Perception and Emotional Tint

Imagine you’re in the supermarket one afternoon and observe a heated conversation between a cashier and their manager. The employee appears to be crying, the manager is gesturing angrily and pointing to paperwork in his hands. Moments later, the employee removes their name badge, tosses it to the ground, and quickly leaves. Most people would agree that probably, the employee either quit or was fired, probably over some work task.

What’s interesting is that how you were feeling that day could drastically change not only what you saw, but who you sided with, how you felt about witnessing the incident, and even how you might later come to view the parties should you encounter them at some later date.

Carl & Ellie, UP, Disney Pixar

An experiment I like to try with couples in counseling highlights this phenomenon, demonstrating that even when we see the same thing, we can perceive it completely differently.

In a place where there are people to watch and few likely interruptions, participants sit side by side, with an agreed upon ‘range’ – ie. From the automatic doors, to that grassy area to the edge of the parking lot. For half an hour, they sit mute, writing down all that they see during that time. Before stopping the activity, they note their emotional state; happy, frustrated, distracted, etc. When together in session, we review what each party observed; it is usually very telling to see who saw what. To take the experiment further, doing the activity weekly for several weeks can demonstrate additional trends.

Of course, personality plays a part; some people are more naturally inclined to notice trees and shadows while others observe people and conversations. But when several of these half-hour sessions are logged, researchers note that emotional state drastically colors the observations. A day where the participant is happy, the birds might be chirping pleasantly, angry, tires were squealing and doors were slammed. So not only what we observe changes, but our perception does too.

In the short term, the experiment can demonstrate how each person in a couple sees the world, which can help their partner better understand the other’s perspective. In the long term though, understanding at a core level that how we see the world around us affects our memories can be even more dramatic. Memories are not encoded like video tape: they are stored with the emotion of the moment, like a lens or filter on a camera. If most of one’s memories, say, are filtered through a lens of anger, likely, even the most benign dog walker or cloud moving across the sky can take on a hostile tint, helping create the belief that the world is a hard, difficult place.

How then, do we change the lens through which we observe the world? Tools therapists use include emotional state tracking, experiential reviews, and changing/creating new narratives for the client or clients. Journaling can help clients who are willing to review their entries critically, ie. “did Johnny really break that dish on purpose or am I angry at him because he was late, and interpreting that event incorrectly?”

Ultimately, we cannot uncouple our memories from our feelings; what we can do, though, is try to minimize negative emotions, and try to see the world through an optimistic, clearer lens.

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