Seminar Series

Situating Emotion (Barsalou), Grounding Desire and Motivated Behavior (Papies)

Discrete theories of emotion typically assume that dedicated neural circuits/modules originated in evolution to produce basic emotions in a relatively ballistic and rigid manner (e.g., fear, anger, disgust, sadness, happiness). Three neuroimaging experiments challenge this view. In Experiment 1, different assemblies of neural resources represented the same emotion in different situations (e.g., fear under threat of physical harm vs. social evaluation). In Experiment 2, different groups of participants learned to experience fear and anger either in physical harm or social evaluation situations, and later, when asked to anticipate these emotions, assembled different neural resources. In Experiment 3, different populations (cancer survivors, experienced meditators, controls) assembled different neural resources in response to the same emotional situations. Consistent with constructivist theories of emotion, these results suggest that experiencing an emotion “soft assembles” relevant neural systems throughout the brain to produce emotion in the current situation. To the extent that the same areas are utilized across multiple instances of a common emotional situation, an entrenched pattern develops that functions as an emotion attractor on future occasions. These patterns can be viewed as situated conceptualizations that control emotion via their grounding in the brain’s systems for perception, action, and internal states (Barsalou). In this talk, I will present a grounded theory of desire and motivated behavior, and will review empirical evidence that supports it. This theory suggests that desire arises when an internal or external cue triggers a simulation of an earlier appetitive experience that was rewarding and that has been stored as a situated conceptualization, incorporating information about the setting, people, objects, actions, events, emotions, internal states, among others. Once part of this situated representation of a previously rewarding experience is cued, it can re-activate its other elements via pattern completion inferences, and it can lead to the experience of desire and motivated behavior; for example, when the sight of a coffee house triggers a simulation of an earlier pleasant coffee house experience and the desire to eat cake; or when the mere mention of the soccer championships triggers a rewarding re-experience of feeling connected with one’s friends and the desire to drink beer. I will review studies from various domains of desire that support this account, and will discuss how this theory of motivated behavior can explain other findings in the literature, for example, the strong effects of habits on behavior, goal priming effects, and the effect of implementation intentions. Finally, I will briefly discuss implications for interventions to better handle undesirable desires (Papies).