Why Do We React the Way We Do?

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Reader’s Question

What’s the difference between an upsetting event that makes someone angry versus one that makes them sad?

Psychologist’s Reply

I hope that this feels like an answer when I say that several schools of thought within psychology are based on the idea that differences in reactions come from differences within individuals. In other words, an event is not inherently upsetting or sad; reactions are not specific to an event. Culture, personal experiences, and a person’s moods, thoughts and beliefs are a few aspects of a person’s identity that can shape reactions.

Cultural background can affect how someone reacts to experiences. For example, psychologists have studied how people from different cultural backgrounds react differently to daily events, social situations, death, and even disasters. Cultural patterns emerged among U.S., Brahman, and Tamang children’s reactions and expressions of feeling when exposed to difficult social interactions (Cole, Bruschi and Tamang 2002). One finding suggested that Tamang children were more likely to react to difficult situations with shame, as opposed to the Brahman and U.S. children, who reacted with anger. Though we cannot change the culture into which we are born, it can be useful to become aware of how our cultural heritage informs our feelings or perceptions.

What is learned from others and from our own experiences can also shape how someone responds. For example, someone whose parents have modeled anger as a typical reaction might be more likely to have anger as a first response. However, if someone else has witnessed his parent becoming upset or crying when faced with stressors, his reaction might be different. As we gather life experiences, we take what we have gained with regard to both intellectual and emotional ‘knowledge’ and apply it.

Constructivist and cognitive behavioral theories are both areas of study in psychology that center on the idea that what a person brings to a situation determines his or her reaction.

Constructivist theorists are interested in how everyone ‘constructs’ his or her reality, or how people make meaning from everyday experiences in their lives. Personal construct theory views each person as a sort of scientist who continually tries to organize and understand, or make meaning out of life events. So according to this theory, someone who experiences trauma in childhood would emerge from that trauma with a set of expectations as well as emotional and behavioral responses that are different from someone who did not. This would likely affect how the trauma survivor interacts within his or her relationships.

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Cognitive behavioral therapy, a treatment used for disorders such as anxiety and depression, is based on the belief that a person’s thoughts and beliefs shape his or her feelings about events. For example, let’s say two people are treated poorly in the same way by someone in whom they are romantically interested. If one person believes that she was rejected primarily because the rejector is a rude person, she might feel primarily anger or irritation. In contrast, let’s say the second person believes he was rejected due to the fact that he is awkward or even unlikable. His main reaction would likely be more along the lines of sadness or hopelessness (about his own flaws). This is just one example of how our belief system, which is shaped by our experiences, can create feelings.

So to come back to your original question, look inward instead of outward as you examine reactions to events in your life. As Anais Nin said, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”

Reference:
Cole, P.M; C.J. Bruschi and B.L. Tamang (2002) ‘Cultural differences in children’s emotional reactions to difficult situations’, Child Development 73(3): 983-96.

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