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Finding the self in self-transcendent emotions

  1. Jonathan Haidt,1 and
  2. James P. Morris
  1. Department of Psychology, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA 22904

Emotion research has something in common with a drunk searching for his car keys under a street lamp. “Where did you lose them?” asks the cop. “In the alley,” says the drunk, “but the light is so much better over here.” For emotion research, the light shines most brightly on the face, whose movements can be coded, compared across cultures, and quantified by electromyography. All of the “basic” emotions described by Paul Ekman (1) and others (happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, and disgust) earned their place on the list by being face-valid. The second source of illumination has long been animal research. Emotions that can be reliably triggered in rats, such as fear and anger, have been well-studied, down to specific pathways through the amygdala (2). But emotions that cannot be found on the face or in a rat, such as moral elevation and admiration, are largely abandoned back in the alley. We know they are there, but nobody can seem to find a flashlight. It is therefore quite an achievement that, as described in this issue of PNAS, Immordino-Yang, McCall, Damasio, and Damasio (3) managed to drag an fMRI scanner back there and have given us a first glimpse of the neurological underpinnings of elevation and admiration.

To bring some order to the study of emotions, psychologists have proposed various schemes, mostly categorizations of “cognitive appraisals,” the quick analyses of the meaning of an event that are said to trigger the rest of the emotional response (4). One such scheme (5, 6) for the moral emotions proposes a 2 × 2 contrast. Moral emotions are usually evaluations (good or bad) of a person, and that person can be the self or another person. Table 1 shows the 4 cells that result from this contrast, along with the main …

1To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail: haidt{at}virginia.edu

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