Emotions, Thoughts, and Behaviors are the 3 components of human psychology

The classical model of human psychology was that feelings influence thoughts, which influence behavior, in that order. Much research for the past 50 years has questioned that order and the assumption that our feelings come before anything. What seems to be most important is: what aspect of human psychology (and thus therapy and treatment) can we change so that people struggle less and live healthier lives? Well, let’s explain these things more and we can come to a more reasonable conclusion about how to really change minds and lives.

Chicken and the Egg

As we discussed in the introduction, the classical notion in psychology and psychotherapy was that the emotional and affective states drive our thought process, which then drives our conscious behaviors. This makes intuitive sense if you think of your day to day experiences of having feelings and making choices. Now, think about a time when you were simply thinking about a memory or an event that was happening, and you “all of a sudden” felt something. This would mean that thoughts can cause emotions, right? But, have you ever stubbed your toe? Perhaps you cursed and felt angry when you hit your toe on the table leg. So, this would mean that your behavior can cause emotions as well.


From just these few examples we see that all 3 components of human psychology, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, are intricately interconnected. In fact, modern neuroscience research shows that, in most cases, our affective/emotional states are not really separable from our thoughts. Moreover, we’re not even sure that “regulating” one’s emotions is really different than trying to manage the onset of one’s emotions. So, essentially there is no meaningful division between thought and feeling. In fact, it may be better to think of these experiences as co-occurring, and, in some moments we notice the thoughts more or the emotions more.


There is also intense debate in the academic/research world about how “universal” emotions are, with more researchers leaning towards the view that affect (our baseline mood, “elevated” or “down”, in a state of “threat” or a state of “safety”), not quite synonymous with emotions, is universal and cross species (most animals, all mammals definitely, share the same affective hardware). Emotions, however, tend to be more culturally and family shaped. Some experience anger with high blood pressure and a feeling of warmth, whereas others feel anger by noticing muscle tension but remain cool. What’s more confusing is, we’re not quite sure thoughts are really “changeable.” More modern views of “changing thoughts” reflect the idea that we change the “strength” or “importance” of a thought, and through various exercises/life experience certain thoughts lose their strength, not that they magically disappear.


But, what about behavior?

Changing Behavior is a large part of human Psychology


You can’t change thoughts, emotions and thoughts are intertwined, and not everyone feels the same emotion the same way. If you’re not confused enough as it is, let’s add some more ideas to the confusion. Well, the classical notion of “behaviorism,” that we “learn” behavior definitely still holds up. Take phobias for instance. We all naturally feel some version of “fear” when a “threat” of some sort shows up, for many spiders invoke great fear. This makes sense because, generally speaking, feeling fear/anxiety, which motivates us to fight/flight/freeze (faint, fright, and submit also) allowed us to not get bitten by bugs for millennia.


We inherited, let’s say, an instinct or “sensitivity” to bug like threats, and with the right type of exposure to spiders (e.g., the scary movie “Arachnophobia”) you will become intensely afraid. Phobias work the same we, our pre-existing “threat detection” architecture can “learn” to be afraid of things that aren’t really “threatening.” Easy example is fear of flying, flying is immensely safer than driving a car, but many have fear of flying due to being trapped in a plane 30,000 feet in the air (I.e., out of control) and hearing about or seeing plane crashes. Even though there’s generally no imminent threat, people can have flying anxiety/fear no differently than if there were a bengal tiger in front of you. This may cause you to avoid flying, which can affect work and social goals. This is a learned behavior. Now, this process doesn’t work equally well for other affects or emotions or instincts, but generally we can “learn” how to feel and respond to our feelings.


The other problem is, our environment (I.e., family, friends, work, school, politics, social media, city style, etc.) also influences how we act. Imagine living in a traffic ridden city like Los Angeles (LA) compared to a more “rural” city like De Soto, Missouri. If you come from a small town like DeSoto and then move to a more frenetic city like LA, you may feel more anxious or overwhelmed and develop road rage and start cursing at people, which you may have never done prior to living in LA. There’s a sort of cultural mismatch causing your stress or anxiety and road rage. Same thing for a family environment, if you come from a traditionally collectivist family, wherein everyone is “up in each other’s business” and boundaries are more porous, then dating someone from a more individualistic culture would feel weird and may produce trust issues and fights/arguments because of the more rigid nature of the other’s boundaries.




Finally, our temperament or “personality” affects our behavior. If we’re built, let’s say, more “conscientious” than the average person, then we like things to be neat, orderly, and done according to rules. If you’re less conscientious by nature (personality traits are mostly heritable), then you may be less interested in adhering to structure and rules, and keeping things tidy. So, everything affects behavior: feelings, body, environment, how we learn to behavior, and personality. To change our behavior we need to address: how we grew up, the match between current/past culture, our personality, what we learned, how we manage our emotions, and which thoughts to emphasize or de-emphasize.


Let’s take addiction as the easy example. Yes, addiction is a brain disease, but you can’t separate the culture, family, and the personality of the person struggling from treatment because these are critical pieces of their condition that reinforce behavior and thoughts (or not), which could lead to relapse if unaddressed. This is why, when looking for treatment, you want to find therapists or treatment centers that integrate all of these areas.


If you have any questions about treatment please feel free to reach out to us anytime at 747-222-7464 or at