Can We Choose Our Emotions?
Michelle L. Karl
“Jerry is the manager of a restaurant. He
is always in a good mood and always has something positive to say. When someone
would ask him how he was doing, he would always reply, "If I were any
better, I would be twins!" . . .[O]ne day I went up to Jerry and asked him,
"I don't get it! No one can be a positive person all of the time. How do
you do it?" Jerry replied, “ . . . [e]ach time something bad happens, I
can choose to be a victim or I can choose to learn from it. I always choose to
learn from it . . . "But it's not always that easy," I protested,
"Yes it is," Jerry said. "Life is all about choices. When you cut
away all the junk, every situation is a choice. You choose how you react to
situations. You choose how people will affect your mood. You choose to be in a
good mood or bad mood.”
Everyday of our lives we are all faced with the same question as Jerry
– how should we react in a given situation? Jerry’s answer would be to look
on the positive side; do not become angry, jealous, hurt, etc. However, this
brings about an important question that has been debated throughout time by
philosophers – can we choose our emotions?
This then begs the question of what it actually means to choose. The
World Book Encyclopedia 2000 defines choose as to prefer and decide;
think fit. By use of this definition, we can see that we cannot just decide to
be angry, happy, anxious, sad, etc. However, I will argue that we should take a
more liberal definition of the word choose so that if we have thoughts or take
actions which in turn effect which emotions we experience, we are then
indirectly choosing our emotions. The dictionary definition of choose limits us
to accepting that there is some other force beside ourselves, be it
physiological occurrences, genetics, or social learning,
acting to determine our emotions. However, I will show that this in not the
case, and there are circumstances in which something we have done determines our
emotion, not another force.
In discussing whether we can choose our emotions, we have to remember
that the word can means to be able to.
This does not mean that in all situations we do choose our emotions, but rather
that we are able to choose our emotions in certain situations. However, to say
that we cannot choose our emotions limits us to saying that in all
circumstances we are unable of choosing our emotions. It may be true that there
are circumstances in which we cannot choose our emotions just as it may be true
that we are genetically prone to experience certain emotions more strongly than
others. However, that is not the purpose of my essay. The purpose of my essay is
to convince you that there is indeed circumstances where the decisions that we
make as thinking human beings determine what emotions we have, and thus we are
capable of choosing our emotions.
First, we need to understand what an emotion is. Philosophers and
psychologists have presented us with many definitions, but for the purpose of
this essay, I will define an emotion as a set of feelings
that have an intentional object and a belief about that intentional object. In
the above excerpt, Jerry actually refers to choosing our moods not emotions.
However, when “something bad happens” as Jerry refers to it, there is often
a cause. When we believe that someone has done something to affect us and we
experience feelings, we experience what can be termed as an emotion. A mood,
however, will not have this intentional object – what we believe to be the
cause of what we are feeling.
One of the major arguments against the idea that
we can choose our emotions is that emotions are just feelings or physiological
occurrences controlled by chemicals, and thus we cannot choose them. However, if
emotions were just a set of feelings, we would not be able to distinguish
between emotions, which may contain similar feelings. As Justin Oakley points
out, envy and jealousy may contain the same psychic feelings but they are
cognitively different emotions.
With jealousy we fear losing something whereas with envy we believe we lack
something we want, however, both emotions may cause feelings of anxiety. Anger
and fear may also cause similar feelings, such as an increase in heart rate,
body temperature, etc. Thus in order for us to have an emotion we must have a
belief about the intentional object.
Let’s take Sally for example. She is angry
with her best friend, Jane, for lying to her. In this situation, Jane’s lying
is the intentional object, what Sally believes to have caused her anger. I
stated in the definition of emotion that there also has to be a belief about the
emotion. Believing that Jane has lied is not enough to cause an emotion in Jane,
Sally must believe that she has been wronged by Jane’s lying. Sally could
believe that Jane had lied to her but not care, but she would therefore not be
angry at Jane’s lying. Thus, the belief about
the intentional lying is that lying is wrong. In this situation, Sally is making
a judgment about Jane’s lying; she has judged that it is wrong for Jane to
have lied. We must make a judgment about the intentional object in order to have
an emotion. Does it logically make sense that Sally would be angry if she did
not believe there was anything wrong with lying? It follows then that there is a
conscious thought in forming the emotion.
Let’s put this aside for a moment and now
consider what would happen if Sally were to find out that Jane had not lied.
Because the intentional object, Jane’s lying, no longer exists Sally no longer
is angry. She does not believe that she has been wronged. If we find out that
our intentional belief is wrong or that our intentional object no longer exists,
we can no longer have the emotion. This does not mean that there may not be
feelings that continue, however these feelings are not the emotion.
Sally may still have lingering feelings of anger but she can no longer logically
say that she is angry with Jane for lying if she knows that Jane has not lied to
her. It may be possible, as Robert Solomon states, that the feelings associated
with anger may take longer to subside than the emotion of anger does.
The idea that the feelings of anger subside when
the thoughts about the intentional object are discovered not to exist or shortly
thereafter answers the view that our emotions are physiological occurrences that
we do not have control over. If our emotions are incapable of being chosen in
that they are just physiological occurrences, it would be quite a coincidence
that every time we changed our beliefs about an intentional object the feelings
Does it not seem odd that every time you discover that someone has not lied to
you your feelings of anger slowly begin to subside? Or that if you were
embarrassed that you were late to a business meeting and then found out that you
weren’t, that your feelings of embarrassment begin to subside? It seems
illogical then to claim that our thoughts about a situation are not part of the
emotion, and that the emotion is just a feeling. Proponents of the idea that
emotions are physiological occurrences might claim that this connection occurs
because the thoughts about the emotion are a result of what we feel. However, in
the case with Sally, she would have continued to be angry if she believed that
Jane had lied. It was when she found out that Jane had not lied that the anger
ceased. Does it make sense to say that Sally no longer felt feelings of anger,
therefore, she no longer believed Jane lied to her or that Sally no longer
believed that Jane lied to her, therefore, she no longer felt feelings of anger?
Now let’s return to the fact that Sally was
able to make a judgment concerning Jane’s lying. The fact that Sally has the
ability to make decision about the situation – whether she believes that
Jane’s lying has wronged her – gives way to the idea that we can choose our
emotions. If our emotion forms from what we believe or judge about the situation
and we can choose what we believe, we then are indirectly choosing our emotion
in the situation.
Some opponents of the idea that we can choose
our emotions claim that this would not actually be choosing our emotions.
Rather, our values and beliefs are socially taught to us, and therefore we have
no choice in our emotions. Society teaches us to believe that lying is wrong, we
do not make this decision upon our own. However, if we believe this, we then
would have to believe that we have no choice in what we value. But we know that
this is not true. I can be brought up in a society that frowns down upon
African-Americans, yet I do not have to agree with the society or I could change
my beliefs later on in life. To say that because society teaches prejudice I am
incapable of deciding myself is to turn us all into products of society that are
incapable of making decision for ourselves. It is possible for me to meet an
African-American that befriends me. I now have the choice of changing my views
about African-Americans or just viewing my friend as an exception. Because there
are two options, either to continue being prejudice against African-Americans or
not, I must make a choice. I cannot hold both values and be consistent. It is in
situations such as this that we can see that we have the ability to choose our
own beliefs. It may be true that it is difficult in some situations to create
beliefs that are different from society but it does not mean that in all
circumstances it is impossible.
How does this ability to choose our values
affect our choice of emotion? Our emotions are representations of what we value
and believe. We can expect someone who values honesty to be angrier when lied to
than someone who does not value honesty. This is due to the fact that they will
feel more strongly about being wronged than the person who does not value
honesty. Someone who is prejudice against African-Americans may experience more
disgust and hatred when in an African-American’s presence.
Let’s take one last look at Sally and Jane.
Sally approaches Jane one day and expresses to Jane that she is a lesbian.
Jane’s immediate emotion is disgust. Jane’s disgust is a representation of
her beliefs about homosexuality. If she did not look unfavourably upon
homosexuality, why would Jane feel disgust? However, Jane ponders her beliefs
about homosexuality for the next couple of days. By the end of the week, Jane
has re-evaluated her views about homosexuality and no longer experiences disgust
toward Sally. Jane has been able to change her emotion by her ability to think
freely and change her values. Jane’s initial emotion may have been created by
society, but Jane was able to choose not to be disgusted by taking action to
change her beliefs about homosexuality. It would seems illogical to think that
because Jane had been brought up to not favour homosexuals that she would have
to maintain this belief and continue to feel disgust, but at the same time there
is no reason why Jane must change her views. It is her choice as to what she
believes. Through this choice, she chooses whether she is disgusted or not.
If we are free thinkers, capable of deciding
what we value as I have proposed, then we can see how choosing what we value
cultivates our emotions. Cultivation of emotions does not always occur in
retrospect as with Jane choosing to change her values. All of the values that we
choose at any point in our life cultivate emotions at another point in time. It
can be as simple as choosing to value someone’s opinion. For example, Joe,
from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, placed great importance on
Professor Bear’s view of her writing. Because of this, she subjected herself
to disappointment when he did not favour her work. Had she not chosen to value
his opinion, she would not have been hurt so deeply by his criticisms.
Our values can also be deep-set values such as placing great value on honesty as
we saw in our previous example with Sally and Jane. Sally’s previous decision
to value honesty cultivated her emotion of anger when being lied to.
I have argued here that we are capable of
choosing our emotions. There are too many coincidences between the change of
thought and the change of feelings to claim that one can occur without the
other. At the point in which we can experience an emotion based on a belief we
hold, we are then capable of choosing our emotions. This can be done, as we have
seen, by changing or cultivating our beliefs. It may be true that it is often
the case that our values are created through experience and what society
believes, but the idea that there is the indeed times in which we have to choose
between two different values leads to times in which we are choosing between two
 An excerpt from a forward received by email from Kelly Devine (4 April, 2000)
 William James contends that our emotions are just physiological occurrences. James, W. “What is an Emotion?” Mind 9, [Online] Available: http://attern.org/ethics1/#Papers,Artciles&Abstracts [9, April 2000]
 World Book Encyclopedia 2000 Dictionary (San Diego, CA: World Book Inc. 1999)
 It is possible to have an emotion without a feeling. For example if we hold a grudge against a friend for five years, we do not necessarily have feelings of anger for the whole five years. However, for the purpose of deciding if we can choose our emotions, we can just look at emotions that have feelings.
 I believe that Jerry may have meant that we can choose how people affect our emotions not moods.
 De Sousa, R. “Getting Philosophically Involved, The Rationality of Emotion (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987) Pp. 2-20
Oakley, J. “The Nature of Emotions” Morality and the Emotions
(London and New York: Routledge, 1992) Pp. 1-37
 In order to experience anger, we have to believe we have been wronged in some way. See Solomon, R.C. ‘Emotion and Choice’. In: Amélie Oksenberg Rorty (ed.): Explaining Emotions. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.) Pp. 251-281
 Ibid. Pp. 251-281
 Ibid. Pp. 256
 Ben-Ze’ev, A. “Emotions and Morality” The Journal of Value Inquiry31 (Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1997) Pp.199