Motivation and emotion/Book/2019/Theory of constructed emotion

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Theory of constructed emotions:
What is the theory of constructed emotion and how can it be applied?

Overview[edit | edit source]

For many years people have believed that we are born with a certain set of emotions (see Figure 1) that are reactions to external stimuli. The theory of constructed emotions challenges that way of thinking and introduces a new perspective that views emotions as predictive prescriptions for action, that our brains construct, based on our past experiences (Barrett, 2017). This theory can be applied in many different aspects of our society and can be used to help understand and improve our emotional lives.

Case study

Sally is a four year old child who is learning about her basic emotions in preschool. One day, when shopping with her mother, she was not allowed to get a toy that she liked. She felt angry and sad at the same time. She did not know the name for this emotion, however learnt that screaming in response to it got her in trouble. This caused a correction in her emotion concepts, which will assist her to make better predictions in the future.

Focus questions
  1. What is the theory of constructed emotions?
  2. How can this theory be applied?
  3. How does it compare to other theories of emotion?

The theory[edit | edit source]

The theory of constructed emotions can be understand in terms of of affect, predictions, and emotion concepts. The main idea is that emotions aren't triggered, but rather that we create them. Emotions are goal-based prescriptions for actions, that we construct based on our past experiences (Barrett, 2017).

Affect[edit | edit source]

When there is a change within our body some basic feelings arise, which is called affect (Barrett & Russell, 1999). Affect was summarised by Barrett and Russell as two bipolar but independent dimensions of experience, pleasure and activation. Unlike emotions, affect has only two dimensions, known as valence and arousal. These can also be described as calm or agitated. In other words, if the body is changed in a negative way, it can make you feel bad, but if the change is positive, it can make you feel good. An example of this is if you don't eat food, you become hungry, which is a negative change that makes you feel bad, but if you're hungry and eat something nice, then it's a positive change, which makes you feel good. As a baby, our brains start constructing models of the world, using past experiences, in order to learn how to regulate our bodies. Affect informs this process (Barrett, 2017; Barrett & Russell, 1999.

Predictions[edit | edit source]

It is suggested by Barrett in the theory of constructed emotions that concepts are made through the models we construct of the world that are predictive, rather than reactive (Barrett, 2017). This idea is supported by other scientists, such as Bourner (2017) and Seligman who stated in his 2016 book "Homo Prospectus" that "perception is less about registering what is present than about generating reliable predictions about what to expect (Seligman, 2016[p. ?])". Through predictions, correction, and response, the brain can be much more efficient, rather than if it was governed by reaction.

The brain uses both internal and external indicators in order to predict what is happening. An example of this is that your brain should make you feel thirsty before you feel dehydrated, and it should also make you feel afraid at the edge of a cliff, and not once you start falling (Freedom in Thought, 2019). The process of predictively managing your body's energy needs is called allostasis (Sterling, 2012). The brain creates this internal predictive model of the world, including the body, in order to achieve allostasis (Fridman et al., 2019). Along with past experiences, which inform your model of the world, your brain begins to construct predictive models as a baby, and this model is what is used to regulate and predict your body and its needs, as well as what is going to happen in the external world at any given moment. Corrections are made to the model if the predictions are wrong.

When an individual experiences a prediction error, or receives unpredicted information, it results in a physiological change (Barrett, 2016). After the error has been reduced and corrected, the prediction becomes an experience, or perception, which the brain then categorises. These then become past experience which is used to inform future predictions.

Emotion concepts[edit | edit source]

In the theory of constructed emotions, emotions occur when perception and experience are categorised into emotion concepts. An experience or perception is categorised into concepts that best fit the situation, and this process is used to guide the action plans that an individual takes. The continual construction of concepts and categories assists in the identification of sensory inputs, which allows the brain to infer an explanation of the cause of this stimuli. This allows an effective action plan to be developed (Barrett, 2017).

For example, if your stomach grumbles, this feeling is a negative affect. In your past experiences, eating food has solved this problem, and so your brain predicts based on past experience that you are hungry. The action plan is developed, or in other words you go rummage through the cupboards to find something to eat. When the brain creates an emotion concept in its internal model, and the future predictions of sensory input categorise them into these concepts, an emotion will occur (Barret, 2016).

Predictions play a huge role in what emotions are felt. The observation of internal and external indicators can determine which category the predictions fall into. Barrett's example of this from a speech she gave in 2017 was that, if your stomach churns as you walk into a bakery, you will think that it is hunger, and excitement for delicious food. However if your stomach churns as you are sitting in a hospital waiting room, you will think that it is nervousness and queasiness (Barrett, 2017). The external environment in this scenario affected the emotion that was felt, whilst the internal indicator was the same. The concept the brain categorises this indicator with creates the emotion, which will determine the action that is taken following this emotion.

These concept models are extremely flexible, and old concepts, and features of old experiences, can combine to create and construct new emotion concepts, just like red and blue can combine to make purple. This occurs based on our individual goals.

A study by Hoemann et al. (2017) hypothesised that mixed emotions can occur as a result of features from past experiences that can be categorised into multiple emotion concepts. In other words, if an event or stimulus makes you feel more than one emotion, like the saying "bitter-sweet", it is due to the experience relating to more than one category, or emotion concept.  Their use of event perception and cognitive linguistic theories supported the idea that mixed emotions are perceived as an occurrence of linked emotional events. This is caused by attentional shifts which correct the predictive model of that experience (Hoemann et al., 2017). Whilst their study held only proposed mechanisms, the implications these ideas had for future research, and suggestions they made for improved methodologies, indicate the impact that this theory could have in psychological research of emotions moving forward.


1 According to the theory of constructed emotions, we construct emotions based on ________.

our past experiences
the way we feel

2 According to the theory of constructed emotions, emotions are goal-based prescriptions for ________.


Lisa Feldman Barrett[edit | edit source]

Lisa Feldman Barrett is a Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University, Boston, Massachusetts. Born in Toronto, Canada (1963), she went on to develop the theory of constructed emotions. Barrett has been involved in a majority of the research papers on this theory. The initial insights for the theory were developed during her graduate training, which she completed at the University of Toronto, and completed her Ph.D. in clinical psychology at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada (Barrett, 2016). Her most recent work on the theory of constructed emotions has been vital to increasing our understanding, and improving our emotional lives, using psychological science. In December 2017, Barrett gave a Ted talk on this theory, which had a great impact on spreading the word of this new way of thinking, and the positive impacts it could have on our emotional lives.

Application of the theory[edit | edit source]

Although the theory of constructed emotions is new, the application of this way of thinking has already had an impact in many different areas, and research surrounding it so far has been quite promising. Through the understanding of how emotions work, this theory could be applied in many ways to improve our emotional lives.

There is an extreme lack of consistency between emotional experience and expression (Fridman et al., 2019). Even within one individual, emotional instances of the one category can vary significantly across different contexts. Within the brain, and through facial expressions, there are no unique consistent physical features across individuals and instances. Many studies have found that the brain shows inconsistent reactions for an individual across different circumstances that recognise as the same category, such as anger or sadness (Clark-Polner et al., 2016; Lindquist et al., 2012). This means that the same individual, in two different scenarios that in theory would elicit the same response, such as getting angry at a level on a game you can't get past, and getting angry at a company that's ripped you off and scammed you, would not have the same emotion concepts despite both being known as anger. The same idea can be applied to facial expressions (Barrett et al., 2019).  Facial expressions can convey a range of information that is not always due to a specific emotion. As well as this, different types of faces may convey emotions differently, and the environmental and situational context of when the expression is given can also change the meaning of this. Barrett et al. concluded that more research needs to go into this concept as it could hold great weight in many real life situations (Barrett et al., 2019).

The lack of specific main emotions and representation of them through the brain and face is something that could have a significant impact if it were to be applied in the real world. An example of this theory being applied in a real life circumstance is in the decision of a jury. When a jury makes a decision, they are relying upon the information they gathered during a court hearing, not just from the evidence, but also based on interpreting the presentation by the accused. For example, if the jury was deciding the fate of an individual who claims they were innocent, their choice may be affected by the appearance, presentation and reaction of this individual. If this individual held an emotionless facial expression, it may be interpreted as stone cold, mean, and lack of remorse or guilt. However according to Barrett (2017) it is impossible to determine one's[grammar?] emotions judging purely from their facial expression. Therefore it is not an accurate way to determine if this individual is guilty or not. A better understanding of the theory of constructed emotions would allow for a more reliable and fairer justice system in many situations. A similar example is presented by Barrett in her 2017 TED talk.

Figure 2. Policemen in action

Barret et al. (2019) outlined the impact this theory could have on police officers' perception and action, as well as for training and reduction of perception related errors. Physiological arousals and changes, such as increased heart rate, sweating, and hot flushes, can be part of the job as a police officer (see Figure 2), particularly in stressful situations. According to Barrett et al. (2019), understanding these physiological changes and what is causing them, could be vital in situations that require fast and accurate perception in order to make fast efficient actions. When the brain is taking in a sensory environment, it considers both internal and external indicators, and so an increased heart rate may be associated with a particular emotion category, such as fear or anger. The example used in this study was that if the police officer had just drunk two cups of coffee, that could have caused the increased heart rate, yet the specific task on the job and the perception of this is affected (Barrett et al. 2019). This is a simple example, however many mistakes made within this industry can be attributed to perception errors, which shows how a theory such as this one could make such a great impact.

A book published in 2019 shows a different, and contrasting use for the theory of constructed emotions, by analysing animated films in the perspective of the theory (Uhrig, 2019). It is their belief that this theory offers the best explanation as to why animation is so conducive to the construction and expression of emotion, as it allows audiences globally to create emotion concepts that enable stories to translate throughout all different cultures. This idea could open many doors in the understanding and interpretation of entertainment such as animation, and art, as well as informing the creation process. Understanding that emotion is the product of our perceptions of our past experiences, informs creators to allow for cultural differences and construct the display, or representation of emotions in more diverse ways. This will also enable designers, writers, creators, and actors to create more realistic emotional responses of fictional characters as the importance of the characters past experience will hold more weight in their emotion (Uhrig, 2019). This is more realistic as it is a more accurate interpretation of how emotions are created in humans.

Using the theory of constructed emotions we can understand and improve our emotional lives through many different ways. Having a better understanding of how emotions work will make a huge difference in many different aspects of our society, as shown in a range of examples, from the police force, to entertainment.


1 Barrett et al. discussed the change of inferring emotions simply based on ______.

vocal indications
facial expressions

2 Knowledge of the theory of constructed emotions could assist policemen in situations that require accurate_____, and fast, efficient _____.

vision, decisions
perception, actions
actions, information
decisions, perception

Theories of emotions[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Early incarnations of the theory[edit | edit source]

Although the theory of constructed emotions is new, many theories in the past hinted at the main concepts that make up this theory. Often early incarnations of the theory based their ideas on affect (Sterling, 2012). For many years affect has been used to refer to basic feelings that are a part of every conscious state (Russell & Barrett, 1999).

A similar way of thinking to the constructed emotions theory can be seen in a study titled "Emotion: Clues From the Brain" (LeDoux, 1995). This study focused on the emotion of fear, and the effect of fear conditioning on the conscious and unconscious process of emotions. Whilst this study does not hold the same theory as constructed emotions, as it is more reactive rather than predictive, the use of fear conditioning to impact and manipulate emotions provides distinctive parallels. The idea that an experience, or perception, can impact and change the emotions we feel, is starting to grow towards the direction of the theory of constructed emotions.

Other theories of emotion[edit | edit source]

The way in which emotions are created in the brain is a mystery that has caused many debates between scientists, and many conflicting theories that are just trying to make sense of it all. Two articles in particular, by Barrett and Lindquist, respond to theories that conflict with, what was at the time, the budding theory of constructed emotions. Both articles refer to "the emotion debate", or "the emotion war", and suggest further directions in order to resolve this debate (Lindquist & Barrett, 2012; Lindquist et al., 2013).

In the first study, Lindquist and Barrett stated that the "faculty psychology" approach had "dominated research into the mind and its physical correlates" (Lindquist & Barrett, 2012, p.1) for too long. This approach explained mental function in strict, ordered, common-sense faculties, including categories such as cognitions, perceptions, and emotions. Lindquist and Barrett argued that the brain produces a range of mental states, such as anger, fear, sadness and other emotions, rather than conforming to the faculties as suggested in what they described to be the "faculty psychology" approach (Lindquist & Barrett, 2012)[Rewrite to improve clarity]. They believed that taking a more constructionist approach to research would provide a new perspective, in order to guide the design and interpretation of findings and data in emotion research experiments.

The following year Lindquist et al. (2013) released a similar paper which pointed out the inconsistencies of an emotion study by Lench et al. (2011). Lench et al. (2011) claimed that discrete emotions organise cognition, experience, physiology, and judgement. In response to this claim, Lindquist et al. (2013) argued that their results did not match their conclusion due to the lack of demonstration of emotion specific, and emotion consistent directional changes in the measurement domains of cognition, experience, physiology, and judgement. Further, the findings, when accurately interpreted using these considerations, was more in support of the constructionist theory, due to the lack of formal structure as implied by Lench (2011) (Lindquist et al., 2013). Their study concluded with an appeal for a constructionist approach to further research.

Both of these articles show that older theories and approaches can be used to support newer theories, as well as be proven wrong by new information surfacing in modern research. Whilst neither study could fully confirm their claims without further research conducted under a constructionist approach, they made strong claims and useful suggestions for research to come, in order to resolve the emotion debate (Lindquist & Barrett, 2012; Lindquist et al., 2013).

Implication of the theory[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Impact[edit | edit source]

This theory of constructed emotions has had a huge impact on science, and more specifically psychology. It has challenged many ways of thinking and previous theories of emotions, and has brought a new perspective to the table that could impact many aspects of our lives, including research, skills training, entertainment, communication, and much more. As well as this, it could be the answer to resolving the emotion debate (Lindquist & Barrett, 2012) as it offers alternative ways of thinking about and researching emotion.

Further, these ideas will impact the way psychologists analyse previous research, as through the constructionist approach data may be able to tell a different story. It may also impact other psychological theories as well as research methodologies and certain psychological therapies.

Limitations[edit | edit source]

The main limitations in the research surrounding the theory of constructed emotions is the lack of experimental studies and empirical evidence that proves this theory is correct, however it does make some useful suggestions for how to go about this research. The theory surrounding it is in-depth and thorough, however it doesn’t provide an explanation for every aspect of emotion, and most articles about it are by the same authors. More research using the constructionist approach, and by a range of different authors will solve this problem.

Future directions[edit | edit source]

Whilst it is easy enough to suggest that more research should be done, it is not so easy to specify exactly what this research should involve. Finding evidence and proving this new perspective on such a huge concept, such as emotion, is going to take decades. Barrett (2017) suggests that in future research we should abandon the stereotypical idea of emotions, and adopt a more constructionist view that allows for variability to become the norm.

Barrett also explained that more research needs to be completed on individual's different expressions of emotions (2017). An example of this is that people express their emotions differently. If there were two people and one had tears in their eyes and the other one was smiling, they could both be happy. Or if the same person was in a Halloween haunted house, and then bungee jumping, in both instances that individual would be experiencing fear, but reacting and expressing it in exceptionally different ways (Fridman et al., 2019). These concepts are something the theory of constructed emotions could provide explanations for.


1 A common theme in Barrett's theory and LeDoux's study is that _____ can impact and change the way we experience an emotion.

an experience or new perception
a new idea
The way we feel
Faculty psychology

2 Barrett (2017) explained that more research needs to be completed on individual's different ________ of emotions.


Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Despite many years of people believing that we are born with neurocircuitry that determines a core set of emotions that are activated as a reaction to the external world, the theory of constructed emotions has arisen to challenge this belief. The theory can be described simply as emotions are predictions. Emotions are understand in this theory as goal-based prescriptions for actions that we construct based on our past experiences, that we create using the perception of both internal and external influences, much like Sterling’s allostasis (2012) but for emotions. Affect has a huge part in the creation of these experiences, by helping to create emotion concepts in the brain.

This theory can be applied in many different ways, all of which can help improve the world we live in. Whether it be the legal system, police force training (Fridman et al., 2019), or animated movies (Uhrig, 2019), emotion is in everything. Through developing a greater understanding of emotions and how they work, we can improve our society as a whole.

Although it is still in its early stages of development, the theory of constructed emotions has a lot of potential, and the current work being done is helping to direct research into the future. This theory could make a huge difference in our society, and can be used to help understand and improve our emotional lives.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Barrett, L. (2017). The theory of constructed emotion: an active inference account of interoception and categorization. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 12(11), pp.1833-1833.

Barrett, L. (2017). You aren't at the mercy of your emotions -- your brain creates them. [online] Available at: [Accessed 10 Sept. 2019].

Barrett, L., Adolphs, R., Marsella, S., Martinez, A. and Pollak, S. (2019). Emotional Expressions Reconsidered: Challenges to Inferring Emotion From Human Facial Movements. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 20(1), pp.1-68.

Barrett, L. and Russell, J. (1999). The Structure of Current Affect. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 8(1), pp.10-14.

Bourner, T. (2017). Homo prospectus. Action Learning: Research and Practice, 14(2), pp.205-209.doi:10.1080/14767333.2017.1315218

Clark-Polner, E., Johnson, T. and Barrett, L. (2016). Multivoxel Pattern Analysis Does Not Provide Evidence to Support the Existence of Basic Emotions. Cerebral Cortex, p.bhw028.https://doi. org/10.1093/cercor/bhw028

Freedom in Thought. (2019). The Theory of Constructed Emotion — How Emotions Are Made — Freedom in Thought. [online] Available at: [Accessed 15 Oct. 2019].

Fridman, J., Barrett, L., Wormwood, J. and Quigley, K. (2019). Applying the Theory of Constructed Emotion to Police Decision Making. Frontiers in Psychology, 10.

Hoemann, K., Gendron, M. and Barrett, L. (2017). Mixed emotions in the predictive brain. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 15, pp.51-57.

LeDoux, J. (1995). Emotion: Clues from the Brain. Annual Review of Psychology, 46(1), pp.209-235.

Lench, H., Flores, S. and Bench, S. (2011). Discrete emotions predict changes in cognition, judgment, experience, behavior, and physiology: A meta-analysis of experimental emotion elicitations. Psychological Bulletin, 137(5), pp.834-855.

Lindquist, K. and Barrett, L. (2012). A functional architecture of the human brain: emerging insights from the science of emotion. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 16(11), pp.533-540.

Lindquist, K., Wager, T., Kober, H., Bliss-Moreau, E. and Barrett, L. (2012). The brain basis of emotion: A meta-analytic review. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 35(3), pp.121-143.

Lindquist, K., Siegel, E., Quigley, K. and Barrett, L. (2013). The hundred-year emotion war: Are emotions natural kinds or psychological constructions? Comment on Lench, Flores, and Bench (2011). Psychological Bulletin, 139(1), pp.255-263.doi:10.1037/a0029038

Russell, J. and Barrett, L. (1999). Core affect, prototypical emotional episodes, and other things called emotion: Dissecting the elephant. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76(5), pp.805-819.

Seligman, M. (2016). Homo prospectus. London: Oxford University.

Sterling, P. (2012). Allostasis: A model of predictive regulation. Physiology & Behavior, 106(1), pp.5-15.

Uhrig, M. (2019). Emotion in animated films. 1st ed. New York: Taylor & Francis Group, pp.120-140.

External Links[edit | edit source]