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Emotions obey laws

Opinion Written by John Berry on 8th June 2017. Reading time: 4 minutes

Emotion obeys lawsDuring a seminar recently, a lady asked about what to do when someone in a meeting is getting emotional – they become so angry that they disrupt the meeting.

Frijda’s Laws of Emotion tell us much that will help us first understand this situation and then suggest a course of action that the meeting chair might take to recover good order. Managers can successfully deal with anger because emotions obey laws.

Emotions as Responses

First, some definitions. Emotions are responses to events that are interpreted and, unless regulated, cause behaviour. This simple statement is key to understanding. This process from event to behaviour can be described neatly in a model shown above. The solid lines with arrowheads illustrate ‘leads to’ from one concept to another, so, for example, an event leads to appraisal of that event. Dotted lines are lines of influence.

This defines emotions as having three parts: action readiness, affect (liking and disliking) and arousal. The behaviour exhibited depends on the strength of each of these. In a process sense, there is flow from left to right while other concepts influence outcomes.

Coping Despite Other Influence

The essence of the model can be found in the parable of the ant: the simple mind of the ant and its desire to walk in a straight line is upset or invalidated by rough terrain and strong wind to create a very irregular path walked. In other words, the environment in which all organisms exist influences their behaviour. But more about the ant later.

The situation asked about at the seminar can be explained like this.

Let’s call the person who gets angry and out of hand in the meeting the ‘actor’. An event has obviously occurred about which the actor has concerns – they care about the topic, it matters to them. It could be their reputation that’s challenged or they could be victim to some injustice or about to be a victim. The actor appraises the situation. They may become aroused, feel dislike and be ready for action. Whether they actually act depends much on their repertoire of possible actions and their ability to regulate their behaviour. That in turn depends on the actor’s mood at the time of the event.

The simple model shown above helps us understand how the situation deteriorated. An event occurred. The actor was aroused by this and responded with angry behaviour.

Multiple Emotional Events

Compounding this, emotions should be put on a temporal plane – placing each event in time. Emotions don’t exist in isolation. A previous event and its associated event-behaviour process may not have finished. There may not have been recovery to a null state before the second or subsequent event impacted. The actor’s behaviour may be the result of concurrent or separate but sequential events.

Let’s consider now what else we know. Each analysis uses Frijda’s Laws of Emotion to infer meaning.

The Laws of Emotion

The Law of Closure suggests that when the emotion process occurs, the actor exists within ‘closed walls’. It may be difficult to have them put the event in any larger context that might allow them to appraise it as less significant. This instantly suggests that stopping the meeting might be a valid strategy. The actor (and perhaps the chair or someone else who will work with the actor) can be moved out of the meeting context .

The fact that the actor has already become angry negates any action at the front end of the process. The Law of Situational Meaning and the Law of Concern will have already clicked in. The actor cares (about something of significant meaning) and a motive’s been triggered! Some sensibility has been enflamed.

Humans react (and exhibit some emotional behaviour) when the difference between their normal state and aroused state becomes sufficiently great. This is governed by the Law of Comparative Feeling. But the actor has already reacted! He or she believes that the event is significant and the Law of Comparative Reality suggests the event is real – even if it’s a rumour or just imagined by the actor.

Now to action. The Law of Conservation of Emotional Momentum suggests that emotion will persist indefinitely unless counteracted by other exposure to events that permit extinction. So to do nothing is not an option! The chair must act to create another event of significant meaning to replace the first.

We have to believe that the actor is aware of what he or she is doing. The Law of Care of Consequence suggests that every emotional impulse elicits a secondary impulse that tends to modify the behaviour considering possible consequence. The actor will be concerned for what happens as a result of their getting angry and exhibiting anti-social behaviour. It’s eminently possible to change the behaviour through some new event, like an expression of empathy with the actor. Perhaps the first words from the chair, on getting the actor out of the meeting, should be “I understand how you feel”.

Adding all these together, the meeting chair must now create an event that permits the actor to suffer minimum emotional load and encourage the actor to view the situation in another way – one that allows maximum emotional gain. The chair must get the actor alone and suggest an alternative meaning to the events. The chair must break the closed walls of the event, allowing it to be interpreted in a bigger context.

The key thing is that the actor’s Regulation Processes must be strengthened such that the meeting can resume without danger of repetition of the behaviour. Incorrect beliefs and assumptions must be corrected. And the actor must be encouraged to cope.

Successfully deal with anger because emotions obey laws

Now, we all know that the way we’d intuitively deal with this all-too-common situation would be to remove the actor and have a word. But this analysis has given reason for this. It shows that emotions can be analysed using a process model and systems analysis. It’s a science, rather than a management action based on pure experience that’s in turn learned by rote.

So emotions obey laws.

But what about the ant? Despite its erratic path, the ant still gets to its intended destination. In the same sense, everyone at work encounters potentially emotional events. But by keeping perspectives and learning control, everyone can cope and avoid such anger in meetings.

  • Frijda, N.H. (2013) The Laws of Emotion, Routledge, Hove, UK.

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