Attraction and emotional granularity

This article was written for the Carnival of Aces themed on “Nuance & Complexity“. It is being cross-posted to my other blog, A Trivial Knot.

Asexuality is chiefly about noticing a distinction between the emotions you perceive in other people, and the emotions you perceive in yourself. We give a name to this distinction, for example by saying some people experience sexual attraction and some people do not. And we discuss appropriate responses to our emotions, for example by saying that some emotions mean we want to have sex, and other emotions do not.

Within ace communities, we often discuss further distinctions in emotions. Again, we give names to these distinctions, for example by talking about romantic attraction, platonic attraction, aesthetic attraction, sensual attraction, and so forth. And we discuss appropriate responses to these emotions, for example by describing what kinds of relationships might satisfy our emotions, or if a particular emotion only makes us want to look at a person.

The ability to distinguish different emotions is a nascent research topic in psychology. And while you shouldn’t let psychology research dictate how you live, looking into the research may give us insight into a common topic.

The concept of emotional granularity was developed by Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett. It is a measure of a person’s ability to make fine-grained distinctions between similar emotions. For instance, a person with higher emotional granularity might be able to distinguish between anger, annoyance, irritation, and frustration, and a person with lower emotional granularity might not.

Research on emotional granularity has been based on the framework of the arousal and valence. Arousal is a measure of physical alertness, and valence is a measure of how positive or negative the emotion is. Together, arousal and valence form a two-dimensional space that can be used to describe different emotions. This model should not be understood as a complete description of all emotions, but rather two dimensions that are relatively easy to measure in experiments. Attraction is not among the emotions studied within this framework.

Despite the constrained nature of research on emotional granularity, researchers have looked at several different types. For example, arousal focus is a measure of granularity along the arousal dimension, and valence focus is a measure of granularity along the valence dimension. Arousal focus is associated with the ability to use internal cues to distinguish emotions, while valence focus is associated with the ability to use external context to distinguish emotions. Researchers also sometimes separately measure people’s ability to distinguish among positive emotions and among negative emotions.

Researchers have found that emotional granularity improves psychosocial functioning. Low emotional granularity is associated with schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, major depressive disorder, problems with alcohol, and aggression in response to anger. Low emotional granularity has also been found to correlate with autism. People with higher emotional granularity have been found to use a wider range of strategies to regulate their emotions.

The theory is that different strategies for coping with emotions are effective in different contexts, and that higher emotional granularity equips a person to deploy the right response in the right context.

I feel that this resonates with my personal experience, making distinctions between my own emotions and the social category of sexual attraction. Those emotional distinctions equipped me deploy the right strategy for my life, instead of stressing over my inability to find any girls I liked, as I had been doing before I identified as ace.

At the same time, ace communities generally understand that not every emotional distinction is useful for every person. For example, while romantic attraction may be a very important concept to some people, it is not for everyone. Many people find that they are unable to distinguish between romantic attraction and other feelings they have. Other people can make distinctions among their emotions, but distinctions that they find to be most important are not the same as the ones that are named in ace communities.

Although emotional granularity is associated with many psychosocial benefits, pressuring people to work on their emotional granularity is tantamount to healthism. It is a demand that other people prioritize their health above all else, without any consideration of their personal circumstances or needs.

It also seems premature to jump to any conclusions based on the research. In many cases, the results only show correlation rather than causation. We may later find that emotional granularity has drawbacks in addition to benefits. And it’s still an open question whether emotional granularity can be learned at all.

The larger thesis in Dr. Barrett’s research is that emotional categories are constructed, and that the categories may differ between cultures. This seems to imply that emotional granularity could at least be taught on the cultural level, if not the individual level.

Learning about this research made me more optimistic about the way that ace communities put so much focus on making emotional distinctions. But I do think this needs to be moderated by the knowledge that not everyone has the ability to make the same distinctions, and not everyone needs to make it a personal priority.


References:
How Emotions are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett (book)

A Brief, but Nuanced, Review of Emotional Granularity and Emotion Differentiation Research, by Smidt & Suvak (journal article)

About Siggy

Siggy is an ace activist based in the U.S. He is gay gray-A, and has a Ph.D. in physics. He has another blog where he also talks about math, philosophy, godlessness, and social criticism. His other hobbies include board games and origami.
This entry was posted in Articles, asexual identity, Research. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Attraction and emotional granularity

  1. Elizabeth says:

    I like this post. It resonates.

    At the same time, ace communities generally understand that not every emotional distinction is useful for every person. For example, while romantic attraction may be a very important concept to some people, it is not for everyone. Many people find that they are unable to distinguish between romantic attraction and other feelings they have. Other people can make distinctions among their emotions, but distinctions that they find to be most important are not the same as the ones that are named in ace communities.

    I think for me, the issue isn’t so much that I can’t distinguish romantic attraction from other feelings… but rather that (in my case) I don’t think “romantic attraction” is actually a feeling that exists? Because what I once perceived as “romantic attraction” is actually a hodge-podge of so many different feelings and desires, and they were just lumped together for convenience. But, spending so much time in the ace community eventually led me to start thinking “wait, why assume that all these different feelings go together, as part of the same meta-feeling?” Especially when I don’t even have any particular desire for a “romantic” relationship (although I’m not totally opposed to the idea either). So I guess you could say there are too many distinctions, and too much granularity, for me to feel comfortable with the idea of “romantic attraction.”

    But at the same time I’m really not interested in parsing all of that out, because I think it has negative consequences for my mental health. Especially when a lot of the feelings I would question most are associated with traumatic experiences.

    So yeah, I’m going to say it definitely has drawbacks. Research is always playing catch-up to my lived experiences anyway.

    As for healthism, well… Working on emotional granularity might be seen as the “healthy” thing to do, but pressuring people in general is really unhealthy, and it can be even more so when you’re pressuring people in a way that suggests they don’t know their own emotions well enough, when those people have already had extensive scrutiny and gaslighting about that. That’s what really gets me about that sort of health-related concern-trolling: it actually accomplishes the opposite of what the person is saying they’re trying to do.

  2. Portia says:

    Very interesting, thank you. I have always had a problem with the following thinking:

    “Researchers have found that emotional granularity improves psychosocial functioning. Low emotional granularity is associated with schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, major depressive disorder, problems with alcohol, and aggression in response to anger. Low emotional granularity has also been found to correlate with autism. People with higher emotional granularity have been found to use a wider range of strategies to regulate their emotions.”

    Is “Psychosocial functioning” learned behavior which differs over culture and families? Or is it a wiring issue? I have found that strategies are taught many times to force conformity, or not taught at all and emotions medicated with food. In the case of schizophrenia, et al., if you shut out stimuli or emotions as a strategy for dealing with sensory overload, you will come out low on “granulation”, even though you may be distinguishing many emotions and not be up to talking about them. This is true for neurodiverse people I think also, who may feel things much more acutely than neurotypicals. So, the idea that “higher emotional granularity equips a person to deploy the right response in the right context” predisposes a “right response” expected by some context considered “right” by the researcher. This seems so narrow as to be useful for controlled environments, like a lab, not the wilds of real life.

    I came upon this site the other day that really helped me: http://hsperson.com/
    and I saw a study that resonated with me there, link and excerpt below. As a neurodivergent and asexual, Highly Sensitive Person explains a LOT in an expansive way for me.

    http://hsperson.com/pdf/The_highly_sensitive_brain_%20an_fMRI_study.pdf
    “At least two brain imaging studies have examined the
    attentional and perceptual aspect of SPS in humans, using
    the HSP scale as a measure of SPS. One study asked indi-
    viduals to notice subtle differences in photographs of
    landscapes and found that those with greater SPS showed
    stronger activation in brain regions for visual and atten-
    tion processing compared to those low in SPS (Jag-
    iellowicz et al. 2011). A second study, by Aron et al.
    (2010), compared individuals from East Asia and the
    United States and showed that SPS moderates the effect
    of culture on neural responses to culturally relevant cog-
    nitive tasks. There was a strong cultural difference in the
    activation of brain regions associated with attention such
    that low-SPS participants showed greater activation when
    completing tasks that were inconsistent with their cultural
    context. However, among those high in SPS, there was no
    cultural difference in brain activation in regions associ-
    ated with attention. These findings suggest that high- (vs.
    low-) SPS individuals focus on the task itself independent
    of other factors.”

    • Siggy says:

      So, the idea that “higher emotional granularity equips a person to deploy the right response in the right context” predisposes a “right response” expected by some context considered “right” by the researcher. This seems so narrow as to be useful for controlled environments, like a lab, not the wilds of real life.

      “Right” was just the word I used, so if you don’t like the word, it’s my word you’re criticizing. The review paper I read only discussed this in a theoretical manner, without any presuppositions about what the “right response” was. As for the experiments, many of them are based on “experience sampling”, in which people record their emotions as experienced in the wild, not in a lab.

  3. I.C. says:

    Pretty interesting article! As an autistic ace I definitely have a very low emotional granularity and often find it difficult to work out what exactly I’m feeling, which definitely contributed to a lot of my confusion when trying to work out whether I experience romantic attraction or not. Much like Elizabeth above, I found it very difficult to work out what romantic attraction even was, as so many different emotions appeared to be involved. On the same note, I don’t actually think a high emotional granularity is needed for a ‘healthy’ lifestyle (I mean, I seriously doubt I could learn how to process my emotions better by being taught, plus that idea reeks really nastily of ABA) because even though I don’t necessarily know exactly what I’m feeling or even why, I can still find ways to deal with it. Just learning about basic self care helps immeasurably with that.

    I also find it interesting that despite the ace community as a whole seeming to have adopted a fairly high emotional granularity approach to our identities, from what I’ve seen, the actual community has a very wide range of experiences with the labels we create, with quite a few aces finding it very difficult to identify with aesthetic or sensual or any other attraction. Then there are also quite a few aces who, once they’ve accepted their ace identity, let go of some of the labels they used before to categorise themselves, since they no longer felt useful. Basically what I’m saying is that, although I don’t doubt emotional granularity has quite a bit to do with the large amount of labels we see in the ace community, I also think a fair bit of it’s to do with how difficult it can be to identify as ace in the first place. A lot of us experience doubts about our identity that never quite go away, so the labels are just another way of saying: yes you can be ace if you experience this. Sorry that was probably a bit of a derail wasn’t it?

    In summary I wholeheartedly agree about not pushing others to deeply examine all the emotions they feel, since some (like me!) simply cannot differentiate.

  4. Pingback: Nuance & Complexity: May 2018 Carnival of Aces Round-Up | Prismatic Entanglements

  5. A. Singfield says:

    I hadn’t heard of this concept of emotional granularity before, but it makes a lot of sense to me. À propos… I personally think our emotions are a sense, so perhaps in the same way that some people can distinguish a lot more colours than others, there are some who can distinguish more emotions than others.

    Anyway, I have found the split attraction model and all those different labels extremely helpful in exploring my own experience and personality and those of others. I understand that it’s not for everyone, though.

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