Feeling States: Why Americans Are Acting So Strangely

Cover Image for Feeling States: Why Americans Are Acting So Strangely
Bryant Welch, JD, PhD
Bryant Welch, JD, PhD

For the most part, it is not logic or self-interest that drives our behavior, nor is it even what we typically call emotion. Instead, it is the subjective, often inchoate bodily sensations, also known as “feeling states”, that actually are our experience of our life and that we are either drawn to or find aversive.

We don’t necessarily have words for these states and they often go unrecognized and under-appreciated, but they are the true experiential currency behind what is actually driving the seemingly irrational behavior in America. Putting words to these inner states is like to trying to describe what it feels like to be tickled, to feel thrilled, or to bear the heaviness of a depression. They are visceral, but we all experience them differently and thus we have not developed a common language for them.

If we want to understand the seemingly irrational things happening in America, it is these subtle, but powerful and often determinative experiences that shape them. If it “feels better” in our body we move towards it, if it “feels worse” we move away from it or even against it. In a recent blog, I talked about our preoccupation with illegal immigrants and the role they play in helping our mind manage our paranoid dimensions— when we are anxious we have to clarify the source: what is inside us and what is outside us. How do we contend with this uncertainty so we can feel at least some possible mastery of our anxiety? In paranoia, we project our fear onto some external source, like illegal “Mexicans” coming into our border. This helps us feel more organized internally. For the mind, feeling organized is good. While fearing illegals may not be pleasant, it feels a heck of a lot better than being in a state of free floating anxiety about something vague and diffuse. The diffuse and uncertain becomes focused on a target. We feel better.

Take guns as another example. We can only understand our national obsession with guns when we look at the feeling state that for many is associated with guns. With most things, if we discover they poison us, we have a pretty easy time just putting them aside, especially if they do not have independent physiological addictive qualities. But guns give people a pleasure that they choose in spite of the clear evidence that they facilitate any angry or warped mind being able to slaughter our precious young children in school, our devout kneeling in church, or young adults enjoying a night out in a nightclub or at a concert. For many, guns give them an inner sense of power and sensuality that is sorely lacking without holding and feeling the glorious exhilaration of the gun. It props up sagging inner states of manhood. And, of course, a gun that repeats and repeats, well, that’s just very special, indeed. And so, to provide that feeling state for gun owners, our children cannot feel safe in school.

And then, of course, there is the fact that so many of us wake up from sleep that has been troubled and too short to face a world of economic terror and insecurity. Who do we blame for this? Not the wealthy people who pass tax cuts for themselves as they refuse to provide health care for all, but a “liberal elite” who hold different ideas than we do and who we fear think they are better than us. We hate Hollywood, not the money changers. Just ask Fox News.

Feeling states operate at the most subtle levels of our psychological experience. These inner bodily sensations that drive us, dictating the irrational elements of our mind especially when they are artfully manipulated by cunning demagogues. Fox News is the leading expert on feeling states in America. They understand them quite well. As other news outlets and our general psyche catches on, news stories in America increasingly become more like fabrics made of feeling states, not logic or facts. Our news makes others the enemy and keeps us feeling safe and strong with our guns, but it doesn’t tell us what we need to know. We cling to certainty when there is none, and we’ll repeat ourselves over and over until we’ve convinced ourselves that these falsehoods are true.

For more from Bryant on Feeling States, head over to Amazon.com to purchased his new book, “State of Confusion, Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind, Revised”.