Affective Realism: How Your Body Feels Affects Your Decisions And Actions

Neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett has a fascinating book How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. This book turns what you might know about how the brain works on its head and there’s been a few mind blowing and jaw-dropping realizations of how your brain works and how it helps make us who we are – our human nature! 

In this article we’ll be discussing something that Dr Barrett calls Affective Realism.

What is Affective Realism?

Affective Realism is basically how we feel on the inside affects what (or how) we perceive our reality. It literally influences and changes what we (think) we see. And it also has an effect (not affect!) on our decision making, which can impact our own lives and those of others! Which is kind of scary when you think about it. In her book one of the examples she talks about was Judges in Israel making decisions in court before lunch, when they’re hungry. Their internal feeling of being hungry actually affected their sentencing of defendants, and not in a positive way. But after they’d had their lunch and their body-budget (as Feldman calls it) was more in balance? Then they were back to pardoning people as frequently as before.

In a definition from Wikipedia, affect (in psychology) refers to “the underlying experience of feeling, emotion or mood”. You may have heard people who are emotionless – like say, for example, serial killers who have no emotional reaction to what they’ve done – as having a ‘flat affect’.

Affective Realism affects how we see the world

According to an article by Anthony Kosner about how Barrett talks about affective realism, he writes that our feelings cause us to view the world in a certain way – whether that is objective reality or not. He quotes Barrett who says, essentially how we feel about the world creates our thoughts about things. For example, she says “I feel negative so something bad must be happening.” It’s kind of the reverse of what we think happens when we experience reality. We think something bad is happening so that’s why we feel bad (angry, upset, scared).

Affective Realism affects how we act

On a website for Barrett’s book, she says that marketing depends on the effects of things like affective realism. Apparently people drink more and are willing to pay more for a beverage if they see smiling faces (though aren’t aware of seeing the faces – as in subliminal messaging techniques).

Affective Realism affects what we feel

According to an article by Barrett and colleagues, they write how people’s emotions/mood/feeling, aka affect, is intertwined with how they experience the world, and actually affects how people see things – such as a neutral face. If people are experiencing positivity, they’re more likely to see a neutral face in a positive light. This study is discussed again in an article by PubMed. Barret and colleagues ran tests where they showed smiling, angry or neutral faces in a way that wasn’t consciously aware of them, and when they were shown neutral faces at before, at the same time, and after. When people saw the neutral faces paired with the smiling faces they weren’t aware of, or the scowling faces they also didn’t know they were seeing, they’d read the neutral faces as more positive or trustworthy, than with the invisible angry faces.

Affective Realism affects what we think

In a fascinating New York Times article from 2015 called When A Gun Is Not A Gun,it talks about shootings by police officers in Philadelphia over an 8 year period, and how 15% of the cases the victims were unarmed, and in half of those the officer thought that a normal object like a cellphone or a specific movement (like putting their hand in their pocket for example), they’d misidentified as being a gun or weapon, and had then shot the person. Though there are many reasons for shootings, one of them may be affective realism – which is where your feelings or emotions have an impact on what you see and perceive is going on in your environment or experience. Your brain reacts to how your body is feeling.  

According to The World As We Feel It blog, it mentions that our feelings, and therefore how we respond, and react (i.e. socialization theories) are influenced by our past experiences. So police officers’ past experiences could be seeing people with weapons. And the brain is a predictive organ, so they predict they see guns where there isn’t any, because that is what they are used to experiencing. 

Affective realism impacts how we act, feel and think

Adam Schneider, a writer for Surepeople, explains that how we feel can have an impact on how we act and think (this reminds me of acceptance and commitment therapy – how we think, feel and behave are all interlinked). He says that according to Lisa Feldman Barrett’s TED Talk Cultivating Wisdom: The Power Of Mood, that “your brain is naturally wired to adjust its perspective based on your mood. In turn, you come to believe what you feel.” And that is what affective realism is all about. 

How we think and how we feel is sometimes indistinguishable, it seems. It’s like the chicken and the egg – what comes first? 

As Schneider mentions, sometimes our emotions/feelings/mood influence or cause our thoughts. Other times it’s the opposite and what we think influences how we feel about something. That’s why positive psychology, which looks at things through a positive lens, can help us to become more resilient. When we look at things positively and combine that with positive emotions it can make you feel like you can accomplish anything! Whereas when the opposite occurs – you’re thinking negatively as well as feeling negative or in a negative mood this can be detrimental to your overall well being. 


Kosner, A (2021, Feb 10) The Mind at Work: Lisa Feldman Barrett on the metabolism of emotion–lisa-feldman-barrett-on-the-metabolism-of-emot#:~:text=%E2%80%9CAffective%20realism%20is%20when%20you,so%20persistent%20in%20human%20culture.

N.a (2020, April 21) Affective Realism. How Emotions Are

Siegel, E, Wormwood, J, Quigley, K and Barrett, L, (2018 )Seeing What You Feel: Affect Drives Visual Perception of Structurally Neutral Faces. APS Association of Psychological Sciences

Barrett, L, Wormwood, J (2015, April 17) When A Gun Is Not A Gun. New York Times

Schneider, A (2021, September 21) Affective Realism.

Ivakiv, A (2020, August 16) Emotional practices, part 1: Affective neuroscience. University of Vermont blogs

(2016, May 2) ‘Affective realism’: The light and dark side of seeing-with-feeling.  The World As We Feel It.

Wormwood, J Siegel, E, Kopec, J Quigley, K, Feldman, L (2018, August 23) You are what I feel: A test of the affective realism hypothesis.

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