Understanding Feelings: Sunglasses, The Spotlight Effect, and Your World Model (Part 2)

This is the second part of a two part post on understanding feelings.

In my last post, I spoke about a conversation in which my emotionally neutral comment was met with an emotionally tinged reaction which was not expected, did not match the intent, tone or nature of my comment and seemed confusing.

I suggested that the response I received may have been impacted by the filters through which the person I was addressing was interpreting my comment.

These filters, like sunglasses, change how an event is perceived.

I should add here that I am using a conversation as a generic, or general, example of an interaction.  The same mismatch between what you do and how others react to you can involve any action on your part such as making a suggestion in a meeting, asking for a favor, asking someone out on a date, offering to help a friend, refusing a request, and so forth.

Let’s dive deeper.

Feelings and actions

Fact #1: Our actions (behavior) follow from and are directly related to what we feel about the situations in which we find ourselves.

Fact #2: Our feelings (emotions) come from our thoughts about how we perceive our surroundings.

There are 6 primary feelings (mad, sad, glad, fear, disgust and surprise) which have helped us survive as a species since we lived in caves, appear very early in infants and adults across all human cultures (and some subhuman species) and which function today just as they did millennia ago. With the exception of glad and surprise, all the primary emotions are primitive threat detectors.

All the threats Mr. and Mrs. Caveman faced were survival based.

The way the emotional “system” works is that you constantly scan your surroundings for threat.  When subconsciously perceived, threat activates the fight/flight reaction in your brain, generates and emotion, and prepares you to go to war or get the hell away.  This reaction was basically all our cave ancestors had available to them to stay alive in the face of a threat that would kill them.

Today, most of our threats are psychological, not survival based, and we have evolved a mechanism to evaluate threats.  When a threat is perceived,  a second message is sent to the thinking part of the brain (the cortex) which allows us to use the emotion as a tool and think about, assess, and validate the nature of the threat so that we can respond rather than react to the threat.

When feelings are viewed as problematic and as autonomously “forcing” us to take action, we do not assess the feelings (or the nature of the threat) and our feelings become part of the filters through which we view others.

Spotlight effect

FYI: Here is a YouTube segment on the SpotLight effect.

This is the tendency of a person, when emotional, to believe that they are the center of other’s attention and that the actions of others are both directed at and specifically involve the individual.

A classic study was done in which volunteers wore tee shirts with sayings  which could be seen as “provocative” (Barry Manilow ) by a group of others (college students participating in an experiment).

Note: At the time, Barry Manilow was not very popular among college students.

When asked if they were noticed, the volunteers believed that a majority of people in the study group noticed and their shirts.  Most of the college students, when asked, didn’t even notice the Barry Manilow shirts.

When we view the world through a set of filters, we tend to react as if everything that happens around us is all about us.  This is often an incorrect assumption. It is called the Spotlight Effect because we act as if there is a spotlight on us which illuminates and sets us apart.

Your World Model

Your model of the world is your set of filters through which you view the world.

Your model of the world consists of:

  • The stereotypes you use to measure other people.

One example is the following: Marie is doing that because she is a woman (not because she is Marie taking action in the moment).

  • The extent to which you tend to overgeneralize in how you interpret a situation as opposed to dealing with each interaction based on what is actually taking place.

An example is the following: All men are … (not Yes, Sam is a man but he is also an individual taking action in the moment). or The Boss always does XYZ as opposed to The Boss did XYZ in this situation.)

  • The extent to which your past impacts your present interactions.  Being in the present moment is called mindfulness.

An example is the following: Every time I’ve tried to stand up for myself, I’ve been criticized. I’ll just shut up because nothing will happen anyway. as opposed to Well, I’ll give it a shot this time,  maybe, it will turn out differently.

Actions follow from our feelings.  Our feelings come from our thoughts and our perceptions.  Thoughts both create and come from our filters. We don’t question our own thoughts, we accept them as reality.

We take action based on our perceived reality (our filters, the Spotlight Effect and our worldview).

When another person reacts to you in a way that seems contradictory, disproportionate, or inappropriate, you may be able gain an understanding of their actions by attempting to gain some insight into their model of the world.

This is also true when your reaction to another person results in consequences you do not want.

If the relationship with this person is important to you, then learning how to understand their world view may be worthwhile.

I welcome your comments.

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