Few would argue against classifying anger and fear as negative emotions, or against classifying excitement as a positive one. But new research shows that, in some ways, anger has more in common with excitement than it has in common with fear. Researchers at Boston College wanted to explore how emotions alter the things we pay attention to. That emotion and attention are linked has already been established, but Brett Q. Ford, Maya Tamir, and four other authors wanted to look at a specific emotion—anger—to see what we can learn about the emotion based on the sorts of things it directs our attention to.
For the study, they had people spend 15 minutes writing about a time in their life associated with one of four emotions: fear, anger, excitement, and neutrality or lack of emotion. Then, they showed people two pictures: one of a sexy couple (classified as a rewarding picture) and one of a person menacingly waving a knife (classified as a threatening picture). They tracked how long people’s gaze stayed with each picture to determine which emotions were drawn more to threat and which were drawn more to reward.
Not surprisingly, fear gravitated toward the threatening picture, but both excitement and anger gravitated toward the rewarding picture. The study’s authors suggest that paying attention to reward may make people more likely to be pro-active in pursuing or approaching something, but that the type of emotion will impact what type of pursuit is played out. For example, an angry person may be more confrontational, whereas an excited person will be more outgoing and willing to collaborate. Understanding how emotion influences what we pay attention to can help us understand the actions that follow. This can be particularly helpful for anger management therapy by helping people understand how their feelings and behavior are linked. It can also be helpful for those who experience fear (such as survivors of abuse and other trauma).
© Copyright 2010 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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