emotional misattribution

(1) Threats and opportunities to a person are experienced emotionally, first. (Emotion is the felt experience of the mobilization of physiological resources for action. There is still partial mobilization even if the action is to be taken in the future.) Consider, then, that there is an “emotional” world model.

(2) Normally, then, the threat or opportunity can be identified explicitly, when doing so is adaptive.

(3) There are conditions under which the threat or opportunity is not explicitly identified. This can happen when the threat or opportunity is:

  • discounted,
  • counterintuitive,
  • “impossible” (given the current context),
  • nonnormative (unlikely, based on the kinds of things that seem like they usually happen to other humans),
  • when doing so would be non-adaptive (because of *leakiness*? Cf. self-deception.),

(4) or, finally, completely missing from a person’s explicable world model. That is, consider that, in addition to an “emotional” world model, there is also an “explicable” world model. The “emotional” and “explicable” world models can be nonoverlapping. (The emotional world model is more fine-grained.)

(5) When a threat or opportunity is registered by the emotional world model but falls under any of the conditions above, the felt emotion (that represents physiological mobilization) is more likely to be misattributed. (Cf. “delusion,” as described in phenomenological psychopathlogy and in the bridge experiment.)

(6) As a side note, the stronger the emotional reaction (expectancy x cost/benefit), and the longer it lasts, and the stronger the factors above, the greater the likelihood that misattribution will result. (The likelihood of misattribution will also increase if misattribution is locally adaptive.) [Also, other factors, such as, perhaps, the intensity of the emotion or a sense of urgency could induce misattribution for a relatively worse “fit,” that is there’s a dial for sensitivity to global coherence, and it can be turned way down. [Partial hat-tip: Emily.]]

(7) Misattribution will be the next-most-elegant explanation after the above factors are exhausted.

(8) A suspect, toy example of misattribution is the bridge experiment (fear/physiological arousal mistaken to be sexual/romantic attraction).

A more complete example:

  • Consider a person who has health problems that cause fatigue and brain fog. Appearance-wise, they look very healthy. This person is told by doctors that these health problems are “psychological,” and by this they mean not real. The person discounts the reality of said health problems, but nevertheless finds it difficult to work at a job and is accused of poor performance. The person experiences an emotional threat to their livelihood, e.g. getting fired.
  • But, if they discount the real source of their fear, then the threat is misattributed to something else: the “system,” their boss or manager, etc.
  • If the boss is “mean,” or “irrational,” etc., then the misattribution is easy or it’s not a misattribution at all but an “enhancement” of belief. If the boss is “friendly” or “reasonable” or “accomodating,” but the boss being the threat is still that most elegant misattribution, then, say, the person will experience greater and greater paranoia, concomittent with the perceived threat. Additionally, the person will have no way addressing these concerns, because they may paradoxically believe these fears to be irrational.

Other examples:

  • If you feel guilty, you must have done something very bad, but the thing you identify might not be what you actually feel guilty about, leading you to not take the correct actions that will assuage the guilt motivated by the emotional world model.

Other examples:

  • Look for cultural messages that are wrong. If culture is saying attractiveness doesn’t matter, and you’ve internalized that to some degree, but you’re receiving evidence to the contrary (people are ignoring you), you’re going to look for other explanations for your feeling of insecurity. Because of this, you can’t have a clear-eyed dialogue with your psychological and strategic relationships to your attractiveness. (If it “shouldn’t be the case, but it is… then that’s a near-perfect recipe for emotional misattribution.)

Other examples:

  • Where is the urgency, fear, irritability, etc., actually coming from?

(9) The misattribution is acted upon, behaviorally, if it makes sense [elegant] enough. Furthermore, misattributions have implications that are acted upon if they make sense [elegant] enough. This can cause further misattribution and chains of misattributions and mutually reinforcing misattributions as well as all sorts of life impacts and outcomes, downstream and ongoing.

Pith: Your goals (and your behavior and your models and identification of your behavior) exist separately (though are of course correlated and informing) from your models of your goals and your ability to model your goals. And, your models of your goals (and your behavior) produce further implications, goals, and behavior.


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