Some clever experiments have shown that subjective feelings are
often a function of both (1) the level of physiological arousal and
(2) our interpretation of the causes of the arousal (Schachter &
Singer, 1962). The sequence is this: there is a physiological arousal
which we notice, then we look at the situation for a reason for this
internal reaction, and this cognitive process (attempting to understand
the situation) enables us to label or identify the emotion we are
feeling. Thus, in some experiments exactly the same arousal (from a
drug) has been interpreted as anger in some cases and as happiness
in others, depending on the social situation. Actual physiological
arousal may not even be necessary; if you believe your heart is
beating faster (but it isn't), that may be enough to cause you to
believe you are angry or afraid or sexually aroused, depending on the
circumstances (Valins, 1966). The emotional labels we put on our
feelings are partly a function of our interpretation of the situation.
More recent research suggests our past experience and our current life
situation (beyond the immediate circumstances) also play a role in
how we label our feelings.
There are some interesting implications from all this. First, perhaps
we shouldn't be so certain about what we are feeling (especially
considering the closed-mindedness discussed above). We can't sense
physiological changes accurately. Moreover, the "feelings" I seem to
be having are more like guesses about why I am upset (if I am) based
on my past, my tendency to favor certain emotions, and on
circumstantial evidence. Secondly, given these conditions, if someone
could offer me a different interpretation of the upsetting situation, I
should be able to change my feelings rather easily. But we know that
often isn't true. Example: instead of feeling terrible about breaking up,
one could see new opportunities for better relationships. But usually
we can't see the situation differently, at least not easily, being dumped
remains a crisis. See chapter 14. Many therapists take such a
"reframing" approach, however, and it seems to work, sometimes.
Folk wisdom tells us to "look for the silver lining" or to "accentuate the
Although drugs can be useful (witness the millions of tranquilizer
and anti-depression prescriptions written), it is also possible that using
drugs before or during therapy or self-help might hinder improvement.
How? If the person attributed all improvement to drugs, he/she might
start relying entirely on drugs for help rather than on therapy or self-
help. Also, if the problems don't get better after taking drugs, the
person might falsely conclude they are getting worse rather than that
the drugs aren't working. Naturally, false assumptions about therapy
or self-help can be misleading too.
The consequences of certain attributions are not always easily
understood. For instance, insomniacs given a placebo (a fake medicine
that has no pharmacological effect) which they were told would
produce alertness went to sleep faster than those given a placebo
"relaxation" pill. They presumably took some comfort in blaming the
pill for their awakeness and then fell asleep (Storms & Nisbett, 1970).