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Emotional Psychology - Development of Emotion

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        Across the spectrum of emotions, there are physiological and environmental factors acting upon an individual which influence the experiences of emotions later in life. The consequences of the extraneous forces upon the underlying cognition and perception of an individual often reflect the nature of the social environment in which they are raised. For the negative emotion of fear and the positive emotion of happiness, one’s development is determined by the collective set of physiobiological, attachment type, familial, and cultural influences. However, it is possible to alter an individual’s cognitive appraisal of both fear and happiness from the initially instilled experience to one which better suits the situational context and the individual.

        The emotion of fear is a negative experience resulting from awareness of impending danger, whether it is the threat of physical damage or psychological pain. In short, we are scared. Specific emotional states fall under the umbrella of general “fear” experience, including anxiety. (p. 174) However, the emotional experience of fear is distinct from anxiety in temporality and proximity. Fear, in the most basic form it is felt (and which is modeled in this essay), is current and has more proximal relevance as opposed to the more future-oriented sensation of anxiety. Fear is an evolutionarily supported emotion and is engrained in our biology. When we experience fear in reaction to a stimulus, the fight or flight response acts as an expression of the emotion at a basic level. (8/29) Temperaments- considered to be innate aspects of personality that one is born with- is another physiological influence on the development of fear experiences. (10/31) The temperamental aspect of “fear” is included in almost all conceptual models of temperament, including those of Buss and Plomin (1975) and Rothbart (1981), due to its universality as a basic emotion. They can be predicted from a young age, and is relatively predictive of future behavior. (p.207) The biological perspective of psychology supports the influence that the neurotransmitter GABA in activating fear and anxiety across a lifetime, where an overabundance of fear-inducing chemical messages can cause overstimulation; a lack of GABA in the system results in a lack of fearful sensation. (10/19) Research in the field of molecular genetics further supports the idea of biological influences by linking specific genes with certain behaviors. This is made possible by identical and fraternal twin studies on variance. Researchers have established that short length of one or both alleles in the 5-HTTLPR region on the serotonin transporter gene 5-HTT is associated with emotional processing and regulation of emotions including fear. For instance, short-allele individuals experience increased amygdala activity in response to fear-inducing stimuli. (p.209) The catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT) is a gene that can predict relatively high fear tendency response in children as young as 7 months, by associating the short length of the gene with greater intensity of facial reaction to fear-inducing stimuli. (p.209) Physiological differences such as heart rate and startle reflexes are also associated with these genes. These physiological influences lay a foundation for the experience of fear, which the social and cultural environment further alter via interpersonal interactions. The earliest of these social influences is the attachment style of the child to a caretaker, which is a strong predictor of early and future emotionality in relationships. (p.267) Of the three types of attachment Ainsworth theorized, the “ambivalent” group showed the most negative emotions when their caretaker left them in an unfamiliar situation. Furthermore, in research by Goldberg et al (1994) as they aged from one year to three years, the ambivalent group experienced higher fear levels when exposed to both fear and happiness inducing stimuli than the secure and avoidant attachment types. They also saw the sharpest drop in experiences of happiness, while the Avoidant infants saw the largest increase of fear-like emotions, from few negative emotions to the most. (p.268) This supports the idea that attachment types persist across time to influence emotional relationships. The physiological effect of these attachment styles illustrates the interconnected nature of biology and society in emotion development. Levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that enacts bodily responses in response to fear, anger, and negative emotions in general, rise sharply in insecurely attached infants. (p.268-9) As one ages, the feeling of fear is constantly influenced by familial and social factors. The familial influence on fear is defined by the attitudes and actions of parents and siblings toward the emotion, and whether it has value. According to research by Halberstadt et al, those who saw the emotion of fear as “dangerous” often masked their emotions in front of their children, and consequently their children’s own coping mechanisms in the contexts of peer-to-peer, situational (such as 9/11), and parental sources of stress or fear reflected an inability to manage their feelings. (11/2) Whether this is intentional or not, the set of preferences and behaviors to which parents expose their children have a significant impact on their emotional development. Children (and other young people) are also influenced by what they see others (parents, teachers, etc.) do and consequently mimic in the process called observational learning. Negative behaviors of anger and fear are increasingly modeled, and studies show a correlation between children’s behavior and familial lifestyle. (p.277/8) Although family influences may give way to those of different social relationships with age, such as in the workplace and in romance, the early impression of the group of people you cannot choose on your personal experience of fear may be difficult to overcome. Cultural norms and expectations arising from the values of fear are similar to those of family in terms of the perceived psychological benefit of “fitting in”, or simply avoidance of social rejection in the group. For example, in American society, the traditionally conservative belief that men would ignore fear, which evolved over time into the expectation that boys simply should not feel fear. (p.73) This cultural norm was reinforced by experts such as Spock, who penned advise for parents to utilize in their own familial interactions and reinforcements. This bi-directional flow of effect again illustrates the interconnected nature of the different influences in fear development.

        An effective strategy to alter our appraisal of fear is truly “facing” it, and turning it into a less threatening situation cognitively. Although the physiological basis and attachment style cannot be easily adapted to produce the desired experiential feeling in a person, it is possible to transform conscious perception to adapt. Surveys of Mapuche elders, for example, did not utilize fear as a device of control or as having emotional value, and socialized this to the younger generation as part of their culture. (10/19) Rather, they would transform the constructs of “fear” into various “respects”- such as for nature and God, to properly recognize the existence of danger without the manifestation of physiological reaction. This interruption between stimuli and reaction represents the cognitive reappraisal can be utilized by any individual. The concept of cognitive change to alter personal emotional meaning and impact was supported by Gross & Thompson (2007), and ideally, parents should foster this tactic in their children to create interpretive adaptations that eventually lead to the essential formation of effortful control.

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