Archive for November, 2014

Mapping emotion in intersubjective space

November 15, 2014

People watching at work has gotten me thinking more theoretically about the structure of an emotional response in intersubjective space. I’ve noticed how embedded emotions are in social context, and how intrinsic posturing is to emotional life. We posture when we want to demonstrate relative status, whether dominant or submissive, hierarchical or egalitarian. We posture constantly, and all our emotions are inflected by the subtext through which we broadcast socioeconomic status.

I like the emotional maps at Hyperbole and a Half for “being a menace” and “this is why I’ll never be an adult” for getting past the formal content of emotional life and into the reptile brain of self-aggrandizing ego mania churning beneath the surface. So silly, but absolutely true to life.

I’ve tried to hint at how the “psychopathology of everyday life” accounts for innocuous modes of compartmentalizing in ways that are shockingly similar to traumatic repression in rigidity and potential for causing consequential confusion. The routine ambit of everyday life in and out of cognitive cubicle spaces of situational vocabularies can limit personally significant conversations as brutally as a meager command of phrasebook English, in its own peculiar way.


This ad hoc compartmentalizing artificially shoehorns our conversational and productive lives into topical received wisdom recitatives that barely apply to our own situation at all in most instances, our own lives being more multidimensional than poorly-operationalized interdisciplinarity allows. The simple explanation for wanting a “theory of everything” is wanting to erode these psychosocial barriers, so that interdisciplinarity comes naturally as needed, and our intuitions are more trustworthy (with fewer paradigm-scale caveats).

Emotions are simultaneously impacted by various compartments of intersubjective experience, and can be unpredictable when the emotion seeming to be provoked by one compartment of our lives manifests in a different one.

On my walk to work I thought of seven different dimensions within discrete emotions. There’s no special reason for stopping at seven of them, it’s just as many as I could possibly think of in a one hour walk. Some of these are peripheral to the content of an emotional response, but all of them add context to the unconscious decisions we make about how to feel when something happens to us.

1. Arousal level – Composure level and intensity of feeling

2. Valence – Pleased or displeased

3. Values – The highly personal intellectual content of the evaluative response

4. Attitude – Specific expectations and assumptions about interpersonal space

5. Posture – Dominant or submissive and more or less egalitarian

6. Privacy level – Degree to which feelings are either broadcast or suppressed

7. Certainty – Level of confidence in the information giving rise to these feelings

Arousal level and emotional valence can be mapped together like a point or vector on a matrix. A celebratory mood is both highly aroused and pleased, a melancholy mood the opposite. Depression is related to anger in that both are negative in valence, and a change in arousal level can lead to a transition from one to the other.


Attitude and posture are more peripheral issues, but so many of our emotions are about someone rather than something, or about both, that I decided they belong on the list. Certainty level and privacy are information theory details, but emotions are tells in information handling games and it feels different to suppress an emotion than to express it freely, so I think the emotion itself is affected by these contingencies.

I can imagine doing a script analysis of Hamlet in which each of these dimensions could be described for each beat of the play, so I think it’s a pretty sound model of the internal structure of an emotion. But I haven’t played with it very much yet, I’m just treating it as food for thought. It helps me operationalize the problem compartmentalizing poses to reflective self-analysis.