Trying to define 'emotion' is an almost futile enterprise. It's a vague concept that continues to trouble researchers today. That said, some models have more practical utility than others, and the 'interruption theory' of emotion is one of the more beautiful in its simplicity.
In the 1970's, George Mandler was curious.He noticed that to feel an emotion there needs to be at least two things:
- there needs to be an event; and
- we need to pay attention to that event.
A sensible enough observation, but Mandler wanted to know what made us pay attention to some things and ignore others. His answer to this question forms the basis of modern emotion research: emotions are a response to "interruptions".
Humans on autopilot
A fairly core thread to the psychological sciences concerns our tendency to automate as much as possible. For example, Frederic Bartlett introduced the idea of 'schemas'. Schemas are basically expectations of the world based on our experiences. When we recognise something, our 'schema' for that thing becomes activated. If I say 'tree', you think things like 'green', 'leaves', 'bark', and so on. We've activated the schema for tree. Schemas aren't particularly in vogue anymore, replaced by more computational approaches. But they'll do to illustrate this point.
Schemas are often spoken about in the contexts of the 'scripts' they trigger. Our schema of a weekday morning, for example, typically involves a script for our morning routine. Wake up, brush our teeth, get dressed, and so on. Scripts are an automatic series of behaviours, that we can execute without any particular kind of 'thinking'. For example, playing a well-learned song on an instrument. Or those times you walk home from the bus stop without remembering a single thing from the walk. In these cases, you engaged in a routine 'script', and you coast along on autopilot. We learn these scripts according to the same pressures as all animals. Predictable events in the world drive predictable responses. But also, the way the world responds to us shapes how we behave. It's a fundamental attribute of living organisms.
Interruptions to our routines cause emotions
Mandler took this idea of scripts a little further. He called our scripts "Organized Action Sequences", or routines. These routines are created to achieve any number of "Higher Order Plans", or goals. As we follow along our routines, we are basically mindless, and only when those routines are 'interrupted' will we feel an emotion.
So for example, we might want to have a family one day, or have a fulfilling career. These are the kinds of long-term goals that Mandler had in mind. To achieve that, we do things like eat food, or brush our teeth, or go to work, and so on. These routines help us achieve our goals.
Importantly, Mandler noticed that our routines seem to naturally align themselves into chains of routines. A morning routine might be an example of this. A series of small routines forming a chain that describes all the routines one engages in before we walk out the door.
A more abstract example might be something like a 'health' routine. Here, as in our morning routine, we might brush our teeth, but we also eat healthily and stay active. Perhaps we get involved in a sport. These are all a chain of related routines designed to keep us healthy.
For Mandler, it was when one of these routines is 'interrupted'—one of these chains is broken—then an emotion is evoked. We are brought out of this mindless state to troubleshoot the issue, and the emotion motivates us to do so.
The missing milk example: is it relevant, and what's the valence?
A classic toy example is that of the missing milk. We're about to have breakfast, and pour a bowl of cereal. We reach in the fridge for some milk, only to discover the milk is gone. Routine interrupted. Mandler says we now consider two dimensions:
- Relevance: Firstly, is it relevant/important? Perhaps we can have a muesli bar instead of our cereal, so maybe not. But perhaps we don't have any other options for breakfast. If that's the case, we move on to considering the...
- Valence: Is this a positive or a negative thing? If the interruption is important, we're going to assess the valence (the positivity or negativity) of the event. This will determine the emotion. So, the missing milk might be negative. No other alternatives, so we'll feel annoyed. Or perhaps it's positive—now we have an excuse to buy ourselves something nicer for breakfast. An unexpected blessing.
Either way, if the interruption is important, the emotion is motivating us to do something. To fix the interruption, and return to autopilot of the routine.
The often missed 'positive valence'
Mandler's framework is so helpful because it highlights two very core features of emotions.
The first is that emotion is necessarily fleeting. In a culture that places so much emphasis on being happy, it's often something of a relief to learn that happiness is not meant to last. Happiness is a positively valenced interruption. If someone buys you flowers, it's an interruption to your routine. You weren't expecting it. It wasn't part of your 'script'. But it's important, and it's positive, so you feel pleased. If we try to maintain a state of happiness, then it becomes routine. By definition, it no longer generates happiness—the state is no longer an interruption. If you are given flowers everyday, the value of the occasion disappears. Now you're interrupted when the flowers don't show up one day. This time, perhaps it's negatively valenced—what happened to the flowers?
The key, then, to happiness, is to maintain a balance. How can we maximise our positive interruptions without making the interruption a routine? This is the secret weapon of the counsellor.
How to never get mad again
The second core feature of emotions, highlighted by Mandler's model, is that emotion is nothing more than a symptom of an interruption. We can manage our emotions, but if we don't address the interruptions, the emotions will simply return. An anger management class should not truly be about the anger at all. It's about addressing the interruptions that led to the anger. The anger is simply motivating us to act—often because we feel betrayed. This too is the secret weapon of the therapist.
Mandler's model no longer sees the light of day very often. It's fairly old, and has been overtaken by more elaborate theories. For example, Nico Frijda's somewhat impenetrable "action readiness" extends on the nature of the emotions across all animal species. Or Ellen Berscheid's "emotion-in-relationships" model describes how interruptions work in the context of our interpersonal relationships. But at their core lies Mandler's fundamental notion of emotion as the motivation to act—to pay attention to the world around us and respond. And this, I think, is a lesson we can all benefit from.