When people are asked to describe their emotions in black and white terms, it actually changes the way they feel, according to a new study published in the journal Psychological SCIENCE by lead author, Ajay Satpute, assistant professor of psychology at Pomona College and principal investigator, Kevin Ochsner, professor of psychology at Columbia University. 

Given only two extreme choices to choose from with no gray area to ponder, participants’ feelings in turn shifted to whichever extreme they were hovering closest to. The research has implications for everything from the legal system to daily social interactions.

To function in society, it is important for people to be able to perceive and understand emotional experiences – both internally, for example perceiving if you are feeling good or bad, and externally, perceiving if someone else is feeling calm or angry. This emotion perception helps inform our decisions and actions. And according to Satpute, that emotion perception is actually changed when we’re nudged to think categorically about emotions.

“If you think about your emotions in black and white terms, you’re more prone to feeling emotions that are consistent with the category you select,” says Satpute. “Extreme thinking about emotions leads to emotions that are more likely to be extreme.”

In one experiment, participants were asked to judge photographs of facial expressions that were morphed from calm to fearful in two ways. In one set of trials, participants had to choose either ‘calm’ or ‘fearful’ to describe each facial expression. In the second set of trials, participants had a continuous range, with ‘calm’ and ‘fearful’ as anchors on a graded scale. Results indicated that categorical thinking (either calm or fearful) shifted the threshold for perceiving fear or calm. In essence, when a person has to think about something categorically it changes how they feel about it – pushing them over the edge, in a manner of speaking, if they didn’t have strong feeling about it beforehand. These shifts correlated with neural activity in the amygdala and the insula, parts of the brain that are considered important for orienting attention to emotionally salient information and responding accordingly.

“While these findings were observed when judging another person’s emotions, they were reproduced in a second study in which participants judged their own feelings in response to aversive graphic photographs. So black and white thinking not only affects how you perceive others’ emotions, but also how you perceive your own.”

“You could think of it from an optimism perspective but with a twist,” he says. “Our results suggest that if you say that the glass is half empty, the water may actually lower, so to speak.”

He explains further in his paper, “Our findings suggest that categorical judgments - especially when made about people, behaviors, or options that fall in the gray zone- may change our perception and mental representation of these targets to be consistent with the category selected.”

Consider a juror who must decide whether a police officer on trial acted out of fear or anger when shooting a suspect. Such a judgment involves thinking about emotions in “black and white” terms rather than in shades of gray. Evidence presented in a trial will lead the juror to make a determination – did the officer act out of anger or objectively reasonable fear? (Fear of imminent threat to their life or others’ lives or serious bodily harm). The categorical nature of the decision helps determine how justice is meted out.

Or think of faces. They move in gradations, says Satpute, but people typically talk about these expressions in categorical terms, calling them expressions of “fear” or “calm,” for instance. Similarly, when people perceive their own emotions, their bodily signals may vary continuously, but they often talk about feeling “good” or “bad.”

For a lighter example, consider the 2015 computer-animated movie Inside Out. In the film, each emotion is personified into a character: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust. There is little room for gray areas – hardly any mixing of emotions – the protagonist is either sad, or angry, or fearful or happy. The film effectively makes young viewers think about emotions categorically, and thus, may change how they experience emotions.

Satpute is a psychologist and neuroscientist studying the neural basis of emotion and social perception. His research is focused on revealing how people categorize their subjective experiences, particularly mental state categories for affect (e.g. evaluative categories like 'good' and 'bad' or hedonic categories like 'pleasant' and 'unpleasant') and emotions (e.g.  'fear', 'anger', 'happiness'). A long-term goal of his work is to enable predictions–using neuroscience–for the kinds of categories people use to describe their experience.