Interview with Leonard Mlodinow: The Surprising Science of How Feelings Help You Think

In the book you cover the emotional contagion [“the spread of emotion from person to person or throughout an organization or even an entire society”] and the basic affect [“a kind of thermometer whose reading reflects your general sense of well-being based on data about your bodily systems, information about external events, and your thoughts about the the state of the world”]. With the pandemic and rising incivility, I can imagine it must have been an interesting time to write a book about these things.

Emotions are an integral part of today’s society, discourse and politics. Unfortunately, emotional contagion is a big factor with some media outlets, like Fox [News], who realize that fear and anger win people over. It brings people back to their shows to bathe in the same thing, and it’s all shared. It’s not just TV shows. Social networks also allow this emotional contagion to feed on itself. Each person can interact with thousands of other people or hundreds of thousands of other followers on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook. It’s unfortunate. But it helps you understand what’s going on in today’s society – to see how much emotion drives people’s assessments of situations.

Are there behaviors that you have noted and changed, in order to limit some of these behaviors?

I use [a tool called] revaluation. For example, when I was driving downtown, there was a roadblock for construction. I was really pissed because the signs were totally confusing, and the streets were all one way, and I was 20 minutes late. But then I converted it to, “Oh, I really didn’t want to be at that meeting, and I missed it for 20 minutes. That’s good.” Now when people cut me off, which happens all the time in Los Angeles, instead of thinking, “What an asshole”, you just think, “Oh, the person is in a hurry, or unconscious, or hasn’t even didn’t realize she was cutting you off. You have to search to find, what other reasonable explanations could I believe about this? I’m also a bit more aware that if I’m hungry and shopping for clothes, that also makes me more likely to buy. I don’t know if you were aware of that.

That your hunger can make you crave things that aren’t enough to feed you?

Law. And the disgust is the same. So if I’m disgusted for some reason and go to a store and find the perfect shorts I was looking for, I still might not want to buy them. Because that’s part of that emotion.

I’m generally of the opinion that the more information you have, the better. And I see the ways in which emotional self-awareness is positive. But I also wonder if it can be exhausting to think, “OK, how does my main affect affect this decision? Am I tired? Am I hungry? Taking all of these things into account seems like paralysis by analysis.

It shouldn’t be a burden. It is a matter of learning, automatically, to have an elevated awareness of your own mind. Now you understand that when you are hungry or tired, you can deny someone a request that you would have allowed if you weren’t in that state. Now you know it. You don’t have to sit down and go through a tedious analysis of your condition before accepting your decision. Just be more aware of your physical state, your deep affect, your emotional state. Maybe it takes a little practice of self-awareness. But more conscious people are happier and live longer. So why not do that? I came across life expectancy studies showing that people with better emotional regulation, for example, have 60% fewer heart attacks. It’s not magic. You can see it reflected in the stats. We know that stress, anxiety and inappropriate emotions cause stressful situations.