How Do Your Emotions Affect Your Behaviors?

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The psychological and physiological aspects of human emotion have a profound impact on behavior. While a limited subset of human behavior is involuntary, the bulk is partially or wholly mediated by thought and is undertaken by choice. Deciphering the complex interplay of emotion and behavior has long been a primary focus for scholars in the field of psychology. A clear understanding of the basics can help you can achieve your personal, career and relationship goals.

The ABC Cycle

  • Originally developed and refined by psychologists including Ellis, Beck, Mahoney and Michenbaum, a primary tenet of modern cognitive behavioral theory is that affect (emotion), behavior and cognition (thought) are mutually influential. In other words, each can affect the other. This cycle is often depicted as a triangle with vertices connected by lines with arrows on both ends. This triangle forms the basis for cognitive-behavioral theory, or CBT, in which clients learn to change their emotions and behaviors by intentionally making specific, carefully tailored changes to their thoughts.

    Consider the following scenario. You have just begun a diet. Around lunchtime, your boss deposits a thick slice of heavily iced cake on your desk. He congratulates you and tells you that you just won an office contest for most valued employee. Your thoughts about your diet and yourself may influence your decision about eating the cake. Your cake-eating behavior (or refusal) may impact your emotions, and those emotions may impact future behavior. Each of the triangle's vertices (i.e., affect, behavior, cognition) can impact the other two.

Cognition and Behavior Impact Affect

  • Your thoughts about your decision to eat the cake as well as the cake-eating behavior itself can have a profound and long-lasting impact on your mood. Whether you feel proud and happy about winning the award or guilty and stressed for abandoning your dieting commitment may hinge on your thoughts about the event, your boss and yourself.

Cognition and Affect Impact Behavior

  • Your self-talk and mood at the time of the cake offer can make the difference between eating the luscious prize or politely declining. If you are fearful or anxious in the presence of your boss, you may be particularly vulnerable to making a regrettable decision. According to Dr. Jill Williams' doctoral research at Bangor University, decisions made while in a heightened state of arousal can result in impaired performance. In many cases, the old adage to "sleep on" important decisions is excellent advice. In the cake-eating scenario, it is best to simply take a few moments to thoroughly think through the decision, rather than succumbing to a knee-jerk response.

Affect and Behavior Impact Cognition

  • Your feelings about eating (or resisting the urge to eat) the hypothetical cake can affect your thoughts and self-talk. If you feel anxious or guilty about eating the cake, you may begin to believe that you are unable to stick to a diet. This negative self-talk, in turn, can lead to future behaviors that serve to reinforce the thoughts, such as repeated "cheating" on the diet. Alternatively, successfully declining the treat can lead to positive feelings and self-talk that will lead to future successes in similar scenarios.

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