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How Your Interpretations Trigger Your Feelings

interpretations trigger feelingsThere is a two-part process that produces feelings: Arousal + Interpretation = Emotion

For example, if someone steps on your toe, you will feel pain but you heart will also start beating faster. This reaction is automatic and you have little control over your body’s initial physical response. However, the emotions you experience are not automatic and will be influenced by your interpretation of the event. If you perceive that it was an accident and the person feels badly, you may feel compassion for the person, even though you are in physical pain. If you perceive that the individual stepped on your toe on purpose, you may feel angry and that it shouldn’t have happened. It is your interpretation of events that are the key to your experience of emotion, not the events themselves. Whereas sad individuals tend to interpret events as caused by situational factors (e.g., I missed the flight because the traffic was bad), angry individuals tend to attribute the same events to human factors (e.g., I missed the flight because the cab driver was terrible). This is because anger is typically caused by the actions of people and sadness by factors that are circumstantial. As a result, people make different interpretations when angry than when sad.

Anger is a secondary emotion because you tend to experience anger in order to attack and defend against a threat. A primary feeling is what is what is felt immediately before you feel angry. However, nothing will cause you to have an emotion until you have learned which things are threatening and which are harmless. You might first feel afraid, attacked, offended, disrespected, forced, trapped, or pressured. If any of these feelings are intense enough, you feel angry. However, more than likely the primary feeling is fear. You learn to fear things from your experiences. As a human, when you experience something painful, like getting stung by a bee, and you store this experience in your memory. However you may continue to feel afraid when you hear a buzzing similar to a bee. This happens because your memory has associated the past experience of pain with the current buzzing sound. A bee does not cause the fear, the fear is an interpretation about the bee. It is your interpretations of what it means to be near a bee that determines if you anxious or not. Most small children have no fear of animals. They are interested in anything that moves, and if the thing also happens to be warm, soft, and fuzzy, they will like it. A child will not automatically be afraid of a big animal, such as a lion or bear. They must learn about the danger of such animals before they will be afraid of them.

Some people have associated the pain or discomfort that can occur in the future, with the thought of that thing or event in their mind. For example, a person who interprets all bees as dangerous and causing harm, feels fear when they see any sort of real or plastic bee. The emotional “fearful” thoughts will occur automatically, without any conscious evaluation. This reaction can come from numerous experiences or from a single, intensely frightening one, especially if that experience occurs while they are young. Others have concluded that there is no pain associated with a bee and have no problem being in a bee’s presence. Either way, the feeling depends on your interpretation of a thing or event related to whether it brings potential pain or comfort.

Bandaged toe photo available from Shutterstock

How Your Interpretations Trigger Your Feelings

Aaron Karmin

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APA Reference
Karmin, A. (2016). How Your Interpretations Trigger Your Feelings. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 9, 2020, from


Last updated: 12 Mar 2016
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