Warning - you aren't in control of your behaviour

by Dorian Minors

April 28, 2015

Analects  |  Newsletter


You might not be feeling the emotion you think you’re feeling…

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Your emotions are lying to you. At least, some of the time. The alliterary pairing of the psychologists Schachter and Singer resulted in what is known as the two-factor theory of emotion and it provides some compelling evidence that, as usual, our brains can be awfully lazy. But this time it means that you are losing control of what you do.

How can emotions lie? Alright, it’s not quite a ‘lie’ per se. We’ve talked before about how your brain runs on autopilot most of the time and how when we break an established ‘routine’ our brain shoots out an emotion to motivate us to patch up the interruption. Our brain runs through a complicated ‘checklist’ to figure out just what emotion might be appropriate. All of this happens subconsciously and knowing the process is useful in taking control of those emotions.

But when we can’t explain it, our brains mess it up People sometimes have excessive reactions to somethings or react to nothing at all. Have you ever wondered why:

  • angry sex is so good?
  • a bad day is often capped off by some of the worst arguments you’ve ever had?
  • a near miss on the road or an almost accident sometimes results in an overwhelming feeling of love for friends and family?

This is where Schachter and Singer came in. They posited that when our bodies get aroused (physically, not sexually - that comes in later), that is, when our fight or flight mechanism (the sympathetic nervous system, which is the same process that’s involved in approach anxiety) gets activated, our brains search desperately for something to link it to.

Our arousal makes us feel emotions we wouldn’t have otherwise They tested it by injecting a bunch of people with epinephrine (adrenaline, essentially) which is the key chemical involved in getting us jacked up. They pretended it was a new drug for eyesight. They then told some people that they might experience some jitters as a side-effect but didn’t tell others. Soon after, a confederate (someone in on the test) came in and acted either euphoric or angry. What they found is that those with no explanation for the jitters they were feeling were influenced significantly by the confederate, where the ones with an explanations were not as were those who got no injection at all.

They then asked another group (same parameters around the injection) to watch a comedy and found the people with no explanation for the jitters found the comedy far funnier than those with an explanation or those with no injection.

Schachter and Singer tell us that this is because our brain tries to make sense of the arousal we are experiencing so we can deal with it. But what often happens is that we misinterpret it, because our brains don’t allow for the fact that adrenaline takes so long to exit the body. What that means is that we the misattribute that arousal to something else, and thus over-react.

In fact, fear makes us more attracted to people One test, (discussed in our article on three random things that make you more attractive) had people cross a scary bridge or a non-scary bridge. They put a pretty woman in the middle and asked participants to rate how pretty she was (1974 was a different, more sexist time). Those who crossed the scary bridge rated the woman as far more attractive than those on the non-scary bridge. This ‘misattribution of arousal’ has tested many times since.

What does it mean for me? Well, it means that unknowingly, you’ve probably acted out for no reason at all. For example, this is what makes angry sex so good. When you get angry, you get all jacked up. If something in the environment (e.g. your history with the person) hints that you’re attracted to someone, your brain gets the thumbs up to go nuts. All of a sudden you’re super sexually aroused, instead of just physically aroused and all the pleasure you feel gets heightened by the adrenaline already coursing through your veins. Your brain has decided that the adrenaline is excitement generated by that person.

That doesn’t sound so bad, should I care? Yep. A common issue in relationships is when this goes bad. You have a bad day at work, come home and get irritated with your roommate or partner and your brain decides that this is why your body is so wired. All of a sudden, you’re exploding over something that might matter very little. Enough of this and you start to settle into a pattern where you blame them for everything going wrong. Like I said your brain is lazy.


  1. Be aware of what’s going on around you. Anything that might be getting you jacked up, could be affecting how you’re behaving. And I’m not just talking about events and accidents. Something as innocuous as a coffee, or a energy drink could have a serious impact on how you relate to people, as the caffeine content in these has been noted to influence behaviour.
  2. Do the same for those around you. If your mate is having a bad day, you might think about forgiving his outburst about you turning the music up too loud or using the last of the milk.
  3. If you haven’t already, check out the rest of emotion theory to really get a handle on how to never get mad again.

As Hamlet put it, ‘there is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so’.

Your brain lies to you quite a lot. It lies about the real cause of your successes and failures. It can lie to you about whether you’re happy or sad! But you know who lies to you even more? The people who misrepresent the data psychologists work so hard to collect. Check our article on how the media is the biggest liar of them all, here. Giving you The Dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and the good life at The Dirt Psychology.

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