What Do You Consider to Be Your Most Important Scientific Contributions?
Consider Miranda, a first-year college student, whose parents informed her that they were separating. There had been tension at home, but the news was a shock. She was upset and found it hard to think about much else. Beyond being upset, what emotions might she feel, and what impact might they have? A theory of emotion I developed with colleagues addresses the emotion question, and research on emotion with other colleagues and students addresses the impact question.
Emotions depend on one's focus of attention. Ortony, Clore, and Collins’ emotion theory says that one can focus on outcomes, actions, or objects, which are evaluated on the basis of goals, standards, and tastes. Outcome emotions concern goals. For example, Miranda's loss of family security might make her fearful, but the reduced family conflict would be a relief. She could also focus on actions, which are evaluated on the basis of standards. Miranda might feel admiration at a family member's praiseworthy action or pride in her own. She might feel anger at another's blameworthy action or shame at her own. Finally, she could focus on the appealing versus distasteful attributes of objects, including individuals. Object-focused emotions include like, dislike, love, hate, or disgust. Additionally, as her attention shifts back and forth, she might experience several different emotions almost at once. What any of us feels depends on what we attend to and evaluate. We can control our attention, but evaluations are automatic and generally unconscious, so our emotions can surprise us.
Let's turn to the question of how Miranda's emotions might influence her. Affect-as-information theory (developed with Norbert Schwarz and elaborated with Jeffery Hunstinger and Linda Isbell) says that it depends on her current mindset. Most people have a moderately broad, global scope of attention. If positive affect says “yes” to that inclination, it would promote a big-picture focus, creativity, and confidence in her thoughts. But Miranda's sad feelings should say “no” to those impulses, narrowing her focus, making her less creative, but maybe better at spotting problems. The “take home message” is that such influences are not fixed but changeable.