The Theory of Constructed Emotion — How Emotions Are Made



In the last episode of Down the Rabbit Hole, we discussed what would happen if we had no emotions. In this episode, I’d like to talk about the surprising truth about how emotions are made. There are many theories of emotion, but I’m just going to be discussing one: the theory of constructed emotion which was coined by Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett. I think you’ll find that this theory is interesting, unintuitive, and important; you’ll never look at emotion the same way again.

How Emotions Are Made

Body Budget

Perhaps, the best place to start is with the brain. The brain evolved to serve the body. You body is full of resources that need to be balanced and kept in a healthy range. Dr. Barrett coins a useful term here: body-budget [1]. Your body needs to maintain a healthy budget of these resources, so you can survive and thrive. 


Anytime there is change in your body budget, some basic feelings will arise within you called affect [1]. Affect is different from emotion [1]. It only has two-dimensions: valence and arousal [1, 2, 4]. You can feel pleasant or unpleasant. Aroused or unaroused; in other words, calm or agitated. Things that impact your body budget in a positive way make you feel good. Things that impact your body budget in a negative way make you feel bad. Again, this is affect and not emotion. Affect is a part of being conscious, and the reason we feel it is still a scientific mystery. 

You’re not born with the knowledge of how to control your body budget [1]. You begin learning this as a baby. Our brains construct models of the world, based on our past experiences, that help us regulate ourselves. 


Now, here’s a very important point: our models of the world are predictive — not reactive [1, 3]. Your brain is governed by prediction -> correction, not stimulus -> response. According to Barrett and other scientists, prediction is a lot more efficient and adaptive than reaction [1, 3]. 

Your brain doesn’t just predict what’s happening in the external world —  it also predicts what’s going on inside of you. A brain should make you feel thirsty before you’re completely dehydrated; it should make you feel afraid at the ledge of the cliff, and not when you’ve already fallen off. 

Your past experiences make up your model. Your model is made to regulate your body budget. Your model predicts what’s going to happen in the world at every moment. Ideally, if the prediction is wrong, then your brain will update its model. Based on its prediction, it will modify your body budget and make you feel some affect. 

Emotion & Concepts

Where does emotion come into this? Your model of the world is made up of concepts or categories [1]. This conceptual model is incredibly flexible [1]. You can combine old concepts to make new concepts. Even though I’ve never seen one, I can combine an alligator, with a snake, with a large bird, with fire to imagine a new creature: a dragon. Concepts come together based on our goals as individuals. They are not static things. For example, let’s say that my goal was to hold down a stack of papers. Now, I have to look for things that can be a paperweight. Literally anything with a sufficient amount of weight can serve as a paperweight: a rock, a vase, a computer, a person, so on and so forth. Dr. Barrett says that emotions are goal-based concepts that we construct based on our past experiences [1]. 

Let’s say that someone cuts you off in traffic. The emotion you construct will depend on what your brain predicts is happening outside of you, inside of you, and what your goal is. If you predict that someone tried to hurt you or didn’t value your life, your body budget will change, you’ll feel an agitated affect, and you will honk the horn with the goal of saying, “I MATTER!”. You’ve constructed the emotion of anger. However, if you predict that the person is on their way to the hospital, your body budget will change, you’ll stay calm, and you’ll slow down with the goal of letting the person who cut you off travel effectively. You’ve constructed the emotion of sympathy or empathy. 

In Dr. Barrett’s words, “[emotions] are a prescription for action” [1]. Emotions are predictions about how we should act in order to achieve a goal. These predictions are based on past experiences, and they are concepts that we construct. There is a lot of variation in the types of emotions we can feel and how they are expressed. Ultimately, this means that we are responsible for how we construct our conceptual model of the world because this will control our predictions. We’ll talk about this in a future video.

You might find this idea hard to grasp at first. It’s pretty new and unintuitive. But, this is a scientific theory with a lot of evidence to support it. It also has important implications for society. If you really want a more accurate and detailed understanding of the theory, I highly recommend reading Dr. Barrett’s book on the topic: How Emotions Are Made. I’ve put a link in the description. 

As always, thanks for watching, and I’ll see you next time!


1. Barrett, Lisa Feldman. How Emotions Are Made: the Secret Life of the Brain. Mariner Books, 2017.

2. Barrett, Lisa Feldman. “The theory of constructed emotion: an active inference account of interoception and categorization”  Social cognitive and affective neuroscience vol. 12,1 (2016): 1-23.

3. Seligman, Martin E. P., et al. Homo Prospectus. Oxford University Press, 2016.

4. A. Russell, James. (1991). Culture and the Categorization of Emotions. Psychological bulletin. 110. 426-50. 10.1037/0033-2909.110.3.426.

psychologyJustin Deol