essay, has shown us one thing, it is that the world is interpreted for our use, and that while truthfulness is a component of that , it is not the only one by any means. Our minds have an amazing ability and a heavy burden. Our minds have the ability to construe the world, to interpret the world, to shape our perceptions of the world. But they also have the burden if doing this shaping in such a way that they preserve the sometimes contradictory ideas of truthfulness and usefulness. What is ‘real’ in the world or the way other see it, is not necessarily the way we do, or ought. But at the same time, there is some value to seeing things as others do (both so you can predict their actions and so you have a common frame of reference in which to cooperate). Lastly, there is a third force which this work has shown us affects the construal process. It is the environmental and cognitive background of the world – the moods, emotions, light-exposure, air-pressure, etc.. While these are often useful in viewing the world, in these cases they seem to be intruding where they are apparently not helpful (it is hard to see how less light ought to make one feel worse about oneself). So our construal process moderated between these three forces in order to give us our world-view, understanding of causality, value judgments, emotions, and interpretations of the world. Perhaps humility in the face of such complexity and such amazing achievements of nature to make, through construal and other cognitive processes, the incomprehensible comprehensible, the complex relatively understandable is best summed up by Ecclesiastes: “vanity vanity, all is vanity… and that which is crooked shall not be made straight, and that which is lacking shall not be counted.”
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