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Emotional Intelligence

Are Our Emotional Reactions In-Born or Learned?

November 16, 2012 by Dr. Jon Warner in Emotional Intelligence

Are Our Emotional Reactions In-Born or Learned?

Not all psychological researchers and theorists believe that our emotions are biologically pre-wired. A large body of opinion suggests that we must learn, experience and express our emotions over time. The fact that we can modify or inhibit our emotions (for example we can smile or even laugh even in the middle of a scary or upsetting set of circumstances) suggests that emotions are under learned control. This is very much a cognitive view of emotions whereby it is suggested that our thinking or reasoning processes play some part in modifying or making sense of the biological processes that are involved.

Of course, many basic emotional reactions may not be learned. They may be inborn physiological responses like pain, fear, crying, hunger, sensual and general pleasure, frustration etc. These and other emotions like ecstasy, sadness, irritability, rebelliousness, fear or sudden episodes of agoraphobia may be genetic, hormonal or even drug induced (or responsive to medication of some kind). As we grow out of our early childhood however, certain emotions become associated with particular situations and events; that is a learning process. Many of these associations are not necessarily rational. We fear situations that are not dangerous (like meeting someone or speaking up in public). We may even get upset about things that could not be avoided, or briefly distrust the entire opposite male or female sex after we have been ‘rejected’ by one of them.

Despite the differences in opinion about emotions, one issue upon which there is fairly widespread agreement is that certain emotions are more inbuilt or biological/physiological. This includes emotions such as fear, pleasure, frustration. Other emotions are seen to be more cognitive or thought related – these include emotions such as guilt or disgust (where some social context must be understood before the emotion can be experienced).

In looking for the link between our emotions or our feelings (and our ultimate behaviour) perhaps it is the issue of context that is most revealing. Fear or anger may need very little cognitive context to be triggered leaving the bodily chemical releases to be the main reaction to guide behaviour. However, even these emotions can be altered or adapted when set in a particular context. Hence, basic frustration at an individual’s apparent stubbornness may turn to sympathy in the context of knowing that they had just learnt of some tragic news.

As a good way to test all these theories for ourselves, you might like to try each of the following scenarios one at a time and for each of them think about the two different contexts (completely separately and one at a time) in which they occur and then reflect upon the response they may evoke on you emotionally. For the first example the typical responses are shown in the brackets-how do yours differ, if they do, from these and what feelings arise from the other three examples?

Example One: A teenager steals food from a supermarket.
Context 1: Parents recently died in car crash (response-sorrow, sadness, forgiveness etc).
Context 2: Rich boy stealing for kicks (response- anger irritation, condemnation etc).

Example Two: A boss shouts at a subordinate in public.
Context 1: Subordinate is drunk.
Context 2: Boss is demonstrating their authority to others.

Example Three: A man drives through a red light
Context 1: Driving wife to hospital to have a baby.
Context 2: Been driving for 8 hours to earn more overtime.

Example Four: A woman falsifies information to obtain her social security payment.
Context 1: Has no food for her children,
Context 2: Doing it for a bet or to show off to friends

Despite the fact that many of our most basic emotions such as fear or sadness are quick to occur (and may be more likely to be innate or in-born) what we assume from past knowledge also influences how we feel emotionally, and this can be modified when we learn new information or gain a new context for what we observe. As this exercise hopefully well illustrates, even a relatively simple change in the context for behavior in others can significantly and quickly modify how we feel or our emotional response. For this reason many of our emotional responses are learned and can be changed by new learning.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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