You have certainly known many people in your life who have an exceptional talent for perceiving others. They will always wait for the right time to address an issue. Detecting for example if the person they’re talking to is too upset, or if he’s not in the mood to have a conversation.

Others are good at overcoming hardship or seem to be very comfortable in their skin.

These are all characteristics of what psychologists call an Emotional Style. So, what is an emotional style?

An Emotional Style is a set of six characteristics (called dimensions) that constitutes your emotional makeup. Think of these dimensions as the ingredients of the recipe that ultimately make up how you feel, the building blocks of your emotions.

Your emotional style is how you consistently respond to your experiences. It is a personal feature that reliably predicts the likelihood of feeling particular emotions and being predisposed to specific moods.

This is because emotional style is an objective scientific characterization. It is governed by specific and identifiable brain circuits that have been identified in the laboratory.

Emotional Style was discovered by Richard Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

By synthesizing decades of research on people with diverse emotional (and sometimes pathological) experiences, Davidson has identified all dimensions of emotional style. Those six dimensions are as follows:

  1. Resilience
  2. Outlook
  3. Social intuition
  4. Self-awareness
  5. Sensitivity to context
  6. And Attention

Each dimension describes a continuum. And some people fall at one or the other extreme of that continuum, while others fall somewhere in the middle. The combination of where you fall on each dimension adds up to your overall emotional style.

Another major conclusion of all this research is that the prefrontal cortex is a key factor in emotional style, participating in most of its dimensions. Davidson found that his activity could vary by a factor of thirty from one individual to another. No wonder we’re so different!

So, let’s further see how these dimensions make up an emotional style, or you could take a quiz to discover yours first and then come back and continue reading. The quiz can be found here.

The 6 Dimensions of Emotional Style

If you’re a fan of soap operas, 90’s comedy shows, or pop-psychology articles, then you probably assume that the way people react to daily life experiences is pretty predictable. However, Davidson has shown that this cannot be further from the truth.

He noticed that even people sharing similar backgrounds respond to life events in very different ways.

For example, some people are good at overcoming hardship (called resilience style), while others fall apart. Just as everyone has different fingerprints, each one of us has a unique emotional profile.

This emotional profile is made up of the six dimensions that we’ve shown above (and will be further detailed in the next sections). But to be more precise, each person is not “resilient,” “intuitive,” or “self-aware,” etc., but a mixture of these six characteristics.

Each one of the six dimensions is a spectrum which varies between two poles. For example, following the example given above, your position on the resilience dimension spectrum can vary between two extremes: “can not recover at all” and “fast to recover.”

Your position on ALL of these six dimensions is what reflect your way of seeing the world and reacting to it.

In this sense, Emotional Style is a bit like a painter’s palette; it includes a combination of colors that is unique to you, and which affects the hue that your days will be like.

So, let’s discover what each of the six dimensions stands for.

1. Resilience

This dimension deals with questions related to determination, ease of recovery after a setback, and mental endurance in the face of difficulties. For example:

  • If you encounter a setback, do you go on a meltdown? Or are you able to shake it off?
  • Do you often muster the tenacity to find solutions? Or do you feel so helpless that you simply surrender?
  • When life knocks you back on your heels, do you think you can put it behind you, or do you get caught up in a cyclone of depression and anxiety?

Davidson proposed the dimension of resilience after observing that the brain activity is different in people who overcome a test more or less quickly.

In a laboratory experiment, he triggered an unpleasant emotion in the participants by showing them uncomfortable images, such as a photograph of a baby with a tumor in his eye (this is torture for me).

Then he measured the speed at which they recovered from this emotion through a technique called the acoustic startle reflex.

The idea behind this technique is to subject a person to a slight unexpected sound. This sound would then startle the subject and cause him to blink more or less strongly due to the surprise effect.

However, the interesting part is that the blinking is stronger as much as the subject is in a more negative emotional state (fear, anxiety, anger, sadness, etc.).

Thus, by measuring variations in the intensity of muscle contraction in the eyelids, we can know how the person’s feelings evolve and how long it takes them to subside.

That’s how Davidson did it. Light sounds were emitted near the participants’ ears while a group of sensors measured the contraction of their eyelids as well as the activity of their brain.

The results showed that people who recover more quickly from an unpleasant emotion (i.e., who are the most resilient) have more activity in the left prefrontal cortex.

However, this region has a very particular characteristic which is that it weaves connections throughout the brain and is able to inhibit or stimulate many other areas.

For very resilient people, other experiments revealed that it is more strongly connected to the amygdala, a deep region of the brain associated with fear and negative emotions.

Your resilience style could be at/or between two extremes. On one extreme of this dimension, there is people who are fast to bounce back and recover from adverse situations, and on the other extreme are people who are crippled by hardship.

In the first case, people quickly recover from an unpleasant emotion because their left prefrontal cortex is very active and very connected to the amygdala. Consequently, the left prefrontal cortex manages to quickly soothe the amygdala (the center of negative emotions).

2. Outlook

Following the resilience dimension, it was by combining this type of laboratory experiments with data on certain psychiatric or neurodevelopmental pathologies that Davidson discovered several other dimensions of emotional style.

For example, he identified the brain circuit that causes our ability to experience positive emotions (The outlook dimension) by looking at the case of people in whom this ability is particularly impaired, i.e., depressed patients.

Outlook is how long you are able to sustain positive emotions.

In one experiment, Davidson showed some of depressed patients videos that were supposed to inspire positive emotions (e.g., children playing or adults enjoying a delicious meal).

Participants were also asked to try to sustain the emotion that they experienced using certain techniques, such as imagining oneself in the situation they watched. At the same time, their brain activity was measured using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

The researcher then observed an anomaly in the activation of the accumbens nucleus, the brain center of motivation and pleasure.

This nucleus was activated as much as that of the “healthy” participants when watching the scenes, but it died out much more quickly afterward.

However, it is the prefrontal cortex that normally maintains this activity. The experiment revealed that the main cause of a nucleus accumbens that is activated too fleetingly is that it is not sufficiently connected to the prefrontal cortex.

People suffering from depression are therefore able to experience positive emotions, but very fleetingly. These emotions disappear immediately.

For everyone, these areas would then be more or less active and more or less connected depending on the individual, which would result in a more or less strong ability to experience positive emotions over time.

Do you maintain a high level of enthusiasm and motivation when things don’t play out the way you expect? Or is all you see is negativity?

Do you often maintain a positive and optimistic outlook on life? Or do you tend towards cynicism and pessimism?

3. Social Intuition

Social intuition reflects, for example, how easy it is for you to perceive that a friend would prefer to change the subject or that he or she does not have time to discuss it with you, without them having to tell you. In short, it is the ability to detect signals sent by others.

The existence of the social intuition dimension was derived from the observation of people with autism. Autistic people have difficulty guessing other’s emotions and understanding non-verbal communication.

Davidson had shown that when he presented portraits of others to people with autism, they had abnormally low activity in the area of the brain called the fusiform gyrus.

This area of the brain is responsible for face analysis. It decodes expressions and tell us what others feel. Do they smile? Do their eyes widen from astonishment? Do they look sad? We know all these thanks to the fusiform gyrus.

Although autistic people lack in the fusiform gyrus area, their amygdala has been shown to be hyperactive. As we have already pointed out above, the amygdala is the center of negative emotions, particularly fear and anxiety.

As a result, people with autism experience a strong sense of anxiety and discomfort when interacting with others. Especially when they try to make eye contact with others. Thus, they avoid eye contact, depriving them of a wealth of information about the emotional state of others.

Studying these extreme cases, and drawing conclusions by combining them with other experiences, led Davidson to believe that a particular brain circuit underlies our ability to detect other people’ emotions.

To summarize Davidson’s findings, the more active the fusiform gyrus is and the less the amygdala is, the more easily and spontaneously we can decipher other people’s expressions, while experiencing little anxiety about interacting with others. In other words, the more social intuition we have.

Do you find it easy to read people’s body language? Can you spontaneously infer whether they are in the mood to talk or better left alone? Are you able to tell if people are stressed or feeling mellow just by the signals their bodies send out naturally?

Or, on the contrary, you are often blind to all these indications of people’s mental and emotional states?

Like the other five dimensions, this is also a spectrum, ranging from “Socially Intuitive types” to “Puzzled individuals.”

4. Self-Awareness

This dimension is about how you perceive your own bodily feelings that reflect your emotions. In other words, how well are you tuned to the signals sent by your body?

If you have friends that seem oblivious to introspection or are you yourself react in ways without knowing why, then you are familiar with some cases when the inner self is opaque to the consciousness.

Low self-awareness, or better called self-opaqueness, describe people who are completely blind and deaf to their own emotions. Not that they are in denial about them, but they are honestly oblivious to the emotional cues sent by their bodies.

At one extreme of this dimension are people who are self-opaque. They have a hard time tuning into their inner emotional state. For some people, it can even take them days to realize that they were scared, angry, or jealous the whole time.

On the other extreme are self-aware individuals. They are attuned to the signals their body sends them. They know that they’re yelling at their kids not because they’re refusing to eat their vegetables, but because stress from work has been affecting their mood lately.

Due to their highly sensitive emotional prowess, individuals who are extremely self-aware also tend to get caught up in other people’s emotions. This could explain why some professionals, such as nurses and counselors, often suffer from burnout.

In his study, the way Davidson measured participants’ self-awareness in the lab is by assessing how well they can detect their own heartbeat.

First, Davidson and his colleagues measured a participant’s heartbeat at rest. Then, using this measurement, they used software to construct two series of ten notes:

  • The first series of notes is perfectly in sync with the heartbeat.
  • The second series is slightly shifted so that the tones are a little before or after the actual participant’s heartbeat.

The participant would then put on headphones and be asked to listen to one of these two series, then decide which one was in sync with his or her heartbeat. Each participant would go through this test for a hundred or so times, alternating between the two types of series of notes randomly.

This test is meant to measure people’s sensitivity to their internal physiological signals, which correlate well with their level of self-awareness. In fact, the data showed that self-aware people were in the top 25 percent for accuracy on this test.

Outside of the lab, you can also take a test (without the fancy equipment) to figure out where you stand on the self-awareness dimension. The test/questionnaire can be found here.

5. Sensitivity to Context

Have you ever attended a funeral where two of the attendants were old friends who then started to catch up and start laughing aloud?

Have you ever been wondering why you got weird looks when telling a joke at the business meeting with clients, even though your friend laughed his head off when you told him the same dirty joke at the bar yesterday?

Have you ever been at a wedding table where some other guest started to recount the details of a past relationship with the groom?

Most people can tell if a topic with a particular emotional hue has no place in a given circumstance. Those people are in the “tuned in” side of the sensitivity to context continuum.

On the other hand, people who are oblivious to the implicit rules that govern social interactions are in the “tuned out” side of the spectrum. They are (to varying degrees) blind to the fact that what makes a behavior perfectly acceptable in one situation can make it offensive in another.

Davidson considered sensitivity to context an important component of emotional style for two reasons:

  • Rather than being something we consciously regulate, sensitivity to context is largely intuitive.
  • Social context often has an emotional subtext (funeral: sad, wedding: happy/celebratory). The most subtle emotional subtexts are either picked up and reflected in our behavior or not.

For example, if after a first date with an amazing woman you got home only to discover that your roommate just broke up with his fiancée, it is more sensible to focus on helping your roommate go through this hard time than start talking about how amazing your date was and delve into how you think she could be the one.

Close friends, coworkers, family members, people you know only slightly, are all different in terms of the rules of interaction under which they fall. Depending on whom you are interacting with and what the circumstances are, you are expected to follow different implicit social rules.

To better understand the sensitivity to context dimension you can think of it as an outward version of the self-awareness dimension. While self-awareness reflects how attuned you are to your own physiological and emotional cues,sensitivity to context is about how attuned you are to external cues and social environment.

The way the sensitivity to context dimension is measured in the lab is by determining how emotional behavior varies with social context. For example, Davidson would conduct the first round of tests in one room, and the second one in another room to see how the participant’s behavior changes with context.

Also, the hippocampus area of the brain appears to play an essential role in apprehending context. So Davidson also measured the hippocampal activity to get a sense of where a participant falls in the sensitivity to context dimension scale.

As with all the other dimensions, you can get a measurement of where you stand on the sensitivity to context dimension by taking the questionnaire here.

6. Attention

Are you able to maintain your train of thought while you work, or does it continue to slip from you and your thoughts drift towards the anxiety you feel about the pile of bills due this month?

When interrupted by a coworker, can you regain your focus on the task at hand, or does it take you several minutes to do so?

Including this final dimension in the emotional style model may seem paradoxical. In fact, attention is more often considered a cognitive rather than an emotional component.

However, Davidson made this choice because the more emotionally charged the external elements are, the more distracting they are. For example, a sound coming from your window can be distracting enough while trying to work at home, but if it’s the sound of your roommates that are having an argument (emotionally charged), then it can be even more so.

If your attention span is low, a fleeting thought about a friend who failed his entrance exam or a kitten jumping on your lap with her big cute eyes can interrupt your focus and plunge you into a gulf of sadness or happiness. Attention is, therefore, an essential component of how we react emotionally to the world around us.

Equally important, attention is an essential building block for other emotional style dimensions. In fact, self-awareness requires paying attention to your inner signals, and social intuition depends on focusing on social and environmental cues.

Attentive people can filter out external stimuli even when they come charged with an emotional overlay. Such people are in the focused end of the attention dimension. On the other hand, people who are constantly distracted by emotional signals fall at the unfocused extreme.

Through his research, Davidson highlighted several distinct forms of attention. The main ones are:

  • Selective attention: It’s the ability to block all irrelevant external signals and focus only on the task at hand. Right now, there are different sounds that are picked up by your ears, different peripheral movements that are detected by your eyes, several sensations like your feet pushing against the ground and your bottom against the seat. Nevertheless, if you were completely immersed in this article until now, congratulations on achieving such a great feat of attention.

  • Open attention: this is also called nonjudgemental awareness. It is the capacity to remain receptive to passing sounds, fleeting thoughts, or stirred up emotions without getting dragged by them or judging yourself. It is the ability to observe in a non-critical way.

To measure attention in the lab, Davidson asked participants to watch as a series of letters, one after another, flashes onto a screen. The series could be something like “K,C,N,R,T,A,W,F,R”. However, every now and then the researchers introduce a number in the series, as in “M,Z,E,5,B,V,Z,O,F”. The participants are asked to press a button every time a number appears.

Although numbers rarely appear in any series, sometimes a number would appear only to be followed, a half a second later, with another number (e.g., H,K,3,H,L,9,R,R,I,K,C). Most people would then miss the second number (9) after noticing the first one (3). The reason for this is something called the Attentional Blinks.

Attentional blinks are induced when the brain notices a novel stimulus or a rare event (like the appearance of a number in a series of letters), it goes then to a state of excitement and decontraction. The time needed to go back to full focus varies between individuals. And the longer it takes for your brain to be able to attend to the next stimulus, the more information you miss.

Some people have little to no attentional blink. They are able to focus with great self-control and such equanimity (a calm mental state).

The extent to which your attention “blinks,” particularly as a result of emotional stimuli, is a good quality indicator for emotional balance.

Again, here is a questionnaire for assessing your attention style along with other dimensions of your Emotional Style.

How Reliable is Davidson’s Emotional Style Model?

Davidson is far from being the first to propose a scientific model to describe the main features that characterize our behavior (Read here about Explanatory Styles). But until now, all these models have been constructed from behavioral analysis, observing how people react in different situations, and then systematically classifying these ways of reacting.

The way for which Davidson’s model is profoundly original and interesting is that it starts from the innermost functioning of our brain. Davidson has built on decades of research in affective neuroscience (the study of the neural mechanisms of emotion).

The psycho-affective tendencies described in the emotional style model can all be seen in the brain.Furthermore, they condition many aspects of our daily lives.

The dimensions Davidson has identified are all underpinned by a particular brain circuit and would, therefore, correspond to the “neurophysiological legos” of who we are. In other words, biologically, they would more accurately reflect our behavioral functioning than the personality traits of traditional models.

In Summary

According to American neuroscientist Richard Davidson, we all have our own Emotional Style that shapes how we react to our surroundings and what we experience.

Emotional style is broken down into six dimensions. Each dimension can be traced back to specific brain circuitry, which makes this model a highly reliable one for understanding oneself.

Your position (on a continuum scale) on each of the six dimensions adds up to your Emotional Style. By taking a questionnaire on this page you can find out where you sit on each of the six dimensions.

There is no perfect emotional style, and even more so, no one style is superior to any other. This is because as much as we appreciate our smartphones, cars, video games, and laptops, we should be glad that there are people who prefer interacting with machines and software code rather than people (People who would likely fall towards the Puzzled extreme of the social intuition dimension). Society can only advance if people with all the different emotional styles work together.

However, we are sometimes uncomfortable with our emotional reactions to certain events. In fact, an emotional style can be too extreme that it interferes with our daily functioning. Other times we hope to clarify what we would like to change in ourselves in order to unlock our full potential. Understanding your emotional style can be very helpful in this regard; it is a first step to change.

Even if every dimension of emotional style can be underpinned by specific brain circuitry, your emotional style is not carved in stone, as the brain is very malleable, and you can change its structure over time. Scientists refer to this faculty as brain plasticity. You can read here more about how to improve your wellbeing through understanding your emotional style.


Jim Miller

Jim spent his twenties trying tounderstand how our primitive minds get in the way of self-growth. He has a lot of interesting ideas about human psychology that he doesn't hesitate to share when opportunity presents itself.


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Related Articles


Jim Miller

Jim spent his twenties trying tounderstand how our primitive minds get in the way of self-growth. He has a lot of interesting ideas about human psychology that he doesn't hesitate to share when opportunity presents itself.

Subscribe to our newsletter

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