Experiencing and Analyzing Emotions on a Perturbing Election Night

The U.S. election this evening provides me with a good opportunity to test my understanding of emotion and my emotion regulation practices, as will the future, particularly given the apparent results.

My first strategy this evening was like my recent past, not to focus on the elections, and stay tuned into my work instead. As I was apprised of the unfolding results, I then turned to “mindfulness”: awareness and acceptance of my emotions, and focusing on my valued direction (my writing project). That worked for a while. But I forgot to turn off my message notifications, and so important (bad) news came. At this point, I became quite distracted.

So, I decided to try to get some work out of this, by reflecting on my emotions in theoretical terms. Here is some of what came to my mind…

Intensity of emotions in terms of Ortony, Clore & Collins (1988)

According to Ortony, Clore & Collins (1988), the following factors affect emotion intensity:

Central intensity variables:

  1. Desirability/undesirability of the event.
  2. Praiseworthiness/blameworthiness of actions involved (which underpins moral emotions).
  3. Appeal of the object. (Negative or positive).

These variables were all at work. For instance, I consider the results to be highly undesirable for humanity in general, and my family, friends and self in particular. I don’t tend towards blame, but there are many extremely blameworthy actions by the electorate and certain candidates leading up to this election (more so than any election in the US or Canada that I have experienced); and there are likely more to come in the future. The results would have a broad array of very significant implications. All of these variables should increase the intensity of the emotion.

Global variables

  1. Arousal.
  2. Sense of reality.
  3. Proximity in time.
  4. Unexpectedness (surprise).

I had a bit of background arousal before the election, having had caffeine late in the afternoon. But I exercised early in the evening, and exercise decreases tension/activation. However, the news itself led to arousal, causing a (contained) positive feedback loop. I can see this is real — I am no longer in denial. (As I write, Mr. Trump has 95% chance of winning). The consequences of a Trump win seem very close in time. (As you get older, time accelerates, your time horizon shrinks and you become better at sensing the connection between now and the future.) This vote is subjectively unexpected. I suppose several cognitive and affective biases were at work in me, including optimism, since the result is unexpected/surprising, although I knew that, mathematically, Trump had a significant, if small, shot at winning — something like Russian roulette. (This means I was previously in denial about the real possibility of a Trump win. ) [ 2016-11-11: I skipped my normal Stoic meditation last few days before the election. Maybe if I had included a Trump victory amongst my imagining of the worse things that could happen that day, I would have had a different response.]

So, all in all, much reason to have an intense emotional response.

Several other researchers have theories about emotional intensity. No time to discuss them this evening.

The Affective Impact of Uncertainty

(2016-11-09: Section added the day after the US elections.)

The Ortony, Clore & Collins (1988) theory doesn’t deal particularly well with one of the major variables at play here which is uncertainty. Research in social psychology suggests a paradox around uncertainty. Lack of understanding around sources of pleasure sustains pleasure, whereas uncertainty about risk intensifies dysphoria. This is the uncertainty intensification hypothesis (compare Bahr, Wilson & Gilbert, 2009).

The election of Donald Trump introduces tremendous uncertainty. He prises himself as being an outsider. Unfortunately, this means, unlike Hilary Clinton, he has no expertise. (His election is partly a consequence of what Tom Nichols calls “The Death of Expertise”, meaning that some elements of society are rejecting expertise, which means to reject knowledge and rationality. They might as well suggest that we perform lobotomies on each other.) It’s like deciding that the centre and captain of your hockey team should be someone who doesn’t know how to skate. He seems to have little grasp of the complexity of US and world politics. In addition, Trump is said to have very little ability to focus. (Compare Keith Stanovich’s analysis of G. W. Bush in his book, What intelligence tests miss: The psychology of rational thought.) Trump’s values are deeply at odds with the principles of humanism and Canadian Unitarianism. He is rated as highly disagreeable. In sum, he is highly unpredictable, prone to highly undesirable actions, and there is not a Democratic majority in Congress to check him — hopefully, enough Republicans will be rational.

This immense uncertainty should intensify negative affect. I will elaborate more on uncertainty with respect to Aubé’s commitment-based theory of emotions, below.

Panksepp’s theory of emotions

Panksepp posits the following emotional systems:

  1. Seeking.
  2. Fear.
  3. Rage.
  4. Lust.
  5. Care.
  6. Play.
  7. Panic/ Grief.

According to Panksepp, seeking can work in parallel with the other systems. Systems 2-7 tend to inhibit each other. You’re not likely to play when you’re experiencing grief, for instance. I think that emotions can be co-active more than Panksepp seems to believe.

I am experiencing fear. I also perceive a lot of upcoming losses, which is engaging a bit of panic and grief. And, although I don’t tend towards anger, there will be some mangeable anger. And I already feel caring responses (compare the section on Aubé, below).

However, I’ve done a lot of acceptance and commitment training (ACT) over the last few years. I don’t get phased. So I can ride this out.

Michel Aubé’s Commitment Theory of Emotion

Aubé has a very interesting theory of emotion according to which:

  • emotions are a form of social motivation;
  • all motivation involves managing resources;
  • emotions are mainly involved in managing commitments (which Aubé views as the predispositions for people to be helpful) : they are “commitment handlers”.

So to understand emotions, one must understand how commitments play out in the circumstances generating the emotion.

The election of a president has widespread implications, so it is difficult to make specific explicit, consciousness judgments here, particularly when an event is unexpected. However, the brain is designed to generate emotions even without elaborate conscious thinking. So, there must be many computations involving commitments at play here. In particular, fear and grief are commitment-based emotions.

I suspect that one of the factors at play here is that in order for humans to work socially, we need to be able to understand each other as rational agents, predictable agents. Commitments are, on the whole, a beneficial way to make the world predictable for each other. The huge percentage of votes for Trump indicates that a large percentage of the American electorate did not behave rationally (in the best interest of themselves or society.) Irrational behavior is difficult to predict (which engages mechanisms posited by the uncertainty intensification hypothesis). This can undermine our faith in commitments, not just at a global level (where Trump said he would rip up NAFTA and reduce NATO) but in the commitments that individuals have made and may make in the future.

If you have ever lived with someone who has a serious mental illness, then you yourself may have suffered emotionally. Your suffering will have been compounded to the extent that the person’s behavior was unpredictable. It can drive someone crazy to try to deal with someone who is not rational, particularly if they assume, as we are designed to do, that the person is rational. (Compare also Dennett’s The Intentional Stance, which is a theory of how we understand each other, based on the idea that we are all rational. Stanovich’s book, mentioned above, explains rationality.)

Aubé’s theory is very germane for elaborate reflection about one’s emotions. To understand how one perceives and feels the impact of this election on one’s commitments can keep one busy for a while.

The perturbance theory of emotion

In the 1980s, Aaron Sloman specified a type of emotion, for which in 1992 I coined the word “perturbance”. It’s quite a subtle and complex concept that is hard to summarize. In a nutshell, a perturbance occurs when a cluster of one or more motivators (concerns) is highly insistent. The insistence of a motivator, which only heuristically reflects its importance and urgency, is its propensity to divert and consume attentional resources. Normally, this means that the motivator actually distracts and holds your attention for a while. However, perturbance is a dispositional concept defined in terms of other mental processes (such as motive generators, attention filters and management [“executive”] processes). As such, there can be a perturbance without you actually focusing on the motivator, if for some reason your attention is captivated by something else. Or perhaps you are asleep.

For example, if you are in romantic love (“limerence”), then you necessarily tend to think about the person you love. If you can easily keep your mind off them, then there is no limerent perturbance.

In perturbance, motivators (metaphorically) “pound” on your attentional defences and are likely to “break through” into consciousness (or to consume more of your consciousness).

High-functioning adults normally can control their thinking to a certain extent. They can choose to focus on a task and get it done. However, when they are experiencing perturbance, this top-down control of attention is less likely to work.

Some people are better at resisting perturbance than others. Winston Churchill was remarkably capable of focusing under extreme pressure. He claimed not to have lost any sleep during WWII.

If you’ve been consumed by the elections recently; if you would have found it difficult not to tune into the elections this evening (e.g., to focus on family or work), then odds are you have been experiencing perturbance. I myself am experiencing a perturbance.

[Paragraph added 2016-11-10. A Trump victory is likely to lead to a relatively long period of perturbance, during which we repeatedly think about the many respects in which his election is an undesirable outcome involving blameworthy actions (of the electorate, the candidate, and his party), and unappealing (even disgusting) facts. (In this respect, it is a very interesting topic for the study of emotion and emotion regulation.) ]

Defence: Intellectualization

Like many other cognitive scientists, I’m critical of a lot of Sigmund Freud’s work, his overall approach and his resistance to criticism. However, one has to acknowledge that he developed his theories before the information processing metaphor and the field of Artificial Intelligence existed. And one has to give credit where credit is due. Although he was wrong about how defence mechanisms work, and what specifically they do, he was right (at a very abstract level) that the brain has mechanisms to control its attention with respect to affective content.

I have for instance this evening engaged in a form of intellectualization, by writing this post.

Defence: Displacement activities and motivational redirection

Displacement is a phenomenon that was first scientifically documented by ethologists. Here’s a quote from Wikipedia about Displacement:

Displacement activities occur when an animal experiences high motivation for two or more conflicting behaviours: the resulting displacement activity is usually unrelated to the competing motivations. Birds, for example, may peck at grass when uncertain whether to attack or flee from an opponent; similarly, a human may scratch his or her head when they do not know which of two options to choose. Displacement activities may also occur when animals are prevented from performing a single behaviour for which they are highly motivated. Displacement activities often involve actions which bring comfort to the animal such as scratching, preening, drinking or feeding.

Dean Petters of City University of Birmingham has developed a computational theory about displacement. He and I have recently co-authored a paper on the subject.

My own definition of displacement is “the potentiation of an unobstructed motivator resulting from conflicting, obstructed high intensity motivators.” This “potentiation” involves increasing the insistence (an attentional property) and intensity (a behavioral property) of a motivator.

In the context of my project on “Affective Self-regulation”, I’ve become quite excited in the last year about the possibility of deliberate displacement, where one can redirect the intensity of an undesirable motivator to potentiate a desired motivator. I believe there is good evidence for this (for instance in a clinical psychological disorder), which I intend to document. This is sufficiently different from regular displacement that we need a new word for it. I call it “motivational redirection”.

I believe this is a very promising way to understand volition. It might also help us design self-regulation strategies for addictions and more mundane self-control, such as dieting, maintaining exercise regimens, and cognitive productivity (including choosing high caliber sources of information and limiting the time one spends reading [even high quality] news). If I’m right, then we could (for example) develop deeper, more systematic ways to use bad news (such as an election that may have terrible consequences) to modulate otherwise unrelated motivators.

I hope to discuss this at the AISB 2017 Symposium: “Computational Modelling of Emotion: Theory and Applications”. Possible title: “How can understanding human volitional struggles help us design realistic AI?”

There’s nothing I can do to change the results of this election. This blog post is a “deliberate form of displacement”, i.e., the result of motivational redirection.


It’s interesting to note that despite my use of theory, the foregoing analysis was quite superficial. With each theory one can go a lot deeper than I’ve been able to write tonight. I’ve also applied several other theories of emotion this evening, in particular James Russell’s, Nico Frijda and Keith Oatley’s. And I intend to continue doing so in the future, as life throws major challenges my way.

Although I’ve described my response this evening as involving intellectualization, I still intend to be (and at times this evening have been) mindful of my emotions. I think realistic theorizing about emotions requires mindfulness / introspection. And theorizing can also help one better experience one’s emotions: One can sit peacefully and experience emotion in a way that reflects one’s understanding (perception and higher cognition are blended). That illustrates the concept of “knowing with” proposed by Broudy in 1977. To deeply understand a theory is to be able to see the world with (“through the lenses of”) a theory. When you deeply understand Newton’s theory of relativity, it can change how you perceive motion and impact for instance. (That’s something I discuss in Cognitive Productivity).

Many of us will need serious cognitive/affective tools to deal with the aftermath of this election. One of the tools will be, as ACT recommends, to pursue goals and projects that are in line with one’s values. Some will need psychotherapy.


  • Aubé, M. (2009). Unfolding commitments management: A systemic view of emotions. In J. Vallverdú & D. Casacuberta (Eds.), Handbook of research on synthetic emotions and sociable robotics: New applications in affective computing and artificial intelligence (pp. 198–277). New York, NY.
  • Aubé, M. (2005). Beyond needs: Emotions and the commitments requirement. In D. N. Davis (Ed.), Visions of mind: Architectures for cognition and affect (pp. 21-44). Hershey, PA: Idea Group., Inc.
  • Bar-Anan, Y., Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2009). The feeling of uncertainty intensifies affective reactions. Emotion, 9(1), 123.
  • Broudy, H. S. (1977). Types of knowledge and purposes of education. In R. C. Anderson, R. J. Spiro, & W. E. Montague (Eds.), Schooling and the acquisition of knowledge (pp. 1-17). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Beaudoin, L. P. (1994). Goal processing in autonomous agents. (Doctoral dissertation). University of Birmingham, Birmingham UK. Retrieved from (http://www.sfu.ca/~lpb/tr/Luc.Beaudoin_thesis.pdf. (For a discussion of insistence and perturbance.)
  • Dennett, D. C. (1987). The intentional stance. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
  • Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K. D., & Wilson, K. G. (2011). Acceptance and commitment therapy: The process and practice of mindful change. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
  • Nichols, T. “The Death of Expertise”. The Federalist. http://thefederalist.com/2014/01/17/the-death-of-expertise/.
  • Ortony, A., Clore, G. L., & Collins, A. (1988). The cognitive structure of emotions. Cambridge, UK Cambridge University Press.
  • Panksepp, J., & Biven, L. (2012). The archaeology of mind: Neuroevolutionary origins of human emotions. [Kindle edition.] Retrieved from Amazon.com.
  • Petters, D. Home page.
  • Sloman, A. (2003). How many separately evolved emotional beasties live within us? In R. Trappl, P. Petta, & S. Payr (Eds.), Emotions in humans and artifacts (pp. 35–114). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Subsequent notes

  • The results were still not official when I first published this post on the evening of the elections (2016-11-08 Pacific).
  • I made minor updates on 2016-11-09 and 2016-11-10, and added a section on “The Affective Impact of Uncertainty” and other comments about uncertainty. The changed text is indicated with the date, where I remembered to do so.

  • 2016-11-10: I’ve been asked to clarify the meaning of the term “motivator”, given that I use the term technically. A motivator is an affectively valenced mental state. Motivators underly concerns. Here’s what I wrote in my thesis:

The term “motivator” has been used in two different ways in the literature. In the narrow way (Beaudoin & Sloman, 1993), it is roughly equivalent to the notion of goal which is presented below. In the more general way (Sloman, 1987), it encompasses a wide variety of sub states that have in common the fact that they contain dispositions to assess situations in a certain way— e.g., as good or bad, right or wrong—and that they have the disposition to produce goals. […] the main kinds of motivators identified in [my] theory are: goals, attitudes, and standards.

  • 2016-11-10: Several people have asked me for an explanation of the electoral results. I don’t have the expertise to answer this question, which goes beyond cognitive science/psychology. However, during the last Canadian election I mused about the Psychology of the Base: Why Do Some Canadians Still Support the Harper Government? Some of what I wrote there likely explains some of the voters choice, at the psychological level. The other thing to keep in mind — and while this is not mainly an empirical fact, but a formal one, it does have plenty of empirical consequences, which illustrates that analytical truths and empirical truths are more tightly joined than is normally assumed — is that 50% of people are (to put it generally) below average with respect to the thinking dispositions and other psychological attributes that make up rationality. (If you’re wondering what I mean by “with respect to …”, the following fills in that blank: Stanovich, K. E. (2009). What intelligence tests miss: The psychology of rational thought. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.)

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Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest. Author of Cognitive Productivity books. Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp. Adjunct Professor of Education, Simon Fraser University. Why, Where, and What I Write. See About Me for more information.

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