The cognitive impenetrability of recalcitrant emotions

24 March 2016 | Dr Raamy Majeed (University of Cambridge)

Consider the following emotional episodes. You fear Fido, your neighbour’s dog you judge to be harmless. You are angry with your colleague, even though you know his remark wasn’t really offensive. You are jealous of your partner’s friend, despite believing that she doesn’t fancy him.

D’Arms and Jacobson (2003) call these recalcitrant emotions: emotions that exist “despite the agent’s making a judgment that is in tension with it” (pg. 129). The phenomenon of emotional recalcitrance is said to raise a challenge for theories of emotions. Drawing on the work of Greenspan (1981) and Helm (2001), Brady argues that this challenge is “to explain the sense in which recalcitrant emotions involve rational conflict or tension” (2009: 413).

Whether we require rational conflict to account for emotional recalcitrance is debatable. Indeed, much of the present controversy involves spelling out the precise nature of this conflict. But conflict, rational or otherwise, isn’t the only feature that is pertinent to the phenomenon. What tends to get neglected is precisely what gives these emotions their name, viz. their recalcitrance; their persistent nature. 

To elaborate, emotional episodes, by their very nature, are episodic, and we shouldn’t expect recalcitrant emotions to last any longer than non-recalcitrant ones. Nevertheless, it is in the very nature of recalcitrant emotions that they are mulish, that they don’t succumb to our judgements – ie to the extent that these emotional episodes last.

Here is an example. Suppose I judge that flying is safe, but feel instantly afraid as soon as my plane starts to take off. But suppose, also, that once I realise that my fear is irrational, or at least, that it is in tension with my judgement, my fear dissipates. This, arguably, won’t count as an instance of emotional recalcitrance. 

By contrast, say I remain fearful despite my judgement. I keep thinking to myself, ‘I know this is safe’, and yet I continue to feel afraid. This, I venture, better captures what we mean by emotional recalcitrance. Mutatis mutandis for being afraid of Fido, being jealous of your partner’s friend etc. All familiar cases of emotional recalcitrance seem to share this persistent feature. The question is, what accounts for it?

My hypothesis is this: emotions are recalcitrant to the extent that they are cognitively impenetrable. According to Goldie, “someone’s emotion or emotional experience is cognitively penetrable only if it can be affected by his relevant beliefs” (2000: 76). 

So far as I can tell, the first to discuss the cognitive (im)penetrability of emotions is Griffiths (1990, 1997), who takes one of the advantages of his theory to be precisely that it accounts for recalcitrant emotions, or what he calls ‘irrational emotions’.

Griffiths’s explanation of emotional recalcitrance is neglected by much of the current literature on the phenomenon. This is warranted in one respect. Griffiths doesn’t account for the sense in which recalcitrant emotions involve rational conflict, which, as mentioned earlier, is one of the central controversies. 

But there is a way in which the neglect is unwarranted. This has to do with the charge that his account makes emotions too piecemeal.

To elaborate, one of the most controversial features of Griffiths’s account of emotions more generally is that it divvies up emotions into three broad types, only one of which forms a natural kind. These are the set of evolved adaptive ‘affect-program’ responses, which are, more or less, cognitively impenetrable. 

They are surprise, fear, anger, disgust, sadness and joy. The rest are ‘higher cognitive emotions’, which are cognitively penetrable, like jealousy, shame etc., or social constructions that are ‘essentially pretences’, e.g. romantic love.

This account, arguably, does make emotions too piecemeal, but to reject the hypothesis that recalcitrant emotions are cognitively impenetrable for this reason is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Let us be neutral as to what emotions actually are, as well as to the kinds of emotions that can be cognitively impenetrable. I think we can remain thus neutral, and still borrow some of Griffiths’s insights concerning the cognitive impenetrability of recalcitrant emotions to explain their recalcitrance.

Leaving aside the Ekman-esque notion that there are a set of basic emotions from which all other emotions arise, we can follow Griffiths in supposing that emotions, indeed the very same kind of emotions, can be brought about in distinct ways. Take, for instance, the affect-program responses. 

The processes that typically give rise to them, as well as these responses themselves, are what Griffiths claims is cognitively impenetrable. But he notes that they can also be triggered by processes that are cognitively penetrable. In fact, he is clear that the former doesn’t rule out the latter: “[t]he existence of a relatively unintelligent, dedicated mechanism does not imply that higher-level cognitive processes cannot initiate the same events” (1990: 187).

Griffiths exploits this account to explain emotional recalcitrance. In brief, the phenomenon occurs when an affect-program response is triggered without the cognitive process of belief-fixation that gives rise to judgement. For example, “[if] only the affect-program system classes the stimulus as a danger, the subject will exhibit the symptoms of fear, but will deny making the judgements which folk theory supposes to be implicit in the emotion” (1990: 191).

This explanation isn’t supposed to provide us with an account of what recalcitrant emotions are; what picks them out as a type. Rather, for Griffiths, it gives us a ‘theory’ of them; we have an explanation for their occurrence. Regardless of whether this theory is adequate, it is my view that the work such an explanation can be further put towards is to explain the recalcitrant nature of recalcitrant emotions. 

While the affect-program responses don’t always run in tandem with the cognitive processes involved in belief-fixation, what explains the persistent nature of these responses is that they, as well as the processes that give rise to them, are cognitively impenetrable. Moreover, cognitive penetrability admits of degrees. Thus, the extent to which such responses are recalcitrant will depend on the extent to which they, as well as the processes that give rise to them, are cognitively impenetrable.

One of the advantages of his theory, according to Griffiths, is that “[t]he occurrence of emotions in the absence of suitable beliefs is converted from a philosophers’ paradox into a practical subject for psychological investigation” (1990: 192). The present explanation is similarly advantageous in that it provides an explanation of emotional recalcitrance that is empirically verifiable. 

But by the same token, the explanation is only of interest to the extent that it is empirically plausible. The evidence is far from conclusive, but there is good reason to think we are on the right track.

McRae et al. (2012) sought to test “whether the way an emotion is generated influences the impact of subsequent emotion regulatory efforts” (pg. 253). Emotions can be triggered ‘bottom up’, i.e. in response to perceptible properties of a stimulus, or ‘top down’, i.e. in response to cognitive appraisals of an event. 

They took their findings to “suggest that top-down generated emotions are more successfully down-regulated by reappraisal than bottom-up emotions” (pg. 259). Emotions generated bottom-up, then, appear to behave as if they are cognitively impenetrable; or at least, as if they are less penetrable than ones generated top-down.

Insofar as any of the emotions thus generated conflict (in the relevant sense) with an evaluative judgement, we have an instance of emotional recalcitrance. Run these thoughts together, and they imply that recalcitrant emotions are recalcitrant to the extent that they are cognitively impenetrable.


Brady, M. S. (2009). ‘The Irrationality of Recalcitrant Emotions’. Philosophical Studies 145: 413–30.

D’Arms, J., & Jacobson, D. (2003). ‘The Significance of Recalcitrant Emotion’. In A. Hatzimoysis (Ed.), Philosophy and the Emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Goldie, P. (2000). The Emotions: A Philosophical Exploration. Oxford University Press.

Greenspan, P. S. (1981). ‘Emotions as Evaluations’. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 62: 158–69.

Griffiths, P. E. (1990). ‘Modularity, and the Psychoevolutionary Theory of Emotion’. Biology and Philosophy 5: 175–96.

—- (1997). What Emotions Really Are. Chicago University Press.

Helm, B. (2001). Emotional Reason. Cambridge University Press.

McRae, K., Misra, S., Prasad, A. K., Pereira, S. C., Gross, J. J. (2012). ‘Bottom-up and Top-down Emotion Generation: Implications for Emotion Regulation’. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 7: 253–62.