Behaviorism and emotion

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Chapter 12 endnote 46, from How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett.
Some context is:

Circuitry that controls freezing is not circuitry for fear. This egregious scientific misunderstanding, along with the phrase “fear learning,” has sown confusion for decades and turned what’s effectively an experiment on classical conditioning into an industry of fear. [...] This confusion became institutionalized in psychology during behaviorism.

Behaviorism is the period in psychology when scientists rejected the study of mental phenomena like thoughts, feelings and perceptions in favor of studying objects and events in the world (i.e., stimuli) and their associated physical changes (i.e., responses), which were more easily measurable. Words like “fear” and “anger” were used to refer to purely physical changes. To behaviorists, “fear” was equivalent to changes in sweat in response to an electric shock. “Anger” was equivalent to the number of attacks launched in response to an intruder in the cage. Their carefully-traced brain circuits became circuits for emotion, rather than circuits for actions in a particular situation or context.

Behaviorism eventually faded away, but this misunderstanding remains.[1][2] The essentialism of their vocabulary remained and the damage was done.

I think it is OK for an owner to refer to his dog as fearful when at the park, but not for a scientist in a lab. This might seem like I am being inconsistent, but think about it this way: scientists who report fear in dogs (or rats) are engaging in the mental inference fallacy. In “fear learning” experiments, scientists claim that the essence of fear is located entirely in the animal's brain. When an owner perceives emotion in a pet, there is no claim that essence of the emotion is located entirely in the animal. Part of that circuitry is in the human perceiver.

The circuitry for growling is in the dog, and the circuitry for perception of anger is in the human perceiver who is observing the dog. The whole system, including both dog and human, is responsible for the instance of anger as a human perception.


Notes on the Notes

  1. LeDoux, Joseph E. 2014. “Coming to Terms with Fear.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111 (8): 2871–2878.
  2. LeDoux, Joseph E. 2015. Anxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety. New York: Penguin.