Affective realism and responsibility

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Chapter 4 endnote 46, from How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett.
Some context is:

People employ affect as information, creating affective realism, throughout daily life. Food is “delicious” or “bland.” Paintings are “beautiful” or “ugly.” [...] Victims of domestic violence are said to “bring it on themselves.” [...] Affective realism lets us sidestep responsibility.

Affective realism lets us act quickly and decisively, but it often sidesteps responsibility. The phrase “This is negative” implies that the world is a certain way and there’s no room for another perspective (and therefore you are not responsible for your actions, because any normal, reasonable person would act the same way). The more nuanced phrase “I experience this as negative” allows flexibility and permits perspective-taking (and therefore some volition on your part).

Putting on my therapist’s hat, I can tell you that one of the most useful skills you can develop is to distinguish your own affective feelings from “the way the world is.” In marital therapy, statements like “I experience you as argumentative” help you take your partner's perspective, and assume more responsibility for your actions than accusations like “you are argumentative.”

In its most extreme form, affective realism can be a sign of mental illness. Schizophrenic patients with delusions are more likely to experience neutral stimuli as negative, and they have more arousal to neutral stimuli that tracks the severity of their delusions. (Affective arousal was measured by skin conductance.[1]) These patients appear to have impaired functioning of the interoceptive network,[2] leading them to feel that neutral objects or events are very negative, or even sinister, even when presented with contrary evidence.


Notes on the Notes

  1. Holt, Daphne J., Kelimer Lebron-Milad, Mohammed R. Milad, Scott L. Rauch, Roger K. Pitman, Scott P. Orr, Brittany S. Cassidy, Jared P. Walsh, and Donald C. Goff. 2009. "Extinction memory is impaired in schizophrenia." Biological Psychiatry 65 (6): 455-463.
  2. Holt, Daphne J., Balaji Lakshmanan, Oliver Freudenreich, Donald C. Goff, Scott L. Rauch, and Gina R. Kuperberg. 2009. "Dysfunction of a cortical midline network during emotional appraisals in schizophrenia." Schizophrenia Bulletin 37 (1): 164-176.