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Thinking in Black and WhitePSYCHOLOGY: Assistant Professor Ajay Satpute

Thinking in Black and White

When people are asked to describe their emotions in black and white terms, it actually changes the way they feel, according to a new study published in the journal Psychological SCIENCE by lead author Ajay Satpute, assistant professor of psychology at Pomona College, and principal investigator Kevin Ochsner, professor of psychology at Columbia University. Given only two extreme answers to choose from with no gray area to ponder, participants’ feelings in turn shifted to whichever extreme they were hovering closest to. The research has implications for everything from the legal system to daily social interactions.

To function in society, it is important for people to be able to perceive and understand emotional experiences—both internally (for example perceiving if you are feeling good or bad) and externally (perceiving if someone else is feeling calm or angry). This emotion perception helps inform our decisions and actions. And according to Satpute, that emotion perception is actually changed when we’re nudged to think categorically.

“If you think about your emotions in black and white terms, you’re more prone to feeling emotions that are consistent with the category you select,” says Satpute. “Extreme thinking about emotions leads to emotions that are more likely to be extreme.”

In one experiment, participants were asked to judge photographs of facial expressions that were morphed from calm to fearful in two ways. In one set of trials, participants had to choose either ‘calm’ or ‘fearful’ to describe each facial expression. In the second set of trials, participants had a continuous range, with ‘calm’ and ‘fearful’ as anchors on a graded scale. Results indicated that categorical thinking (either calm or fearful) shifted the threshold for perceiving fear or calm. In essence, when a person has to think about something categorically it changes how they feel about it—pushing them over the edge, in a manner of speaking—if they didn’t have strong feelings about it beforehand. These shifts correlated with neural activity in the amygdala and the insula, parts of the brain that are considered important for orienting attention to emotionally salient information and responding accordingly.

“While these findings were observed when judging another person’s emotions, they were reproduced in a second study in which participants judged their own feelings in response to aversive graphic photographs,” Satpute explains. “So black and white thinking not only affects how you perceive others’ emotions, but also how you perceive your own.

“You could think of it from an optimism perspective but with a twist,” he adds. “Our results suggest that if you say that the glass is half empty, the water may actually lower, so to speak.”

He explains further in his paper, “Our findings suggest that categorical judgments—especially when made about people, behaviors, or options that fall in the gray zone—may change our perception and mental representation of these targets to be consistent with the category selected.”

Consider a juror who must decide whether a police officer on trial acted out of fear or anger when shooting a suspect. Such a judgment involves thinking about emotions in “black and white” terms rather than in shades of gray. Evidence presented in a trial will lead the juror to make a determination: Did the officer act out of anger or objectively reasonable fear? (Fear of imminent threat to their life or others’ lives or serious bodily harm?) The categorical nature of the decision helps determine how justice is meted out.

Or think of faces. They move in gradations, says Satpute, but people typically talk about these expressions in categorical terms, calling them expressions of “fear” or “calm,” for instance. Similarly, when people perceive their own emotions, their bodily signals may vary continuously, but they often talk about feeling “good” or “bad.”

For a lighter example, consider the 2015 computer-animated movie Inside Out. In the film, each emotion is personified into a character: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust. There is little room for gray areas—hardly any mixing of emotions—the protagonist is either sad, angry, fearful or happy. The film effectively makes young viewers think about emotions categorically, and thus, may change how they experience emotions.

Satpute is a psychologist and neuroscientist studying the neural basis of emotion and social perception. His research is focused on revealing how people categorize subjective experiences, particularly evaluative categories like good and bad or hedonic categories like pleasant and unpleasant or emotions such as fear, anger or happiness. A long-term goal of his work is to use neuroscience to enable predictions for the kinds of categories people use to describe experience.


Associate Professor Tomás Summers SandovalHISTORY AND CHICANA/0 LATINA/0 STUDIES: Associate Professor Tomás Summers Sandoval

Vietnam Veteranos

Pomona College Associate Professor of History and Chicana/o Latina/o Studies Tomás Summers Sandoval is working to bring the stories of Latino veterans of the Vietnam War to the stage. The project is a continuation of his multi-year research, collecting and documenting oral histories of the veterans and their families. Summers Sandoval is one of eight humanities scholars from across the country awarded a 2017 Whiting Public Engagement Fellowship. The $50,000 grant will fund “Vietnam Veteranos,” his storytelling theatre project to premiere in spring 2018.

The Whiting Public Engagement Fellowship is a new humanities program for faculty members pursuing projects to engage directly with the public beyond the academy.

“Vietnam Veteranos: Latino Testimonies of the War” takes root from Summers Sandoval’s previous research documenting the oral histories of local Latino veterans who served in the Vietnam War.

This new project centers on the oral histories of these veterans that have been curated by Summers Sandoval. The oral histories will be presented as a staged performance read by some of the veterans themselves as individual historical monologues, also known as “testimonios” in Spanish.

“I feel honored to receive the support of the Whiting Foundation. It’s a humbling thing for me to be part of a cohort of such amazing and engaged scholars,” he says.

Summers Sandoval has worked on the topic of Latinos and the Vietnam War since 2011 and is currently working on a book that delves into the social history of the “brown baby boom” and how the war in Vietnam serves as a prism into the experiences of Latino veterans in the 20th-century U.S. “This project is based on that work, an opportunity for me to connect people to this history in an accessible way as well as a deeply personal one,” he says.

The project “Vietnam Veteranos” will also draw from the expertise and support of Rose Portillo ’75, lecturer in theatre and dance at Pomona (see story on page 42). As a collaborator on the project, Portillo will draw from her experience translating oral histories into theatrical monologues. She will also direct the production and oversee a team of professional actors to serve as coaches for the veterans.

The performance will be staged at Pomona College’s Seaver Theatre and an East Los Angeles-based venue in spring 2018. In addition, Summers Sandoval plans to produce a video and accompanying print and digital publication to be shared with a wider audience.

The topic of the Vietnam War is more than academic for Summers Sandoval, who also serves as chair of Pomona’s History Department.

“My father is a Vietnam veteran,” he says. “His brother, my uncle, are Vietnam veterans. Most of the males I knew growing up were also Vietnam veterans. This work is deeply personal for me. In many ways, it’s a way for me to bring my skills as a historian to better understand not only why Latinos made up such a significant share of the combat troops in Southeast Asia but, as important, how the war framed a long-term impact on their lives and the lives of their communities.

“At a moment when political leaders portray Latinos in the United States as criminals, and as economic and cultural threats, I hope work like mine can serve a purpose,” he adds. On one level, histories like these humanize Latinas and Latinos. It’s both troubling and sad that this is even a need in the 21st century, but it is. The humanities help us understand people within the context of their own complex lives, filled with hopes and desires as well as struggles and contradictions.

“I hope my work presents this generation in this way, as human beings seeking lives of dignity. Perhaps more importantly, Latinas and Latinos represent the future military personnel of the United States. Because of that, I think it’s vital for us all to recognize and better understand the enduring impacts of both military service and war.”

In the past five years, Summers Sandoval has collected more than 50 oral histories of Latino veterans of the Vietnam War and their families. Two years ago, he received a $10,000 grant from the Cal Humanities California Documentary Project for a youth-centered, community history project in partnership with The dA Center for the Arts in downtown Pomona, Calif. The project trained local youth and Pomona College students to conduct oral histories of local Latino veterans and their families.

A free exhibition of that earlier project, “Voices Veteranos: Mexican America and the Legacy of Vietnam 2017,” was to run from March 11 through April 15 at The dA Center for the Arts in downtown Pomona.