The Most Powerful Emotion of All

Burning BooksFor centuries, poets and priests have reflected on the influence of emotion, noting its ability to suddenly take control of thought and behavior. After reading Paul Ekman’s research on universal emotions, I was curious to know which emotion is most powerful. Some would suggest it is love. Having begun my career as a domestic violence counselor for violent and abusive men, I have direct knowledge of how powerful anger and rage can be, often trumping the intentions of love. Is there anything more powerful than anger and rage? I decided that I would answer the question through research. Because I wanted my results to be robust, I collected a very large amount of data (approximately 13 million subjects). With a preference for practical methods, I used a methodology that can be easily replicated by anyone with internet access, Google Books in particular. Using the search engine’s ability to locate each instance that a specific word group appears in written literature, I counted the number of hits for phrases such as “anger made me” or “sadness made me,” each time substituting a different emotional term. The results were both surprising and obvious, once I thought about it.

Fear is to be Feared

Where my experimentation lacked in scientific rigor, I tried to make up for with sheer numbers.  In addition to my pool of 13 million subjects, I compiled a list of 723 emotional terms. I did not want anything to get left out. From that list, only 20 had a significant number of hits for phrases such as, “controlled by …” or “overcome by ….” After eliminating terms that are too broad (e.g., good, bad), I found that, on average, the top ranking emotional terms registered with 15,500 hits. However, fear (once embedded in compulsory statements) registered with 182,900 hits. Thus, when compared to other emotional terms, “fear” is 12 times as likely to be used to describe an event in which a person feels controlled by emotion.

Love Conquers All, (once a person is no longer frightened)

The second highest ranking emotional term was either “love” (if you include the more ambiguous search phrase, “I felt…”) or “anger” (if you stick strictly to terms that imply a loss of control). However, both of these occurred only half as much as fear.

Can Fear Make a Person Act Insane?

Pondering the possibility that fear is more powerful than anger or love, I recalled a lecture by Steven Hassan (a leading authority on cult abduction and mind control). When asked how cult recruiters are able to convince highly intelligent, well-educated, free citizens to leave the comfort of their friends and family, in order to work like slaves for a cult leader, he responded, “It is done through fear. They intentionally create phobias in the minds of their targets. Having done so, they can make them believe anything.”  The next thought that came to mind is the global upsurge in terrorism, the preferred tool for those who lack money and military might but are still able to dramatically impact the actions of the most powerful nations on the planet. Then I thought about national elections, and the use of fear to shape people’s voting behavior. It was only four days ago that a college-educated person approached me and warned me of Obama’s “secret army,” that has been built by taking guns and ammunition out of the free market. His comment to me, “The stores do not have as many bullets as they used to. Even though I’m not sure what’s happening, we’ve got to be ready, that’s all I know!”  That seems to be the problem with fear.  It does not let you know much, beyond the fact that you are afraid.


12 Responses to “The Most Powerful Emotion of All”
  1. Gil Levin says:

    You’ve taken a marvelous, imaginative approach and your conclusions make intuitive sense to me.

    I wonder what others think. I also wonder if anyone else will apply your method to explore other questions.

    Are you familiar with the work of James Pennebaker:

    • Dan Short says:

      I have not seen Pennebaker’s research but his book looks intriguing. Twenty-five years ago, I remember reading a statement by Walter Kempler. His belief was that pronouns can be used to quickly assess ego strength (As I remember, the use of “I” was considered to be a sign of health, while referring to one’s own thoughts and experiences in 3rd person was not so good).

  2. Gil Levin says:

    My recollection is Pennebaker found correlations between the use of “I” and negative emotionality.

    His method and results are at:

    • Dan Short says:

      This information is intriguing, certainly worth looking at. Their finding that, “Public figures speaking in press conferences and published poets in their poetry use more 1st person singular when they are depressed or prone to suicide,” maybe what you are remembering. (A perfect thread for this post. Once again we are reminded of the importance of placing theories under the light of empirical investigation.)

      • Gil Levin says:

        Interesting. I wasn’t aware of that finding.

        Jamie does a lot of experimental work in which he correlates measures of psychological states with word counts in the written products of his subjects. My modest familiarity with it comes from having heard him lecture, so I don’t know the source.

      • Gil Levin says:

        I just bumped into this:

        “The way we refer to ourselves reflects how we relate to others: Associations between first-person pronoun use and interpersonal problems

        • Dan Short says:

          Makes perfect sense. However, from my experience the statement could be modified to read, “The way we refer to ourselves in public reflects how we relate to casual acquaintances, and how we refer to ourselves privately reflects how we treat our close partners and children. For example, a pathological narcissist will make adoring statements to someone he hardly knows but speak with cruelty to the person he lives with. This seems to mirror the positive/negative split between explicit self-esteem and implicit self-esteem.

  3. Stimec says:


    very interesting.

    Have you written somewhere more extensively on this (method, results) ?


    • Dan Short says:

      This is a work in progress. My real interest is complementarity and mutual exclusivity amongst emotions. I am collecting data to see which emotions seem to enhance or cancel-out other emotional states (i.e., using emotional arousal for the purpose of emotional self-regulation). My Google experiment was merely a pilot test intended to help me devise a list of 15 emotions, which have high behavioral significance. If you want to know more about this approach, let me know and I will post a blog.

  4. Gil Levin says:

    Dan, I continue to visit here hoping/expecting that Stimee will return — or that others will join in. This morning I happened to scroll past the archived interview of Don Nathanson and it started me wondering. (Don is the spiritual descendent of Sylvan Tomkins). There seem to be some parallels lines between in Affect Theory with your work on emotions. Do you see any connections there?

    • Dan Short says:

      I would like to think there is a connection between my work and Affect Theory, especially since AT appears to be a well thought-out and empirically sound collection of knowledge. Truthfully, as I considered your comment, I noticed I was feeling some shame. (I did not want my limited knowledge of Nathanson & Tomkins exposed—the very definition of shame as described by Nathanson.) But then, I decided to recognize what a pleasure it was to read your interview and learn about Nathanson. It contains some fascinating insights into the experience of shame.

      As I reflected on my change in affect, I recognized the conscious shift from feelings of shame to feelings of gratitude and delight. With that shift came new thoughts and behavior. This gets to the heart of my therapeutic approach. Conceptually, it is similar to the cognitive revolution, the point at which leaders in the field decided that we can exercise choice in relation to thought and that by choosing certain ways of thinking, we enhance our psychological experience and functional ability. If you take this one-step further, then it becomes clear that we can choose our emotional reactions as well. This realization not only increases one’s options but also extends our existential responsibility as well. Put a different way, a person does not have the option to choose how he will feel until he realizes that he can choose how he will feel.

      As Nathanson points out, because affect is a biological response to a stimulus, which precedes behavior (and as Greenberg argues, it precedes thought as well), the expansion of choice into the realm of emotion greatly enhances our capacity for willful self-determination, not only for how we feel but for how we think and behave as well. When you move from the intrapsychic domain to the interpersonal, and consider the impact of emotional contagion (or interaffectivity as Nathanson calls it), then it is easy to see how the ability to skillfully select one’s own emotional response greatly influences the emotions, and therefore the thoughts and behavior of an entire social network. This is really getting to the root of things. It allows the therapist to quickly, and dramatically, improve quality of life.

  5. Enix says:

    I believe hatred is the most powerful emotion to man.
    the only thing with hatred is it is very hard to achieve a pure hatred for somthing or someone, Iv experienced hatred on a large quantity and I can say hatred can make you a more untuned person. My story during school I was a loving person up infill year 10 in which my friends decided to turn on me and push me away which left me really depressed this messed with my love life and eventually my girlfriend broke up with me, this and having no friends caused me to get very angry and thus hate.. but I controlled my hatred into my schooling and studyies and all I thought was I have to prove I am worth something but I did so using my hatred for my old friends repeating to myself all of the memories I spent and how I hated them I did this for 2 years in this period I reached a stage where I could be consumed with hatred.. I ended up allowing myself to use my hate to my advantage. My reason hate would be the strongest and most powerful is you can be persuaded easily if you are taught to hate it and using hate can push you through difficult circumstances if you’re able to control it there’s just my rant and opinion

Speak Your Mind

Tell us what you're thinking...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!