BOOKS: How Emotions are Made, by Lisa Feldman Barrett


It is evident from this book that Barret is an accomplished researcher. Further, her research is relevant and interesting — but what is most interesting is how she tries to portray her research. The book could have been far more informative, concise and enjoyable had she not been so obsessed with convincing the reader that her research upsets commonly held beliefs about emotions. Because it does not.

But what is so strange, is that she has chosen to misrepresent the commonly held beliefs, so that her research will appear to contradict them.


In addition to outlining her research, Barrett rails against the ‘classical view’ of emotion. I don’t know if her representation of the classical view of emotions is fair — regardless, I do not believe that she describes is the commonly held view. She states or implies this repeatedly, but it simply is not so. She champions the idea that our expectations affect our perception as if most people are not very aware of this. She talks about human bias as if we really believe that it doesn’t exist.

Barret also seems to believe that most people assume the meaning of a facial expression or reaction is cross-culturally universal, but anyone that has played a bluffing game or spent time in another country will likely tacitly realize that body language, laughing, smiling, and frowning don’t mean the same thing in different places. Most people would not only say that a given facial expression could indicate a different mental state across different individuals within a cultural population, but that it could do so for the same person in different contexts. Maybe some research had pointed to an alternative belief, but she doesn’t seem to appreciate that the vast majority of the public do not follow psychological research very closely (and likely take findings reported from news broadcasts with a grain of salt).

She discusses misconceptions about neurological mechanisms that achieve emotional states as if a non-specialist would have a firm belief on the level of plasticity or the universality of brain development. We get many glimpses into her social and family life throughout the book, but she soundly fails to convince us that her views have been applied outside an ivory tower.

Her thesis statement — that emotions are predictive and not reactive — is indeed provocative, but not an actual description of what her research really seems to show.

When you comb through what she is really saying, the statement doesn’t mean much. She has untangled a lot of what is going on at lower levels of mental processing — and she has put together a wonderful theory on how emotions are generated, but her use of the term ‘predictive’ refers to a very specific level of processing. Ultimately, by her own admission, the emotion is still a response to environmental stimulus — the novelty is that she seems to have uncovered levels of processing between sensory collection and the manifestation of an observable response.

I imagine that her research, while fascinating and compelling, would not be particularly interesting or relevant to the general public. This is a problem, if you’ve spent your life investigating this phenomenon. Her response to the situation, however, seems to be to misrepresent just about everything, and in an effort to fabricate applicability to things like historical events and legal policy, she has come up with some ridiculous and frightening suggestions.

And while, despite misrepresenting the novelty of her more general statements, I assume the causal and correlative relationship links her research has supported are real, her application is at times flabbergasting.

She credits the Gulf War to a mis-reading between negotiators of different cultures — and basically implies that “If these guys had read my book, they would have known that it’s hard to read a person from a different culture,” as if that wasn’t something that may have been considered — or that they ever spent any time reading anyone’s theory on how emotions are generated.

In discussing how an emotional state can manifest as measurable physical ailments, she asks “Why is it that you can sue someone for breaking your leg but not for breaking your heart?”(pg240) Because this is a question that likely challenges a well-embedded assumption (that you can not be held legally responsible for someone else’s feelings), the answer is not immediately forthcoming. Barrett is quick to mislead the reader towards arguments that she can defeat. But lets ask ourselves: Why can’t you?” My response would be that most people today do not feel that it would be just to have our freedom to pursue happiness to be constrained by another person’s feelings. If you leave your spouse, they may be sad. No matter how severely, no matter how physically, that depression is manifested, no one is expected to do — or continue doing — something they do not want, for the sake of someone else’s feelings.

We could extend this principle to the physical realm, and point out that if we were trapped under rubble, and I incidentally broke your leg while extricating myself, we would not think that I acted criminally (even if some legal systems may hold me responsible).

Upon citing evidence that exposure to certain kinds of media can lead to an increase in ‘bad predictions’ (which translates to an increased liklihood of reacting ‘badly’ (eg: violently), she cites ‘the forseeability argument’ in the law, and suggests that a crime should be punished more heavily if they have chosen to expose themselves to ‘bad media’ (eg: violent/intolerant tv shows/video games).

She seems to believe that we humans have no real choice in how we act in response to an emotional experience, and implies that the best we can do is ‘pre-load’ our psyche with media and experiences that encourage the desired behaviour. She shockingly criticizes free speech, by suggesting that it carries too much potential to populate human minds with ‘bad predictions’(pg250-251) It would seem that she is bent on find ways to employ her research to generate a dystopia.

Barret describes her theories on emotions as constructionist and describes ‘the enemy’ as essentialist. It is hard to take the dichotomy too seriously, because, even under constructionism, once an emotional concept is formed (to use her terminology), would it not behave like an essence? Isn’t it obvious that it would? And by her own reasoning, if we perceive it as an essence, will not our higher level processing treat it so? Her determined attack on what she calls essentialism becomes frivolous in light of the importance she herself puts on the significance of perception. I would go as far as to say that one could expect essentialist principles to arise from a constructionist foundations. And perhaps that is why our actual current understanding of emotions has allowed society to function throughout history.

Her prejudice and tunnel vision against essientialism is so potent that it is almost as if she has said to herself, “I’m a constructionist, and I am right, so essentialism must be wrong. Therefore, everything I don’t like is wrong and essentialist and it is wrong because it is essentialist.” No, it is not sound reasoning, but this flawed set of assumptions can account for so many ridiculous statements found in the book.

I would like to re-state that I found her research to be worth consideration, but would also like to stress that she couldn’t have presented this information more poorly, and her application of the research is beyond inappropriate. Barret seems to be attempting to be misleading the reader from the beginning — but I can’t be sure if this is intentional, or the result of having such a void of familiarity with the actual behaviour of the common human. Her little quizes throughout the book did not help her cause, as her predictions were wrong for each of them. Despite her ‘priming’ of each picture, I accurately identified the blot picture almost immediately, and did not make the expected assumption about the significance of a specific facial expression out of context.

There took a lot of note on this book, and there are many examples of flawed arguments, broad generalisations, and glaring omissions are used to make misleading statements. It is tempting to examine these in more detail, but would perhaps be out of place in this review (perhaps in a subsequent discussion).

While it could have easily been a book to enlighten, How Emotions Are Made is unfortunately a book that strives to deceive.

I heard Barrett promoting her book on CBC’s The Current about a year ago. She came out swinging at the inaccuracy of the children’s movie Inside Out and was heavily criticizing the mainstream understanding of emotions. Her arguments were not particularly convincing, but that might be expected in a 20 minute interview on a complex topic, that is designed to promote the book rather than enlighten.

And so I had to read the book, to see if her positions were justified, or if she was just making counter-intuitive statements to appear provocative. I did not enjoy the book, but I am glad I read it. It is clear that Barrett is an excellent researcher, and I assume a leader in her field. The book, however, is not designed to enlighten, and at times seems to be more a political tool; her rhetoric is often deceitful to the point of being dangerous. I found myself spending considerable effort sifting through her prose to get to the real information, and I was often left wondering if this was done on purpose, and what her motivations might be.

Her thesis is that emotions are not reactive, but predictive – this is a bold statement, since it is considerably counter-intuitive, and its not clear what this statement even means. Barrett goes to considerable lengths to build a narrative to make the statement appear reasonable. She uses weak anecdotal supporting examples, and it doesn’t take much consideration to see that, despite all her explanatory gymnastics, by her own research and statements, emotions are still reactive. What she has done is expounded mechanisms for how emotions are generated and utilized, and given explanations for why they function this way. She gives examples of experimental flaws how they were corrected, and what the data mean. She gives a very good account of how emotions work. This is impressive, and wonderful, and the book would be a wonderful text if she had simply delivered this information without trying to convince us that ‘this changes everything.’ Perhaps her publishers told her that her results weren’t shocking enough to make for a marketable book, and so she went to work trying to frame her research in a shocking way. Here was the common tactic of the book: Make an (often inaccurate) statement about how “most people” think things are, point out that it is wrong, support it with her research, and then discuss how the misconceptions (which is not actually widespread, but she maintains that it is) are negatively affecting our society. It would have made more sense to simply: explain how things work, discuss the supporting research, and discuss how policy could be improved to account for the current reality. The way she has chosen to write this book is beyond surprising, and considerably disappointing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s