Emotion Takes Over

In today’s class my father discussed the role of emotion in our perception. We began with a simple presentation of an idea from the psychologist Gibson: we remember the things that provoke us very well but we don’t remember the things we do to provoke others. What’s more, we feel that the provocations to us are more serious than our provocations and shots in return. The result is a cycle of escalation. Why is this so? According to my father’s analysis, it is because we react first in an emotional way and then take the combination of our emotional reaction and the original stimulus to our brains for cognitive response.

He brought it home to all of us with a vivid and painful example: the Rodney King beating. We watched the video with which we were already all too familiar. I, and I suspect basically everyone else, had a strong emotional reaction to the video. The beating was brutal. King was on the ground and the beating continued. We then watched pieces of a documentary produced by CourtTV about the case. The documentary takes the case and re-presents it from a point of view that makes it somewhat easier to understand the point of view of the police officers. The main points that are used to convince us are that there is action that precedes the clip of video that we’ve all seen that shows King’s aggressive behavior to the officers, that the officers were consistently telling him to get on the ground with his hands behind his back, and that they only continued to hit him when he started to move to get up rather than to lie down so he could be cuffed. We ran out of time in class today before we had a chance to process what we had seen. So what was the lesson? Was I supposed to be able to overcome my emotional reaction to see the police officers’ perspectives? This I could not do. I could see the point of view of the police officers that was presented at trial, but I could not truly be moved from my initial emotional reaction or from my conviction of the rightness of my cognitive assessment: excessive force was used. But maybe this was the point. I’m still feeling the emotion from watching the video now.

— Rebecca Nesson

1 Comment

  1. Harvard Extended

    September 27, 2006 @ 10:34 pm


    This type of emotionally wrenching video will become commonplace in the years to come, as more and more people walk around with cameraphones and portable video devices, and record protests, crime, police brutality, and other violent incidents. Such imagery will be quickly uploaded to the ‘Net or distributed via email, and will often be unaccompanied by any context. The effect upon individuals, institutions, and even governments will be profound — imagine the Tiananmen Square demonstrations occuring now, with thousands of people in the crowd wielding digital cameras and video cameras?

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