Grace under Pressure
On June 27, 2014, 13-year-old Gavin England saved his grandfather from drowning when their prawning boat took on water and sank off the Saanich Peninsula on Vancouver Island (CTV, 2014). Gavin’s grandfather Vern was not a strong swimmer, and though both were wearing life jackets, they would not have survived for long in the cold Pacific ocean waters 300 meters from shore.
Gavin recounted the event, explaining how he suffered sharp cuts to his bare feet when climbing the embankment where he had dragged his grandfather. He attributed his ability to overcome the pain of the cuts to adrenalin. Upon finding an old truck with keys in the ignition, and despite the high emotions he was experiencing, he then had the wherewithal to learn to drive on the spot and make it up a three-kilometer hill to get help. Gavin explained that his knowledge of driving a dirt bike served him well: “I knew that clutch in meant drive.” Vern described the young boy as “tenacious” and calm throughout the event. He was giving his grandfather words of encouragement as he pulled him to shore.
Stories such as Gavin’s are rare and unpredictable. We hope we will act with the same clear-headed tenacity in emergency situations, but the heroic response is not assured. Gavin’s ability to abate panic, and recognize and regulate his emotions was central to his actions in this emergency situation.
The topic of this chapter is affect, defined as the experience of feeling or emotion. Affect is an essential part of the study of psychology because it plays such an important role in everyday life. As we will see, affect guides behaviour, helps us make decisions, and has a major impact on our mental and physical health.
The two fundamental components of affect are emotions and motivation. Both of these words have the same underlying Latin root, meaning “to move.” In contrast to cognitive processes that are calm, collected, and frequently rational, emotions and motivations involve arousal, or our experiences of the bodily responses created by the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). Because they involve arousal, emotions and motivations are “hot” — they “charge,” “drive,” or “move” our behaviour.
When we experience emotions or strong motivations, we feel the experiences. When we become aroused, the sympathetic nervous system provides us with energy to respond to our environment. The liver puts extra sugar into the bloodstream, the heart pumps more blood, our pupils dilate to help us see better, respiration increases, and we begin to perspire to cool the body. The stress hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine are released. We experience these responses as arousal.
American pilot Captain”Sully” Sullenberger (Figure 11.1, “Captain Sullenberger and His Plane on the Hudson River”) was 915 metres up in the air when the sudden loss of power in his airplane put his life, as well as the lives of 150 passengers and crew members, in his hands. Both of the engines on flight 1539 had shut down, and his options for a safe landing were limited.
Sully kept flying the plane and alerted the control tower to the situation: “This is Cactus 1539…hit birds. We lost thrust in both engines. We’re turning back toward La Guardia.”
When the tower gave him the compass setting and runway for a possible landing, Sullenberger’s extensive experience allowed him to give a calm response: “I’m not sure if we can make any runway…Anything in New Jersey?”
Captain Sullenberger was not just any pilot in a crisis, but a former U.S. Air Force fighter pilot with 40 years of flight experience. He had served both as a flight instructor and the safety chairman for the Airline Pilots Association. Training had quickened his mental processes in assessing the threat, allowing him to maintain what tower operators later called an “eerie calm.” He knew the capabilities of his plane.
When the tower suggested a runway in New Jersey, Sullenberger calmly replied: “We’re unable. We may end up in the Hudson.”
The last communication from Captain Sullenberger to the tower advised of the eventual outcome: “We’re going to be in the Hudson.”
He calmly set the plane down on the water. Passengers reported that the landing was like landing on a rough runway. The crew kept the passengers calm as women, children, and then the rest of the passengers were evacuated onto the rescue boats that had quickly arrived. Captain Sullenberger then calmly walked the aisle of the plane to be sure that everyone was out before joining the 150 other rescued survivors (Levin, 2009; National Transportation Safety Board, 2009).
Some called it “grace under pressure,” and others called it the “miracle on the Hudson.” But psychologists see it as the ultimate in emotion regulation — the ability to control and productively use one’s emotions.
An emotion is a mental and physiological feeling state that directs our attention and guides our behaviour. Whether it is the thrill of a roller-coaster ride that elicits an unexpected scream, the flush of embarrassment that follows a public mistake, or the horror of a potential plane crash that creates an exceptionally brilliant response in a pilot, emotions move our actions. Emotions normally serve an adaptive role: We care for infants because of the love we feel for them, we avoid making a left turn onto a crowded highway because we fear that a speeding truck may hit us, and we are particularly nice to Mandy because we are feeling guilty that we did not go to her party. But emotions may also be destructive, such as when a frustrating experience leads us to lash out at others who do not deserve it.
The Surrey School District in British Columbia has incorporated “emotional regulation” into the curriculum (Wells, 2013). In six schools, educators are piloting a program that helps teachers look for what may be stressing children, making them unable to pay attention, lethargic, hyperactive, or out of control. The children may be impacted by too much noise in the classroom, too little sleep, or too much junk food in their lunch. The teachers help the children recognize what they need to do to make themselves calm and productive in class. The program ultimately places the motivation for behavioural control within the hands of the children.
Motivations are closely related to emotions. A motivation is a driving force that initiates and directs behaviour. Some motivations are biological, such as the motivation for food, water, and sex. But there are a variety of other personal and social motivations that can influence behaviour, including the motivations for social approval and acceptance, the motivation to achieve, and the motivation to take, or to avoid taking, risks (Morsella, Bargh, & Gollwitzer, 2009). In each case we follow our motivations because they are rewarding. As predicted by basic theories of operant learning, motivations lead us to engage in particular behaviours because doing so makes us feel good.
Motivations are often considered in psychology in terms of drives, which are internal states that are activated when the physiological characteristics of the body are out of balance, and goals, which are desired end states that we strive to attain. Motivation can thus be conceptualized as a series of behavioural responses that lead us to attempt to reduce drives and to attain goals by comparing our current state with a desired end state (Lawrence, Carver, & Scheier, 2002). Like a thermostat on an air conditioner, the body tries to maintain homeostasis, the natural state of the body’s systems, with goals, drives, and arousal in balance. When a drive or goal is aroused—for instance, when we are hungry—the thermostat turns on and we start to behave in a way that attempts to reduce the drive or meet the goal (in this case to seek food). As the body works toward the desired end state, the thermostat continues to check whether or not the end state has been reached. Eventually, the need or goal is satisfied (we eat), and the relevant behaviours are turned off. The body’s thermostat continues to check for homeostasis and is always ready to react to future needs.
In addition to more basic motivations such as hunger, a variety of other personal and social motivations can also be conceptualized in terms of drives or goals. When the goal of studying for an exam is hindered because we take a day off from our schoolwork, we may work harder on our studying on the next day to move us toward our goal. When we are dieting, we may be more likely to have a big binge on a day when the scale says that we have met our prior day’s goals. And when we are lonely, the motivation to be around other people is aroused and we try to socialize. In many, if not most cases, our emotions and motivations operate out of our conscious awareness to guide our behaviour (Freud, 1922; Hassin, Bargh, & Zimerman, 2009; Williams, Bargh, Nocera, & Gray, 2009).
We begin this chapter by considering the role of affect on behaviour, discussing the most important psychological theories of emotions. Then we will consider how emotions influence our mental and physical health. We will discuss how the experience of long-term stress causes illness, and then turn to research on positive thinking and what has been learned about the beneficial health effects of more positive emotions. Finally, we will review some of the most important human motivations, including the behaviours of eating and sex. The importance of this chapter is not only in helping you gain an understanding the principles of affect but also in helping you discover the important roles that affect plays in our everyday lives, and particularly in our mental and physical health. The study of the interface between affect and physical health — that principle that “everything that is physiological is also psychological” — is a key focus of the branch of psychology known as health psychology. The importance of this topic has made health psychology one of the fastest growing fields in psychology.
CTV. (2014). Heroic act (video broadcast). Toronto, ON: CTV National News. Retrieved July 24, 2014, from http://toronto.ctvnews.ca/video?clipId=389519
Freud, S. (1922). The unconscious. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 56(3), 291.
Hassin, R. R., Bargh, J. A., & Zimerman, S. (2009). Automatic and flexible: The case of nonconscious goal pursuit. Social Cognition, 27(1), 20–36.
Lawrence, J. W., Carver, C. S., & Scheier, M. F. (2002). Velocity toward goal attainment in immediate experience as a determinant of affect. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 32(4), 788–802.
Levin, A. (2009, June 9). Experience averts tragedy in Hudson landing. USA Today. Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2009-06-08-hudson_N.htm.
Morsella, E., Bargh, J. A., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2009). Oxford handbook of human action. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
National Transportation Safety Board. (2009, June 9). Excerpts of Flight 1549 cockpit communications. USA Today. Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2009-06-09-hudson-cockpit-transcript_N.htm.
Wells, K. (2013). Self-regulation technique helps students focus in class: Teachers try new approach to improving students’ behaviour. CBC News Posted: Nov 30, 2013 Retrieved 2014 from http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/self-regulation-technique-helps-students-focus-in-class-1.2440688
Williams, L. E., Bargh, J. A., Nocera, C. C., & Gray, J. R. (2009). The unconscious regulation of emotion: Nonconscious reappraisal goals modulate emotional reactivity. Emotion, 9(6), 847–854.
Figure 11.1: Sully Sullenberger by Ingrid Taylar (http://www.flickr.com/photos/taylar/435061088) used under CC BY 2.0 license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/); Plane crash into Hudson River by Greg L., (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Plane_crash_into_Hudson_Rivercroped.jpg) used under CC BY 2.0 license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en).