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date: 24 May 2017

Vicissitudes of Emotions and Political Action during the Greek Crisis

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Please check back later for the full article.

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 live in societies characterized by particular emotional cultures, climates and atmospheres which set the background to what 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 evolutionarily older—automatic, subconscious—and a second one evolutionarily more advanced—representational, conscious. 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 on immediate or long term goals, on the individual’s 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.

Although emotions trigger action, events with high emotional intensity may mobilize defense mechanisms which 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; the event is so powerful that it breaches the mind’s time-space experience, brings about 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, 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.