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

In the book you cover emotional contagion [“the spread of emotion from person to person or throughout an organization or even an entire society”] and core 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 rise of incivility, I can imagine this must’ve been an interesting time to write a book about those things.

Emotions are very much part of the society, discourse, and politics today. Unfortunately, emotional contagion is a big factor with certain media, like Fox [News], who realize that fear and anger catch on with people. That draws people back to their shows to bathe in more of the same, and it’s all shared. It’s not just the TV shows. Social media also allows 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 happening in society today—to see how much emotion is driving people’s assessments of situations.

Are there any behaviors that you’ve noted and changed, as a way to curb some of this?

I use [a tool called] reappraisal. For example, when I was driving downtown, there was a roadblock for construction. I got 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 in this meeting, and I missed it for 20 minutes. That’s good.” Now, when people cut me off, which happens all the time in LA, instead of thinking, “What an asshole,” you just think, “Oh, the person is in a hurry, or oblivious, or didn’t even realize they were cutting you off.” You have to search to find for, what other reasonable explanations might I believe about this? I’m also a little more aware that if I’m hungry, and I’m clothes shopping, that also makes me more likely to buy. I don’t know if you were aware of that.

That your hunger can make you hungry for things that aren’t sustenance?

Right. And disgust is the same. So if I’m disgusted for some reason, and I’m going to a store, and I 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 usually of the belief that the more information you have, the better. And I see the ways in which emotional self-awareness is positive. But I also find myself wondering if it might be exhausting to be like, “Okay, how is my core affecting this decision? Am I tired? Am I hungry?” Taking all these things into account seems like it could be a paralysis-by-analysis situation.

It shouldn’t be a burden. It’s a matter of learning, automatically, to have a raised consciousness about your own mind. Now you understand that when you’re hungry or tired, you might deny someone a request that you would’ve allowed if you were not in that state. Now you just know that. You don’t have to sit down and go through a tedious analysis of what your state is before you accept your decision. Just be more conscious of your body state, your core affect, your emotional state. Maybe it takes a little practice of self-awareness. But people who are more mindful are happier and live longer. So why not do that? I came across studies of life expectations 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 statistics. We know that stress and anxiety and inappropriate emotion cause stressful situations.

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