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date: 22 August 2017

Vicissitudes of Emotions and Political Action During the Greek Crisis

Summary and Keywords

Action readiness is considered a central property of emotions in most psychological theories. Emotions are the engine of behavior. They are the motivating, directing, prioritizing function of the brain, and impel to an immediate reaction to challenges and opportunities faced by the organism. Nevertheless, under sociopolitical malaise, emotions do not always lead to action.

People leave in societies characterized by particular emotional cultures, climates, and atmospheres that set the background to what emotions are felt under which circumstances. The impact of an emotion depends on how relevant, that is, emotionally significant is the event for the individual; on the implications of the event for the person’s well-being and immediate or long-term goals; on the individual’s capacity to cope with or adjust to the consequences of the event; and on the significance of the event with respect to individual and collective self-concept and to social norms and values.

Although emotions trigger action, events with high emotional intensity may mobilize defense mechanisms that distort facts, so that the event may appear distant or not concerning the individual personally. In such cases action is hindered because the meaning of the emotive event, although fully intellectually understood, does not have personal emotional reality. If the defense mechanisms prove inefficient or collapse, the event may be experienced as traumatic, that is, as a shocking occurrence that brings about a rupture in the continuity of existence, numbing of senses and mental faculties, and inability to think about what happened for periods that may last from days to years, although individuals and collectives may appear quite normal in carrying out everyday routines.

Interpretative “emotion work” in formal or informal contexts may change emotions from immobilizing to mobilizing, or from destructive to constructive, as the traumatic event is being “worked through” and a cohesive narrative about it develops. But even then, action and in our case, political action, depends on the individual’s available repertoire—political efficacy and resilience—built up from past recoveries and a sense of support from social networks, and hope in assessing the costs and benefits from the harms brought by acting and the harms brought by non-acting.

Keywords: emotion, emotional climate, resilience, hope, political efficacy, political action, financial crisis, Greece

The Emotional Babel and Points of Consensus

Since the “affective turn” in social sciences and the humanities in the 1990s, many different terms are used to denote what William James (1983/1890) had initially defined as a distinct human faculty, that is, Emotion as separate from Cognition and Volition. The behavioristic black box, and later the emphasis of cognitivism on “pure” cognitive processes—as if individuals were nonemotional machines (Bruner, 1990)—had excluded emotions from the mainstream research agenda in psychology for decades. When the interest in emotions returned in the late 1980s, scientific literature began to flood with “emotional terms,” such as feeling, emotion, sentiment, affect, passion, mood. Since then and still today, these terms are sometimes treated as synonyms; at other times they are used to signify different levels of processing (for example, basic/automatic vs. advanced, or nonconscious vs. conscious); often just denote a particular approach (for example, in psychological literature of the 1960s, “affect” usually meant some physiologically measurable emotion, as in Arnold (1969, 1970)); or a particular discipline (for example, “sentiment” is rarely found in psychological literature but is often used in sociology and history, as in Shelly (2004)). Often, in English, the term emotion denotes categorical relationships depending on whether it is used in singular term—emotion, usually denoting a particular function distinct from cognition—or in plural, emotions, usually implying feelings, moods, and other subjectively experienced states.

To make things even more complicating, different disciplines or different approaches within the same discipline often attribute diverse operational definitions to the same term or use diverse terms for the same operational definition. Some examples of this perplexity are discussed later on in this article.

This terminological Babel is inevitably a result of the hundreds of theories of emotions that have been stated in the last decades. As an example, in one single collected volume on emotions with 30 contributors, published in 2007, the editors count 23 different theories of emotions included in this particular volume, which they attempt to classify into five general categories (Russel Neuman, Marcus, Crigler, & MacKuen, 2007): (i) theories of cognitive primacy, (ii) theories of affective primacy, (iii) linkage models, (iv) subliminal linkage models, (v) models of functional form. Nevertheless, a meticulous reader would notice that these categories and the theories within them are not necessarily mutually exclusive in the way they conceive emotions, but could often be seen as complementary if some terminological issues were clarified.

Consequently, in accordance with the number of terms and theories, there exist hundreds of definitions of emotion. Quite early on in emotion research, Kleinginna and Kleinginna (1981) had already reviewed more than 300 psychological definitions of emotion, in an attempt to synthesize one general, consensual definition. They ended up with a definition that included the variables repeatedly mentioned in the definitions they examined: Emotion is a complex set of interactions between subjective and objective factors. These interactions are mediated by neural/hormonal systems that can (i) induce affective experiences, such as feelings of arousal, pleasure or unpleasantness; (ii) generate cognitive processing through influences in perception or the induction of appraisals and attributions; (iii) activate wide adaptations of the organism to the initial conditions that caused the emotion; and (iv) lead to behavior that is often—but not always—expressive, intentional, and adaptive. In conceptual terms, this is still a valid description of emotion; difficulties arise when for the purposes of research, conceptual definitions are broken down to several different operational definitions that result in what Bruner (1990, p. xi) has called “neat little studies,” but neglectfully, are not connected back to the initial conceptual definition from which they derived. This is the crux of the problem for any analytical science, as Scherer (2004, p. 154) puts it, “to resynthesize the elements or components of a phenomenon once they have been analytically separated in the attempt to specify the nature and importance of the determinants and their interactions.

Nevertheless, and regardless of this variability in theories, terms, and definitions, by now the emotion research community appears to have reached some consensus and most researchers of emotions would agree on the following:

  1. (i) Human well-being is guarded by emotions, that is, “by bioregulatory reactions that aim at promoting, directly or indirectly, the sort of physiological states that secure not just survival, but survival regulated into the range that we, conscious and thinking creatures, identify with well-being” (Damasio, 2004, p. 50). Emotions are the motivating, directing, prioritizing function of the brain; they impel to an immediate reaction to certain challenges and opportunities faced by an organism; and provide the individual with a mental alert for the significance of the object that caused the emotion. Thus, emotions can be seen as the engines of behavior and the motivators of meaningful action (Solomon, 2004).

  2. (ii) There are at least two levels/types of emotional processing based on different types of signaling in the nervous system, which may result in different forms of emotional experience in the same sort of emotion (Solomon, 2004).

The first level of processing is evolutionary the oldest, takes place in the amygdala probably without participation of the cortex, and is conducted in milliseconds; because it is extremely rapid and rough in terms of representational content it is regarded as automatic (for example, Ekman, 2004), nonconscious (for example, Ledoux, 1998; Zajonc, 1980), reflexive (for example, Schreiber, 2007), or subliminal (for example, Bornstein, 1992; Erdelyi, 1985), depending on discipline or perspective. This type of processing controls the brain by setting it in particular modes of organization, for example, happiness mode or fear mode, has none or crude representational content, prepares physiological mechanisms for a series of actions, alerts attention, and mobilizes mental resources (Oatley & Johnson-Laird, 1987, 1995).

Different authors use several terms to describe this same process. Arnold (1970) has called it appraisal, Oatley and Johnson-Laird (1995) refer to it as emotional abduction or control signal, and Gould (2010, p. 26) drawing on Massumi (2002), adopts the term affect as a product of what she calls arousal, “a condition produced by mechanisms, ‘non-conscious’ (either unconscious or preconscious) and unnamed, but nevertheless registered, experiences of bodily energy and intensity that arise in response to stimuli impinging on the body.” Marcus, Russel Neuman, and MacKuen (2000) divide this type of processing in two subsystems: a disposition system that tunes consciousness on habituated programs of action in circumstances familiar to the individual, and a surveillance system that impels conscious cognitive processing of unfamiliar conditions.

Through this type of primitive, crudely represented processing, fear, for example, caused by a sudden trembling of the ground due to earthquake, spreads immediately through the brain, interrupts ongoing action, unlimbers physiological mechanisms and a repertoire of actions for flight or defensive fight, and directs attention to the environment for signs of further danger and/or ways of protection. In this brain mode all informational signs from the environment are potentially perceived as threatening.

The second type of emotional processing is evolutionary more advanced, involves the cortex, and is more time consuming. Depending on theoretical model or discipline it is approached as extended processing (for example, Ekman, 2004), as controlled processing (for example, Spezio & Adolphs, 2007), as reflective (for example, Schreiber, 2007) or as supraliminal (for example, Erdelyi, 1985). This type of processing is informational in that it indicates what caused the emotion or to whom the emotion is directed; has advanced representational content, that is, it is connected to some mental representation of the object or the event that caused the emotion; and regulates the focus of attention and the utilization of mental resources.

Again, different authors use various terms to describe this advanced type of emotional processing, and in certain cases the term chosen coincides with the one other authors use to describe the less advanced type of processing previously described. Arnold (1970), for example, calls the outcome of this type of processing affect, a term which Gould (2010) later uses to denote more basic, mostly somatic processes. Oatley and Johnson-Laird (1995) label this type of processing emotion, feeling, or information signal, and Gould (2010, p. 26) simply emotion, which she describes as “that which from the potential of bodily intensities gets actualized or concretized in the flow of living; the expression of affect in gesture and language, its conventional or coded expression.”

These two types of emotional processing render three basic criteria—intensity, duration, and level of representational processing—which can contribute to the clarity of operational definitions of at least two different aspects of emotion. The first refers to an acute, instantaneous impact on the individual, but is crudely connected to some source or object, thus, making it difficult for the individual to regulate it or “control” its effects; the second aspect of emotion, by being connected to some clear representation that can be taken as its source or object, allows the individual to think about what is happening and look for ways to regulate it, therefore involving more time-consuming processes. These two aspects of emotion do not necessarily always occur together.

  1. (iii) By identifying the above two levels of processing, the historic debate on “primacy of affect or cognition” (Lazarus, 1982, 1984; Zajonc, 1984) ceases to be an issue. It seems that emotion and cognition interact and have a mutual impact on each other; primacy alternates, depending on urgency of the emotional event (Frijda, 2004) and on level of processing, that is, emotion takes precedence in automatic processing, and cognition may take precedence in advanced processing (Zajonc, 1984).

For the purposes of this article, the term emotion is used to denote a human “faculty,” that is, a human processing category in the Jamesean way, distinct from, but interacting with cognition and volition; emotion as a general category that includes both levels of processing previously described, irrespective of the various terms ascribed to them by different scholars.

Sources of Emotion

Emotions are not generated in a vacuum. Human beings live within communities and communities have characteristic emotional atmospheres, climates, and cultures (de Rivera, 1992). Emotional climate refers to the collective emotions (von Scheve & Salmela, 2014) experienced as a result of a society’s response to its sociopolitical conditions. It is a condition more stable than the emotional atmosphere that refers to emotions that arise when members of a group focus their attention on a specific short-term event that affects them as a group (Bar-Tal, Halperin, & de Rivera, 2007). Emotional climates and atmospheres are strongly connected to the general sociocultural conditions, norms, and values of each particular community—what Bar-Tal et al. (2007) call emotional cultures. The social context, with its beliefs, norms, and values appears to be the most potent determinant of what emotions are felt, to what degree, and what kinds of action these emotions motivate. The importance of the social context in determining emotional experience has been signified with various terms by different authors, for example, emotion display rules (Ekman & Friesen, 1971), emotion rules (Hochschild, 1979, 1983), normative significance of an emotion (Scherer, 2001), and social eye as a factor contributing to the action to which an emotion leads (Frijda, 2004).

Sources of emotions, then, may be more or less universal for human beings, since they are connected to survival and well-being, but their urgency and significance are highly determined by the hindrances and opportunities faced by the individuals who live within particular social contexts. Ekman (2004) suggests several psychological processes through which emotions are generated. Below we explore how these processes may be set off in conditions of sociopolitical malaise, using as an illustration research findings from the Greek socioeconomic crisis.


Ekman’s (2004) first trigger, automatic appraisal, appears to correspond to what was previously discussed as the evolutionary oldest type of emotional processing, since it is based mostly on sensations (for example, sounds, smells, images) when people automatically, that is, nonconsciously, process signals and cues that may challenge well-being in an either a positive or negative direction. Ekman refers to some internal emotional mechanisms, the autoappraisers, which are continuously scanning the environment for events important to welfare and to survival that have universal themes based on our ancestral past, and variations on those themes based on our personal history. Autoappraisers are a “hot trigger” of emotions, in the sense that emotions spring automatically as responses to particular—evolutionary or developmentally—significant cues and impel to direct action without having previously submitted to any form of mental elaboration or regulation.

In conditions of sociopolitical malaise, as that to which Greek citizens have been subjected during the recent seven years of the financial crisis, many everyday life scenes and experiences may act as stimuli for autoappraisers: closed-down shops as one walks in the street; beggars and homeless people in deserted—previously crowded—public areas; or even just finding one more bill in one’s mailbox that one cannot afford to pay. In a sociopolitically dysphoric climate, people automatically appraise a continuant decay of well-being in a context redounded of signals and cues that instantly signify material and psychosocial decline.

To examine how everyday images of crisis may have a negative emotional impact that may in turn affect political attitudes, an experiment was carried out by use of a mood induction procedure.1 One hundred and sixty undergraduate and graduate students, equally distributed by gender and age group (18–22, 23–45) in two groups—experimental and control—were exposed for 9.3 minutes to 75 images of everyday life in Greece during and before the crisis, respectively (Davou, 2015; Sidiropoulou, Davou, Armenakis, & Demertzis, 2017). Images of crisis included violent suppressions of demonstrations, people queuing for the distribution of public meals, padlocked shops, people searching in trash cans for food, beggars, homeless, etc.; images before the crisis included people celebrating, shopping in crowded malls, enjoying a picnic, etc. Both groups were then administered the Beck Hopelessness Scale (Beck & Steer, 1993), a measure of internal political efficacy (Niemi, Craig, & Mattei, 1991), and were given four vignettes about possible social problems in the neighborhood to which they had to reply whether they would take any action and of what type. The vignettes featured mobile antenna wiring, the conversion of a park into a car parking, increase of violence, and increase of litter in the neighborhood. The results showed that participants exposed to the images of crisis recorded higher hopelessness, with men—probably as the main family bread earners—generally showing more hopelessness than women. Images of crisis increased political efficacy of participants above the age of 23, but had a different impact on participants younger than 22. The latter, and especially the male more than the female, recorded increased intention for alternative small-scale political action (for example, collective action based on neighborhood or small collectives), but decreased political efficacy with respect to central-staged politics. This combination may reflect distrust or mistrust in traditional politics and a pursuit for alternative action repertoires; it may also explain abstention from the recent (September 2015) Greek elections. But the important finding of this experiment was that scenes of sociopolitical malaise had an immediate effect on levels of hope, political efficacy, and intention for civic action.

Advanced Processing

The next seven triggers discussed by Ekman (2004) correspond to what was previously described as the evolutionary more advanced type of emotional processing, in that they are all results of higher-level cognitive processing and connected to more elaborated mental representations, formed as individuals (i) think about what is happening to them and evaluate their condition (extended appraisal), (ii) remember similar past events (remembering), (iii) imagine consequences (imagination), (iv) watch the suffering of fellow citizens (empathy), (v) talk about the situation (discussions), (vi) are implicitly or explicitly directed to how they should feel about particular conditions or events (symbolic pathway), or (vii) observe the violations of norms that up to a certain point in time guaranteed some degree of security in everyday life (norm violation).2

With the purpose to explore how these sources of emotion apply to Greeks during the crisis, as well as to investigate to what types of action these emotions may have motivated them, a qualitative study was implemented. The study was carried out with semi-structured, in-depth, face-to-face interviews with 50 men and women from the greater Athens area, aged 18–70, who had different levels of education and employment condition (Davou, 2015; Tsoutsi & Davou, 2017). Anger and rage, fear and insecurity, anxiety and stress, sadness, disappointment, despair, guilt and shame, envy and jealousy toward those “untouched” by the crisis were the main emotions reported. Only a few participants who had been involved in some form of collective action reported to have felt joy during the action. Indeed, participation in demonstrations has been associated with the perception of a more positive emotional climate that lasts for several weeks (Bar-Tal et al., 2007), and positive emotions have been shown to be elicited inside movements through the interaction with other activists (Yang, 2000). In Greece, citizens who participated in the “Indignati” movement reported that it provided them an oasis of positive emotions in the midst of the crisis, emotions such as happiness, euphoria, and optimism while working for the movement (Yiovanopoulos & Mitropoulos, 2011).

The general emotional context—climate—in which sources of emotions were activated during the crisis is lively illustrated in the words of a 31 year old man, “I have a feeling that they have thrown out over people, a collective guilt, so to speak, a guilt that spreads like smog and crumples us up, and grieves us because it beclouds our sky.”

Thinking about the situation and making evaluations and interpretations about personal and general conditions (for example, running out of money weeks before the next pay, or fear of losing a job), what Ekman (2004) calls extended processing, was an impelling source of emotions, “As the time passed I became more and more angry … with the situation and with myself, that I had probably done the wrong choices” (Man, 43). Thinking about an emotional situation involves the conscious awareness of an ongoing evaluative process as the individual is considering what is happening. It deals with more ambiguous situations, where automatic appraising mechanisms are not already tuned, or have simply set the emotional background. As individuals think about an event they begin to feel more clearly about it. And as they become more aware of how and what they feel, more evaluations influence their feelings.

The memory of a past emotional event purposefully chosen or unbidden, popping into the mind, was another source of emotion. Remembering is not necessarily an individual matter. It may stem from collective memories and may include not just a scene and a script of what transpired emotionally, but an emotional reaction as well. It may replay an emotion felt in the past, in a way that similar physiological changes and subjective feelings are generated. Queues for the distribution of public meals, for example, resound with collective memories of the 1941–1942 famine under the axis occupation when almost 200,000 people died, and of the common meals organized by the Red Cross and other international and national agents immediately after the end of the civil war (1949) in locations where the country was devastated. This collective memory with related emotions was reflected in this young woman’s words:

I was looking at the cues outside the Food Supply Centre, and wondered ‘what is this? Is it a new famine? … Decent people, like you and me … Are we under some kind of occupation? It is like what my grandpa described about the Red Cross meals during the war. (Woman, 25)

This woman did not have any direct, first-hand experience of the 1941–1942 famine. Yet, she “recalls” it through collective memory.

A third source of emotion, imagination, was excited not only as people struggle to anticipate ways to handle a cloudy future but also because media, political commentators, and rumors spread various catastrophic scenarios, such as the possibility of Grexit. And since a pending catastrophe can often be more emotionally exhausting than the catastrophe per se (Bourke, 2005), several distressing emotions were experienced, “I feel strained and anxious to think that I will get up tomorrow and may not be able to pay my rent. One day the unemployment benefit will stop. What happens then? Will I find a job? What am I going to do?”(Woman, 39). “There is a point when you can imagine yourself in this condition or someone close to you and then anguish and disappointment become more intense” (Man, 45).

Empathy, the process through which attitudes, feelings, and judgments are passed from person to person without being publicly articulated, by assuming in one’s mind the experience and feelings of another person, is a further source of emotion. Empathy is a natural human capacity that progresses with emotional and cognitive development (for example, Hodges & Myers, 2007), but it seems that in cases of severe personal turmoil it may become inactivated or inhibited, perhaps as the individual struggles to save oneself or in an attempt to protect oneself from overwhelming emotions. Although some participants in our study were strongly moved from hearing about fellowmen dying suddenly at middle age or committing suicide; or from witnessing people begging, becoming homeless, or standing in a long cue for a meal, other participants, mostly those who reported to feel politically inefficient, appeared to have become desensitized, as if the capacity for empathy had been inhibited or blocked. The following two quotes illustrate these two different paths of empathy:

You get shocked with the homeless, you get shocked with children who faint in school … you don’t want to believe it. It’s impossible not do something. You have to respond. (Woman, 55)

Compassion, I feel no more. It has become a routine … it has to do with our survival, that if we were to respond at the call of every beggar we would have to spend 30 euros per day and to listen to their stories more than six hours … There is a comedy in this tragedy, a farce … I was thinking that the beggars are like pigeons, they come and eat the bread crumbs and they’re so annoying. And only if you chase them away they will leave. It’s a tragedy and a comedy at the same time. (Man, 35)

Discussion about a past emotional event or as an expression of thoughts about the personal and social situation may also be a source of emotions. But discussion may also be a way to regulate emotions. Analysis of the interviews revealed two trends. Participants who “don’ talk about it,” as a mechanism for neutralizing emotions, mostly by those who have been affected the most, are not clear about causes, are politically confused, and feel politically and personally inefficient. And participants who “talk it out” to relieve emotions, to understand and to resist, mostly those who expressed a relatively coherent political belief system, personal and political efficacy, and appeared to be able to tolerate emotions generated by discussions that they conceived as a means to deal with problems. Again, the following two quotes illustrate these two different mechanisms for coping with emotions:

It’s been a year that my friend is unemployed and she is depressed and alienated … I only meet up with one friend because we talk about other things, and because I can laugh with her. Most people don’t laugh anymore. (Woman, 55)

We can only talk about it. Nothing else is left. At work, at home … People next to you are fired or lost half their salary. You do talk about it and sometimes you even become furious with all that is happening. (Man, 35)

The final two sources of emotions, feeling rules—or what Ekman (2004) calls “the symbolic pathway”—and violation of norms, were also confirmed by the interviews. Feeling rules, either explicit or implicit, generate emotions when people are told directly what to feel—for example, what to be afraid of, to get angry about, to enjoy—and include early life influences, registered and activated in an nonconscious way, both at the individual and at the sociocultural level. Direct feeling rules may also constitute a normative order of emotions established by political regimes, with various degrees of strictness depending on the regime—what Reddy (2001, p. 125) labels “emotional regimes.” The function of feeling rules as sources of emotion is dramatically illustrated in the words of the government ex vice president Evangelos Pangalos, who in 2010 openly declared that “We all caused it together!,” implying that every single Greek, regardless of social and financial status was responsible for the state deficit and external debt. Guilt, the corresponding feeling, is clearly expressed in the words of this 30-year-old man:

Sure you are to blame, I am to blame and so are the politicians we voted for. I don’t say that it’s a fault of the blue, green, red party. We are all to blame.

Violation of norms is subjectively experienced from the changes in social and financial policies that have a direct impact on people’s everyday life and threaten stability and sense of control, “We could go to hospital or to private clinics … Now you can’t go anywhere! You become indignant not to be able to make an appointment at a public hospital. I don’t get why there is never a place” (Woman, 56).

Sources, or causes, of emotions are discussed here separately in order to clearly illustrate their function. Inevitably in life, these triggers may be activated together in several different combinations. For middle-aged Greeks, for example, who have experienced a seven-year military dictatorship, while their parents (some still alive) have experienced an axis occupation and a civil war, remembering, discussions, and implied feeling rules are interweaved to generate insecurity, fear, wrath, and other emotions experienced in situations of sociopolitical malaise.

From Emotion to Action

We started this discussion arguing that action readiness is a central property of emotions. Nevertheless, we often feel emotions that are not experienced strongly enough to have some apparent effect. So, what determines emotional impact? When is action readiness intense enough to be transformed into action manifested? Scherer (2001, 2004) suggests that emotions are generated when four appraisal objectives regarding an object or an event are met: (i) relevance, that is, how relevant is the triggering event for the individual and if it directly affects one or one’s social reference group; (ii) implications, that is, what are the implications of the event and whether they directly affect the person’s well-being and immediate or long-term goals; (iii) coping potential—a concept related to resilience (for example, Cyrulnik, 2008)3—that is, how well the person can cope with or adjust to the consequences of the event; and (iv) normative significance, that is, the significance of the event with respect to the individual’s self-concept and to social norms and values. The impact of emotions would therefore be analogous to relevance, implication, and normative significance and conversely analogous to coping potential.

A financial recession affects individuals’ and families’ everyday life in multiple ways. In Greece, unemployment in the private sector has affected approximately 27% of the economically active population, with the 24–35 age group being the one most significantly affected (almost 60%). The emotional impact of the crisis may vary among Greek citizens in terms of individual coping potential—if the coping potential is low, the emotion may be experienced with overwhelming intensity—but has very high relevance and strong implications for almost all Greeks who in quite a short time have been socially displaced, thus losing not only economic but also social and cultural capital. The crisis has high normative significance not only in terms of each individual’s self-concept but also in relation to a collective self-representation of the country and its diminished reputation worldwide; and the more the self-concept is threatened, the more destabilizing the emotional impact is. Indeed, research confirms that the shared emotions generated by the crisis (Davou, 2015; Davou & Demertzis, 2013; Potamianos & Gitakos, 2015) had enough intensity to cause some form of collective action; nevertheless, with the exception of the “Indignati” movement that evaporated shortly after it was violently suppressed, only sporadic collective action has been observed during the years of the crisis.

Collective emotions in conditions of social malaise may be a necessary, but not an efficient condition for political action. VanTroost, van Stelkenburg and Klandermans (2013) link protest emotions to attribution of responsibility, facilitation or obstruction of collective goal, and coping potential that they associate to strong efficaciousness and trust in politics. Austerity measures obstruct the goal a movement strives for, and if people attribute this goal obstruction to be caused by circumstances—the global economic crises—and have the idea that they cannot do anything about it, they will be fearful to act. But is it fear the only emotion responsible for Greeks’ tentative and sporadic collective action? And what happens to fear if it is not defused to some form of action? Strong emotions very rarely fade or vanish. Due to their bodily component, once experienced they create a strong urge for action and if not defused, they usually turn to a different emotion. If there seems to be nothing one can do in a given emotional contingency, fear may turn to anger (Frijda, 2004); then again, anger also generates action readiness, but not necessarily action per se. So, what happens to a chain of emotions not defused? What are the vicissitudes of all these strong emotions experienced under extended periods of sociopolitical pressure?

In an attempt to explain the psychological processes that turn action readiness into action manifested, Frijda (2004) discusses the intervening role of motivation. Motivation is quite an elusive term in psychological literature, generally defined as an internal state of arousal that impels or drives the organism to action or as the fuel of the engine of behavior. Depending on theoretical perspective, motivation incorporates primary drives, needs, incentives, etc., yet it always involves an energetic aspect and a regulating, directive aspect (Cofer & Appley, 1964). Despite the elusiveness of the term, Frijda’s conceptualization of some internal mechanism that intervenes to transform action readiness into action manifested applies well to explaining the process from emotion to action, as well as the determinants that debilitate or boost this process. Thus, for the moment, we maintain Frijda’s term, in order to describe his model. Then, we will explain why “emotion flowing” and “emotion blocked” could replace the role of “motivation” in the model, as two conditions that represent more accurately what happens from the moment an emotion is felt to the moment that it is expressed into some form of action.

Frijda suggests a model that links emotion to motivation and motivation to action. The first link of this process, between emotion and motivation, may be broken by numbing, during or after a traumatic event or when the meaning of an emotive event, although fully understood, does not have emotional reality. As an example, he uses the case with information on health and environmental dangers that people often understand but feel that are either very distant or that will never happen to them personally.4 If neither of the two happens, then the individual is motivated to act, but then again action depends on four determinants: (i) that an appropriate action repertoire is available (availability), (ii) that it is acceptable in terms of costs and benefits of the outcome of action (acceptability), (iii) that the emotion is strong and the issue at hand is urgent and important (strength of felt importance), and (iv) whether there is social disapproval or support (the “social eye”) (Frijda, 2004). Notably, the conditions that determine the impact of emotions (Scherer, 2001) and those that transform motivation to action, that is, determine what is available, acceptable, and relevant within a particular society, are affected by one common constant: social norms and values (or “normative significance” for Scherer (2001) and “social eye” for Frijda (2004), respectively). The social context, with its beliefs, norms, values, and particular emotional climate, appears to be the most potent determinant of what emotions are felt, to what degree, and what kinds of action these emotions motivate. VanTroost and colleagues (2013) provide an analytic account on how group based appraisals of aspects in the sociopolitical environment may or may not result in emotions of protest.

Numbing and Perceived Unreality as Inhibitors of Action

A crisis, such as a severe economic depression, may be experienced and theoretically understood as “trauma” if it causes a breakdown in daily routines while simultaneously exposing the largely taken-for-granted norms and values that guide them (Freud, 2003/1949). A shocking occurrence is converted into trauma when its “quantity” is such that the dynamics of the pleasure principle cannot master it any longer, and the protective shield is cracked. The entire self is overwhelmed by this unpleasant and powerful experience against which both mind and body must defend. The immediate defense mechanism is numbness—a condition where the capacity to feel pain is temporarily suspended—and amnesia. Numbness breaks (permanently or temporarily) the link between emotion and motivation (Frijda, 2004) and makes action impossible. The victim simply forgets or denies that anything has occurred, precisely because the traumatic wound inflicted is so powerful that it breaches the mind’s time-space experience. In this respect, an occurrence is traumatic not simply because it is forceful, but because it is unthinkable and cannot be assimilated by the individual’s already established view of the world (Caruth, 1996).

Expressions such as “this has not happened” or “this cannot have happened to me” are symptomatic of numbness. In such cases, individuals and collectives can appear quite normal in carrying out everyday routines or may remain “stunned” just like the Americans and the Swedes after the assassination of Kennedy and Palme, respectively (Eyerman, 2011). The perceived “unreality” of the shocking occurrence and the consequent numbing of senses and judgmental faculties, as well as the inability to accept or take in what has in fact happened occur within a time span that Freud calls the “latency period.” This period could last for days, months, or years, and it is characterized by inactivity regarding the coping of the trauma itself whose meaning is bound to be articulated retroactively at a later time (Laplanche & Pontalis, 1986).

With time and if individuals are given the opportunity to elaborate on the traumatic event within a protective context where emotions can be tolerated and metabolized, the traumatic experience may begin to be worked through, emotions are freed to flow again, and a cohesive narrative about the event develops (Cyrulnik, 2008, 2012), which unblocks the pathway toward action. The protective context is not necessarily an organized therapeutic setting. Collectivities and social movements may often become sites where meaning is generated and disseminated and where interpretative emotion work may change emotions from immobilizing to mobilizing, or from destructive to constructive (Gould, 2010).

Distancing of emotional reality is achieved through the implementation of psychological defense mechanisms that tend to distort the facts and make reality more tolerable. In Ekman’s terms this may happen both through automatic or extended processing, though nonconsciously in both cases. From a psychodynamic perspective, automatic processing is assumed in disavowal, by which the individual denies to apprehend—to take in—that perceived traumatic facts are indeed real (Freud, 2003/1949); extended processing is assumed in more elaborate defensive processes such as rationalization, intellectualization, or idealization,5 for which interpretations and discussions about the overwhelmingly emotional event provide the background on which defenses that distance reality may develop. If the emotionally demanding conditions persist and/or defense mechanisms are proven ineffective or collapse, the event may obtain increasing emotional reality; for example, disavowal may be proven ineffective if one loses one’s job and rationalization or idealization may not serve anymore if a rational explanation proves invalid or if the perceived “savior” fails to reverse the distressing conditions.

In relation to the Greek financial crisis, these processes were manifested in the interview study described above. The crisis was a traumatic event for some citizens right from its start; for others, however, it obtained increasing emotional reality through time and this was also reflected to changes in reported political action during the different phases of the crisis (Davou & Demertzis, 2013). Analysis of the interview material revealed that inaction was reported mostly by participants immediately affected by the crisis and therefore shocked or by participants implementing defense mechanisms to distance reality. Both conditions are illustrated in the following quotes: “I didn’t expect it to be so profound … our lives were being attacked … I could have never imagined that … an attack at our everyday lives …” (Man, 57).“I went through various transitions … In the beginning, the truth is that I froze. I didn’t feel sadness … terror mostly, and insecurity” (Woman, 28). “I must admit that in the beginning I thought that this thing would last a few months … O.K., it’s just a crisis, it will be resolved. Obviously that was wrong … I wasn’t really aware of what all this meant” (Woman, 53). “I didn’t believe anything in the beginning. I thought that for some reason they lie to us” (Man, 42).

Resilience, Efficacy, and Hope as Determinants of Action

Not everybody, however, is equally traumatized by the same event. Some participants in our study reported to have full awareness of the situation from the beginning, were not shocked or traumatized, but took no action, since they felt caught in a double bind. Information about the situation, from politicians and the news media, was so fragmented, confusing, disorienting, and threatening that it was difficult for them to estimate the situation or feel that they fully understand what was going on. By not being able to have a good intellectual understanding, they were more susceptible to threats and felt they could not do much to influence European decision-making about their country. If people acted against the measures, the country would exit the Eurozone with all accompanying hazards; if they did not, the measures would inflict more individual suffering.

These participants seemed to have moved one step further in Frijda’s model. They were motivated to act, but could not estimate the costs and benefits of their actions—did not have what Frijda calls “acceptability”—because they could see no hope in either of the two choices and therefore no benefit of either acting or non-acting. The difficulty to estimate costs and benefits of action, in the Greek case, was probably also related to information socially distributed and approved, in this case to an already confused “social eye,” which provides the general context within which all other determinants of action—availability, acceptability, and felt importance—are shaped. Several decades of social distrust and disrespect in politics and institutions (Demertzis, 1997) blur the Greek “social eye” and may lead to either low-risk, low-effort action or to random, anomic acts (Davou & Demertzis, 2013).

Hope appears to be an important determinant of action, and consists of both cognitive and emotional components. Cognitive components are related to aspiring and expecting a positive goal, and require the use of imagery, creativity, cognitive flexibility, mental exploration of novel situations, risk-taking, as well as the expectation that the desired outcome is neither impossible nor certain (Fromm, 1968; Just, Crigler, & Belt, 2007; Snyder, 2000). The emotional component of hope is related to the extent to which the desired outcome is important to the individual or to some significant other, and the expected result will be good or bad (anticipated valence) (Ben-Ze’ev, 2000; Ten Houten, 2007). That the desired outcome is important to the individual involves two out of the four conditions that according to Frijda (2004) turn motivation into action: “felt importance” (mainly due to its strong association with the symbolic universe) and the “social eye” (mainly through its cognition with emotions contingent upon social relationships). As an emotion, hope is linked to specific modes of brain organization that preferentially give access to memories and incidents of similar emotional states (Oatley & Jenkins, 1996; Oatley & Johnson-Laird, 2014). Once hope is felt, “it may serve as a prism for the worldview as well as a source for collective mobilization and action to achieve the set goal” (Bar-Tar et al., 2007, p. 449).

The moral outrage generated by a broken sense of justice appears not to be a sufficient material force in the sense of a collective action frame (Gamson, 1992) without the catalytic role of “hope” and “political efficacy,” or in terms of Frijda’s model, without a strong sense of “acceptability” and “availability,” respectively. How can one estimate the costs and benefits of action and hope for a positive outcome if caught in a double bind? And what forms of action can one select if one feels that whatever one does will have no impact? Although grievances may be at the roots of collective contentious political action, it is not the grievances per se, as Klandermans (2003) suggests, but the belief that the situation can be altered by movement participants who control for the perceived costs and benefits of their endeavor. Believability of change and control of assessment of movements’ efficiency correspond well to “hope” and “efficacy.” Individuals and collectivities are not expected to undertake the initiative of regime overthrow or any other type of political transformation, unless they are hopeful of success and self-confident in their chosen course of action (Saxonberg, 2013). According to Gamson (1992, p. 6), “[o]ne may be completely convinced of the desirability of changing a situation while gravely doubting the possibility of changing it. Beliefs about the efficacy are at least as important as understanding what social changes are needed.”

Action, then, and its form, may be re-conceptualized as resulting from a combination of resilience/coping capacity—so that the emotions generated from the event do not overwhelm, traumatize, and numb the individual—efficacy and hope. The relative weight of each of these variables in the combination will result in different forms of action. Analysis of the interviews of our study revealed two trends toward action (Tsoutsi & Davou, 2017): (i) atomocentric action (for personal or interpersonal purposes), and (ii) sociocentric and/or political action.

Atomocentric action was reported by participants whose resilience assisted them in feeling personally efficient but had no hope in social change and low political efficacy; it was also detected in participants who although considered themselves to be politically active because they systematically complained in social networks, they did not report to have taken any other form of political action—a tendency that we named “quasi-political” efficacy. The following quotes illustrate how resilience, personal—but not political—efficacy, and hope contribute to atomocentric action:

… generally in life, nothing is utterly negative and nothing is utterly positive. There are always pros and cons … I mean … is your life overturned? You have to find a new life! You always have reasons to live for and you can always find reasons to be ok … (Man, 57)

If you don’t get creative in your life, trying new things all the time, learning things, doing, searching, you’re just going to be unemployed and homeless. (Man, 33)

I took part in demonstrations because I felt that my country was sold cheap. There was no way I wouldn’t fight that … But that was not effective. Whatever [legislation] is to pass, they will vote for it to pass. Full stop! So, what else should I do? Should I go out and start yelling so that my anger goes away? Will I make something of it? No. So, there’s no reason to fight it knowing the result beforehand.”(Woman, 33)

“There’s no future, there’s no hope … this is the worst. NO FUTURE! This is what most of the people experience … despair and uncertainty … (Man, 33)

“There are moments that you actually you can’t see light in the horizon […] you have no future, this is what you believe, that you have no future. (Man, 41)

Sociocentric and/or political action were reported by participants who expressed a combination of psychological resilience, political efficacy, and hope (optimism). This type of action was enhanced by a preexisting political ideology and by a relatively stable—mostly leftist—political orientation:

I almost feel depressed. And I just fight it, because I’m also a consciously political person, so I fight it by rational thinking. And I fight it with others, by being a member of collective organizations. (Woman, 55)

“Yes but ok there’s also hope. The more you talk about it, you say we’ll find something altogether, there’s solidarity and you also see things that you wouldn’t see before, people are more concerned about one another … (Woman, 37)

I am optimistic even though I know we’re not going to recover economically very soon. (Woman, 55)

I was a leftist since my student years […] I never abandoned this ideology and my principles remained the same. I decided to become active now as I don’t believe that the problems can be individually resolved. This could only serve as a temporary relief […] You can resolve the problem by intervening politically in the society, by creating new jobs, by creating a new climate. I think that one should try to act politically on the whole. (Man, 57)

Conclusion: Emotion Blocked and Emotion Flowing

Emotions are dynamic and continuously changing states, difficult to encapsulate in a single frame of analysis. Their vicissitudes from the moment they are elicited (and/or subjectively experienced) to the point in time when they are expressed (or “acted out” or trapped in the body) depend on several—individual and social—circumstances. As Solomon (2004, p. 13) puts it, each and every emotion has “different aspects (and different aspects of those aspects) [which] invite very different conclusions.” This article was an attempt to unravel the vicissitudes of emotions raised in conditions of political malaise in their course to action. Figure 1 illustrates this process.

Vicissitudes of Emotions and Political Action During the Greek CrisisClick to view larger

Figure 1. Vicissitudes of emotions in their journey to political action.

People leave in societies characterized by particular emotional regimes, cultures, climates, and atmospheres that set the background to what individual and collective emotions are felt under which circumstances. Within these emotional contexts, emotions are generated through two levels of processing based on different types of signaling in the nervous system; one evolutionary older and nonconscious, and a second one that is evolutionary more advanced and conscious. When a particular emotional context lasts for a period of time, society members become attuned to its cues and signals; predisposed to respond to them; and eventually infused by particular emotions, which then become generalized and automatized, that is, generated in nonconscious ways. Within particular emotional climates emotions are also triggered by more cognitively elaborate paths, such as interpretations of the situation, individual or collective memories, imagination, empathy, discussions with other people, implicit and explicit feeling rules, and norm violations.

Whether these emotions will be blocked from expression or not depends on their subjective impact. The impact of an emotion is connected to how relevant, that is, emotionally significant is the event for the individual or the community, on the implications of the event for the person’s well-being and immediate or long-term goals, on the individual’s and communities’ resilience to cope with or adjust to the consequences of the event, and on the significance of the event with respect to individual and collective self-concept and to social norms and values.

Emotions impel to action, but in conditions of sociopolitical malaise the form of action depends largely on hope and political efficacy. If there is low political efficacy and lack of hope, individuals revert to actions that serve survival, individual well-being and personal goals. Even then, resilience is a prerequisite, because if emotions elicited from the sociopolitical conditions are overwhelming, action—either private or political—is inhibited. Events with high emotional intensity may mobilize psychological defense mechanisms that distort facts, so that the event may appear distant or not concerning the individual personally. In such cases action is hindered because the meaning of the emotive event, although fully intellectually understood, does not uptake personal emotional reality. If the defense mechanisms prove inefficient, the event may be experienced as traumatic, that is, as a shocking occurrence that brings about a rupture in the continuity of existence. In such cases, emotions are blocked from being transformed to action—notably with several side effects on the individual’s psychosomatic well-being.6 Should defenses are eventually proven ineffective and reality is dangerously approaching the individual, or if traumatized persons are given the opportunity to elaborate on the traumatic event and make meaning out of the experience within a protective environment where a low-scale positive climate could offer a language to emotional states and a guide of what and how to feel and what to do in order to bring about change, then emotions may flow again toward some form of action.

Interpretative emotion work in formal or informal contexts may change emotions from immobilizing (blocked) to mobilizing (flowing), or from destructive to constructive, as the traumatic event is being worked through and a cohesive narrative about it develops. But even then, action and in our case, political action, depends on the individual’s available repertoire (political efficacy), resilience (built up from past recoveries and a sense of support from social networks), and hope in the process of assessing the costs and benefits from the harms brought by acting and the harms brought by non-acting. Resilience, hope, and political efficacy, thus, appear to be conditions necessary and efficient for emotions to be channeled to constructive political action. These conditions can develop within communities or transitional groups that foster constructive emotions and provide people with security, hope, and competence; so that people can engage in the careful, thorough thinking, and problem solving that promotes flexible, responsive approaches to situations, and facilitates flexibility in social perception as well as prosocial behavior (Isen, 2004).


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(1.) Experimental procedures used for the detection of emotional effects on various aspects of human cognition and behavior. Different kinds of emotional stimuli (e.g., odors, images, sounds, etc.) are used for the cultivation of a particular mood to participants; the induced mood is the independent variable whose effects are measured on selected dependent variables. For a detailed discussion on mood induction procedures, see Kucera and Haviger (2012).

(2.) Ekman (2004) discusses one more trigger of emotions, which is not relevant to the discussion here. It refers to an experimental condition that does not necessarily generalize in everyday life, although Ekman suggests that it may actually occur more frequently than we believe. It concerns emotions triggered by voluntary facial expressions that imitate particular emotional states (e.g., sorrow or anger). The facial muscles carry to the brain information relevant to the emotion, which generates the corresponding emotional experience. Holding a pen between our lips, for example, sets the muscles in an activity similar to that of a smile, which sends the message to the brain that we are joyful (Levenson & Ekman, 2002).

(3.) In a later publication Cyrulnik (2012, pp. 93–94) makes a temporal distinction between coping and resilience. He refers to “coping” as the synchronic capacity to deal with hardship at the moment that it is experienced, and to “resilience” as the diachronic, post-traumatic capacity to mentally represent a traumatic event and work through the emotions associated with it.

(4.) From a psychodynamic perspective, distancing reality can be understood as the nonconscious implementation of defense mechanisms such as denial, rationalization, intellectualization, etc., which modify the perception of reality to make it emotionally more tolerable for the individual (Freud, 1986/1937).

(5.) These mechanisms involve an elaborated mental interpretation of an object or situation, based on logical thinking or sophisticated scientific explanations, and in that sense they require extended processing, even though the purpose for which they are carried out (altering reality to make it psychologically more manageable) may be unconscious. For a review on the definitions of these defense mechanisms, see Laplanche and Pontalis (1986).

(6.) See, for example, Kemeny and Shestyuk (2008) for a review of studies on the relationship between emotions, health, and the function of the neuroendocrine and immune systems.