Affective Realism

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We like to think that we see the world as it is. Data, as we believe, flows flawlessly from the environment, through our senses (sight, smell, sound, taste and touch) to our brains where we perceive the world in untainted purity. However, this isn’t the case. The data flow is far from pure. Internal affect is deeply involved in the perceptive process. Feelings do much more than influence judgment. “Neuroscience and behavioral studies suggest that affective feelings are integral to the brains internal model and, thus, perception” (Siegel, et al., 2018). Our feelings influence the actual content of what we see (or hear). In psychology, this phenomenon is known as affective realism. We experience supposed facts about the world that in part are created by our feelings (Barrett, 2018, p. 75). 

Interpreting Experience

​We create internal working models of the world. These models are “the internal mental representations we create of elements in our environment through repeated exposure. These representations become the models we use when interpreting new experiences” (Murphy, 2022). Our internal working models are not impenetrable forces but creations in our unconscious world, contributing to the eventual unified conscious experience.

Raw data from the environment is processed together with past experiences and current feeling affects to create a conscious interpretations of an event in the environment. “Recent discoveries in neuroscience reveal that the human brain is creating a unified conscious experience, integrating all sources of sensation, both from inside the body and from without, with limbic circuitry as the driver” (Wormwood, et al., 2018).

Key Definition

Affective Realism is the subjective interpretations we give to data flowing from the environment. Our state of arousal, and beliefs of cause of that arousal, impacts our interpretation of new information.

Experience (Affective Realism) or Facts About the World

The key take away from the concept of affective realism is that our experience of the world is different than the raw facts. The untainted data is infused with emotions, beliefs, and other unassociated factors before it breaks through to conscious contemplations.

The sky, as we perceive it, is blue. Yet, in reality, the sky is not blue. The perception of blueness is the reflections, casting blueness on the sky. The same is true for our perceptions of the world. Our perceptions are not facts but the final construction, stemming from the reflections of other elements, creating what we perceive to be reality. Emotions playing a large role in the final representation experienced in consciousness.

If we loud thump in the night wakes us from sleep, our biological system jumps to high alert. The subsequent normal creaks and sounds of a house, change in nature. The creak that we typically ignore, not even significant enough to register in consciousness, sounds like footsteps on the stairs. We are experiencing affective realism.

Incidental Affect

Related beliefs that evoke emotion about an object often are a significant source influencing our perception. For example, a history of traumatic connections, beginning in childhood, taints visions of intimacy. We see a neutral or positive relationship behavior but infuse it with a distressed past. However, affective realism isn’t confined to associated memories. We also include incidental, unconnected emotions in our interpretations.

Wormwood et al. wrote that “affective feelings exert a powerful influence on behavior and decision making, even when the source of these feelings is unrelated (or incidental) to the decision at hand. They continue “a parson’s affect can serve as a source of realism in perception, even when incidental to the target of perception, and when the person is unaware of it” (2018).

An unknown person will actually appear suspicious if we are experiencing anxiety prior to seeing them. Our experience of anxiety will project upon the objects being observed. We will translate small intricate movements or features about the unknown person to confirm our internal experience of anxiety. They appear suspicious. Under different circumstances, if we are feeling secure at the moment, the person may appear completely different.

A Few Final Thoughts on Affective Realism

Our biological processes are difficult, if not impossible, to alter. Perception is a primary brain function that works fairly well, alerting our bodies to possible dangers. Interpreting every moment fresh, completely untethered to the past or internal states, would dangerously slow reactions, leaving us vulnerable to the whims of circumstance (and unscrupulous others).

Although affective realism occurs unconsciously we can spot its presence. Barrett teaches that we can , “recognize affective realism by its effects. Anytime you have a gut feeling that you know something to be true, that’s affective realism. When you hear some news or read a story that you immediately believe, that’s affective realism too. Or if you are immediately dismissive of a message, or even dislike the messenger, that is also affective realism. We all like things that support our beliefs, and usually dislike things that violate those beliefs.”

We Must Keep Affective Realism in Check

She warns that “affective realism, when left unchecked, leads people to be dead certain and inflexible” (2018). However, we can protect against misattribution of affect by understanding its presence. When possible, we should catch judgements and perceptions that wrongfully project inner-states on innocents objects. This may require suspending judgement until a difficult mood has past, or until we collect more data.

Barbara Ehrenreich counsels, “generally it helps to recruit the observations of others, since our individual perceptions could be erroneous, and whether the issue has to do with the approach of a marauding leopard or the possibility of a financial downturn, the more information we can gather the better off we are” (2009, Kindle location 2,975).

There are times when we must trust the machinery in our head, quickness of action matters more than correctness of interpretation. However, ,many times this is not the case. We have time to check for correctness, utilizing many sources to identify misattributions, invading biases, and pesky emotions. We can mitigate the harmful impacts of affective realism; but only when we purposely choose to do so.


Barrett, Lisa Feldman (2018) How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. Mariner Books; Illustrated edition.

Ehrenreich, Barbara  (2009). Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermined America. Metropolitan Books; 1st edition.

Murphy, T. Franklin (2022). Internal Working Models. Psychology Fanatic. Published 8-16-2022. Accessed 9-19-2022.

​Siegel, E., Wormwood, J., Quigley, K., & Barrett, L. (2018). Seeing What You Feel: Affect Drives Visual Perception of Structurally Neutral Faces. Psychological Science, 29(4), 496-503.

Wormwood, J., Siegel, E., Kopec, J., Quigley, K., & Barrett, L. (2018). You Are What I Feel: A Test of the Affective Realism Hypothesis. Emotion.

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