In a great book, “What Is Emotion”, the author, Jerome Kagan, writes on subjective and objective frames of evaluation.
“A fair proportion of contemporary psychologists assume that individuals from the same culture who use particular term to describe a present or past emotion probably have, or had, a similar feeling. Unfortunately, the evidence implies a flaw in this assumption. If a man participating in a group discussion with six other people cannot recall thirty minutes later how often he interrupted someone else, it is unlikely that most individuals are able to recall and/or describe accurately emotional experiences that occurred days, months, or years earlier. This problem raises the historical distinction between subjective frames.
Scientists who study human psychological states recognize the need to distinguish between the terms individuals use to describe their emotions and the theoretical terms that are intended to explain covariation between events, on one hand, and behavioral or biological outcomes, on the other. This distinction shares features with the anthropological contrast between emic and etic descriptions. A person’s subjective judgment of their social class position is a somewhat better predictor of their health than the sociologists’ objective indexes of social class. Trained raters judging the emotional quality and intensity of the dreams of participants awarded a less salient and less pleasant valence to the dreams than the dreamers did. The Nobel poet Czeslaw Milosz wrote a letter to Thomas Merton when Milosz was teaching Polish literature at the University of California. One sentence read, “Ten years ago I just escaped from America, being afraid of a life without purpose and of acedia.” “Acedia,” for Milosx, referred to a feeling of terror in the face of spiritual emptiness. Acedia is absent from every psychologist’s list of emotions. This quotation is intended, not as an argument for relying on concepts originating in the subjective frame, but to indicate how difficult it is to invent scientific constructs for the extraordinary variety in subjective emotional states.
Many scientists use the term fear as a construct to explain a correlation between an aversive event and a reliable biological or behavioral reaction, and not always as a description of a human or an animal psychological state. For example, one team of investigators attributed fear healthy human participants because they showed a conditioned rise in heart rate to a signal that stimulus. I suspect that if the individuals who showed a conditioned rise in heat rate were asked about emotional state, they would have said that they were annoyed, irritated, or even angry, and few would have reported feeling afraid. After all, the brief bursts of loud noise, which became predictable over trials, posed no threat of harm, status, loss or rejection. Hence, their subjective state did not match the one implied by the construct “fear”.
Perhaps the most serious problem in writings on emotion is that the variation in the salience of self-reports of emotions to a cognitive or social challenge is not highly correlated both verbal reports on extroversion, neuroticism, and emotional expressiveness and relevant behavioral observations revealed that the two sources of evidence were not equivalent.
Recall that women given testosterone reported similar levels of fear to a signal for electric shock as those given a placebo, but the first group displayed smaller startles to the signal. Adults told to suppress all external signs of emotion while watching two short films of medical procedures designed to evoke disgust displayed significant changes in both behavior and peripheral physiology but, surprisingly, did not differ in ratings of their emotional states from those who simply watched the films and did not suppress emotion. Similarly, Caucasian American college-age couples discussing their relationship smiled more and expressed fewer comments referring to shame or sadness than Chinese-American couples, but the two groups reported similar emotional states and displayed equivalent changes in heart rate and skin conductance. Preadolescents who reported feeling intense anxiety failed to display more behavioral signs of anxiety when they had to speak in front of a camera than youth who reported less intense anxiety. More over, the parents and teachers of the former youth did not describe them as highly anxious. There were dissociations among behavior, biology, and self-reported emotion in all of these studies, Even a person’s subjective estimate of her or his sensitivity to smells bears little relation to objective measures of that persons olfactory thresholds.
One reason for the modest, often negligible, relation between self-descriptions of feelings and emotions, on one hand, and biological or behavior or response uncertainty. Among those who usually maintain a most of uncertainty, moments of relaxed serenity are discrepant and better remembered. Hence, when psychologists ask these two types of persons to describe their usual feeling before examinations, a fair proportion of the former group say they are anxious, where more members of the latter group say they are relaxed.
A second problem with verbal reports of emotions is that the questions must accommodate to they language repertoire of the respondents. For example, psychologists cannot ask parents if they hold ambivalent attitudes toward their children or ask high school students if they acedia. Although most individuals can recognize the facial expression characteristic of individuals who are condescending toward those regard as less worthy, they are unlikely to use the term contempt to name this distinct facial expression because this word is used infrequently.
Third, individuals hold implicit beliefs regarding the quality and intensity of the emotions they believe they ought to experience as a function of their gender, age, religion, or ethnicity. That is one reason why American women usually report more intense emotions than men to the same incentive and why African-American college students who say they are closely identified with their ethnic group deny worrying about anything.
For all of these reasons, a person’s semantic reports cannot provide all the evidence needed for a more complete understanding of feelings and emotions. How many more demonstrations of this robust fact are necessary before investigators acknowledge that people’s verbal descriptions of their emotional states are not sensitive indexes of theoretically relevant behavior or biology, especially in nonclinical populations? This class of evidence has some value and should a not be ignored, but it has a unique set of determinants, a special structure, and does not possess a transparent meaning. The author of an extensive review of research on personality suggested that verbal self-reports have limited value because “psychologists want and need to know what people actually do, think, and feel in the various contexts of their lives.”
The validity of conclusions pertaining to emotions or their variation source of evidence, No student of primates would construct a theory of the psychology of chimpanzees based only on recordings of their vocalizations without behavioral or biological information and descriptions of the contexts in which the vocal calls occurred. Remember, medieval biblical scholars spent hundreds of hours performing hermeneutics analyses of sacred texts certain that, with persistence, they could discern the true meaning of each sentence. Those who have read Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels may recall that he satirized those who argued that language was potentially capable of describing nature accurately. Swift described two philosophers scheduled for a debate who arrived in the ball with large sacks filled with objects that they planned to pull out in order to make their communications unambiguous. This cumbersome strategy may work well for conveying the meaning of bricks, broccoli. And balloons, but it fails for emotions.”