BY: T. Franklin Murphy | November 1, 2021
We feel life. Life is a stream of emotion. Emotional Style is our way of responding to the felt experience of living. Emotional Style influences the likelihood of feeling particular emotional states, traits, and moods.
Richard Davidson, a leading researcher of emotions, and also a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, theorizes that we have individual emotional styles that form our relationship with experiences. Davidson identifies six different components that contribute to our individual emotional style.
Emotional Style is our characteristic signature of response to experiences. Emotional Style influences the likelihood of feeling particular emotional states, traits, and moods. Our emotional style is the building blocks of our felt experience of living.
Emotional Trait, Emotional State, and Emotional Style
Emotional trait, state and style are different aspects of emotion. Understanding the differences may help with regulating. An emotional trait is our likeliness to experience a particular emotion. Our biological make-up and experiences form our emotional traits.
Emotional states are the feeling affects experienced from encountering stimuli. Feeling affects typically only last a few seconds after being triggered by experience. The immediate arousal of an emotional state quickly dissipates, giving way to the next state.
Emotional style is our consistent and patterned way of responding to our passing emotional states. Richard J. Davidson and Sharon Begley refer to emotional style as the "atoms of our emotional lives" (2012).
Six Dimensions of Emotional Style
These six dimensions of emotional style are Outlook, Resilience, Social Intuition, Self-Awareness, Sensitivity to Context, and Attention. Each of these dimensions are measured on a continuum. When an individual measures on an extreme (either too low or too high), they experience some emotional dysfunction.
Davidson suggests looking at the six dimensions as "the recipe for your emotional makeup" (2012). He also encourages familiarity with our emotional styles. He advises that, "becoming more familiar with your emotional style is the first and most important step in transforming it" (2012).
Resilience is how slowly or quickly we recover from adversity. Arousal accompanies adversity. Organisms respond to threats and opportunities through emotion, drawing attention to important stimuli in the environment.
Threatening stimuli from an event or series of events arouses our system, commandeers attention, and motivates action. This process is life sustaining—an adaptive reaction for survival.
The adaptive value deteriorates with extremes of response. When arousal is quickly dismissed and the system returns to normal homeostatic balance without necessary adjustment in behavior, the overly resilient individual may suffer consequences of inaction.
On the opposite end of the continuum, when an individual is unable to mediate the arousal, heightened anxiety or boiling anger may motivate unhealthy behaviors that interfere with long term goals.
Davidson explains the danger of extremes in resilience like this:
Either extreme of the dimension can trip you up. An extremely resilient person can lack the motivation to overcome challenges, accepting every setback with a metaphorical shrug and an attitude of “don’t worry, be happy.” In contrast, being Slow to Recover can prevent you from moving forward after a setback, causing you to continue to fume and obsess over something that is over and done with. (2012, location 978)
Outlook refers to our ability to sustain positive emotion over time. People at the high extreme of the Outlook spectrum tend to be positive, enthusiastic, or even Pollyannaish in attitude. "Once a positive emotion (e.g., joy, pride, awe) arises in them, it persists for a longer duration" (Kesebir, et al. 2019).
Positive emotions have beneficial purposes. They encourage approach and exploration. Barbara Fredrickson refers to this as a broaden and build attitude. She theorizes that positive emotions are essential for growth and development. In the extreme, however, overly positive emotions may shield us from necessary and protective discomforting emotions.
Social Intuition refers to our degree of attunement to nonverbal social cues. People high on the Social Intuition dimension are adept at reading facial expressions, body language or vocal intonation that project information about underlying emotional states.
We may have experienced conversations where the person pauses midsentence in reaction to a nonverbal cue we are projecting. People possessing a high amount of social intuition pickup on slight cues for rejection or acceptance.
People low on this dimension, on the other hand, have difficulty picking up and decoding subtle emotional signals. They may blab on for hours even when our face expresses notable signs of disinterest. Extreme insensitivity to such signals characterizes people on the autism spectrum, who struggle to read facial expressions and other social.
People with acute sensitivity to the emotional states of others display high levels of empathy and compassion. At high levels of sensitivity, this may disrupt healthy interaction. Attunement to emotion doesn't necessarily lead to correct interpretation of causes for the emotion. We may astutely pick-up on anger but wrongly attribute it to a personalized cause. We may subjectively think, "she is mad at me" when in reality she is angry with someone else.
Davidson suggests that social sensitivity is "the hallmark of some of our greatest teachers, therapists, and others in thee caring professions" (2012).
This heightened sensitivity can be beneficial in several ways. It appears to play a crucial role in empathy, the ability to feel what others are feeling, and by allowing you to understand your own emotional state it can help you avoid misunderstandings during arguments with a significant other: If you grasp that you are upset about something that happened before you got home, then you are more likely to understand that the explosive anger you are suddenly feeling is not really because dinner isn’t on the table yet. (Davidson, 2012, location 1,154)
Self-Awareness refers to our ability to perceive feeling affects as they arise. People high in this dimension experience sensitivity to their internal states—they are attuned to the physiological and emotional cues arising within their bodies and adept at accurately interpreting them.
People low in Self-Awareness consciously miss affective arousals motivating action. They have less insight into their emotional life and into the reasons why they act and react in the ways they do. Their blindness impacts their ability (and desire) to change.
Sensitivity to Context:
Sensitivity to Context refers to the degree we consider social context in forming our emotional and behavioral responses. This dimension measures the degree of an outer awareness. When high in outer awareness, we may mitigate emotional reactions to normally upsetting circumstances because we understand, given the context, the circumstances are to be expected.
Sensitivity to the rules of social engagement and the ability to regulate oneself within these rules is the essence of Sensitivity to Context. People high on this dimension know how to adapt to the implicit rules and expectations governing the variety of different social situations.
People low on this dimension are often insufficiently in tune to social situations and their behavior may appear inappropriate. Within this dimension we find the paradox between autonomy and conformity. Healthy living requires a balance, starting with an awareness of the surrounding context.
Attention refers to the ability to screen out distractions and stay focused. People high in this dimension keep a sharp and clear focus. Attention is our ability to stay focused on important tasks during distracting and sometimes chaotic life events.
The attention of those low in this dimension is easily captured by various unimportant stimuli in the environment. Attention is typically regarded as a component of the executive functions of cognitions.
In regards to emotional style, a distinction is made between emotional stimuli and sensory stimuli. "Emotional stimuli (as opposed to sensory stimuli) command an untoward share of our attention, and the ability to filter out emotional distractions is closely linked to psychological well-being" (Kesebir, et al. 2019).
Scoring high on this dimension is associated with working through emotional distractions without getting pulled off course by the bumpy ride of emotions. Goals continue to guide decisions rather than frequent forays into dangerous territories chasing emotional impulses.
Can Emotional Styles Change?
Our brains are not static and unchangeable. Although, emotional styles are scientifically linked to specific functions of the brain, they are not unchangeable.
The brain has neuroplasticity. It changes with exposure to inner and outer experiences. The brain adapts to changes by transforming both its structure and function. Davidson explains, "these changes include altering the function of brain regions, expanding or contracting the amount of neural territory devoted to particular tasks, strengthening or weakening connections between different brain regions, increasing or decreasing the level of activity in specific brain circuits, and modulating the neurochemical messenger service that continuously courses through the brain" (2012, location 400).
Practices of mindfulness, healthy living, positive experiences, and supportive relationships have great power to positively modify emotional styles, creating a healthier relationship with our emotions. We can't force emotions to change through will power; we must add practices to our lives that invite change.
Given that Emotional Style is the product of all these brain functions—connections, circuits, structure/function relationships, and neurochemistry—the implication is undeniable: Since the brain contains the physical underpinnings of Emotional Style, and since the brain can change in these fundamental ways, Emotional Style can change. (Davidson, 2012, location 411)
A Few Words by Flourishing Life Society
Emotional style research provides a convenient handle to understanding the variety of personalities. The six dimensions assist in clearly defining different functions of felt experience. The emotional styles theory and research is helpful in directing attention to different areas of our emotional life that can be addressed and transformed. Life, the one that we feel, streams though our brains, shoots through our bodies, and creates experience. Perhaps, this occurs on many dimensions, some we notice and some we miss. Our deeper understanding of this process may enlighten and improve our overall wellness.
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What is Your Emotional Style? Center for Healthy Minds. Published
Boyes, A. (2021). What is your Emotional Style? Psychology Today. Published 8-18-2021. Accessed 10-26-2021.
Davidson, R. J., Begley, S. (2012). The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live—and How You Can Change Them. Avery; Illustrated edition
Friday, S. (2016). 6 Emotional Styles for Happiness and Health. Vital
Kesebir, P., Gasiorowska, A., Goldman, R., Hirshberg, M., & Davidson, R. (2019). Emotional Style Questionnaire: A Multidimensional Measure of Healthy Emotionality. Psychological Assessment, 31(10), 1234-1246. Published 10-31-2019. Accessed 10-26-2021.