How can public grief be false? Tweeting crocodile tears.

Philosophy of emotion is a fascinating area of the discipline. I had never heard of it, and only ever considered emotion from a psychological perspective (i.e. where various emotions occur in the brain – don’t ask… I’ve forgotten), before my university began running it as a module this academic year. I suppose, somewhat naïvely, I had thought that there are some things you just can’t do philosophy with. Hahaha! How quaint. It’s a wonder I even made it to the classroom alive with judgement as bad as that. Seriously, though, how difficult could it be to qualify just what an emotion is? Rather difficult, it transpires.

In this class I was given the opportunity the present my attempt at an answer to a question, and this was not only a pathway to intriguing research, but rather topical. Since this time, more incidents have, tragically, occurred that allows me to observe behaviour that substantiates my position.

I will attempt to deal with difficult subject matter in the most sensitive way I can. It is possible that some will be offended, but this is not my intention. The question I attempted to answer was similar to this: How can public grief be false? My answer was that, an emotion, including public grief, can be false if it arises from the motivation to want to be a part of something, specifically, to not want to miss out on an event. Allow me to expound.

Firstly, although it seems pedantic to do so, I should define my usage of the expression: public grief, I will take to be any display of grief in a public domain – this includes public vigils, and indeed online displays of emotion too. Whether or not it’s even possible to display emotion via a tweet, for example, is another question in itself, but for this argument’s sake I take it that a tweet such as “Sad to hear about X” or “Grieving with the family of Y” is an online display of emotion. The falseness, or falsity, of an emotion is less straightforward to define. I will get there, eventually, though.

There are a few philosophical theories of emotion that I was familiarized with in my class[1]. I will not provide a critical exegesis of them here, but will explain what is necessary in order to make my case.

Feeling Theory:

The feeling theory of emotion, propounded by William James (1994), posits that an emotion is just what it feels like to have a certain set of automatic, visceral responses, induced by a stimulus. For example, seeing a bear charging towards me would elicit certain bodily changes; an increased heartrate, sweaty palms, and a dry mouth, might be just a few that it would be reasonable to name. For James, fear would be just what it feels like to have those visceral responses to the stimulus. As a result, somebody who adheres to James’ feeling theory might say that an emotion would be false (we would not really be having that emotion) if we weren’t experiencing those visceral responses; if we just say “I’m scared of the bear” but don’t feel any bodily changes.

So how can this apply to public grief? Well, by appeal to the psychological phenomenon known as emotional contagion, we can explain how the emotion may be genuine. Emotional contagion is, crudely, when observing an emotion in another individual can stimulate the emotion in oneself. This happens more often than we might think: we might smile when seeing couples reunited at a train station, or well-up when we see somebody else cry. If we were to, say, stumble into a public vigil for victims of an attack, we might observe people crying, with bowed heads, and a sombre mood. If this led us to begin to cry, hang our heads, and think about the attack, we might argue that those bodily changes are now being experienced, and this is exactly what it is – for a feeling theorist – to have the experience of grief that the others at the vigil are experiencing. This is just one way as to how displays of public grief can be genuine for a feeling theorist (and it is, of course, entirely possible that everybody at the vigil is experiencing genuine, first-hand grief, but for the individual in my example who just happens upon the vigil without prior knowledge of the details, this explanation can also explain the sincerity of his grief).

facebook pic
Does applying a filter come as a result of visceral responses?

What about online displays of grief? It doesn’t seem right to say that when we change our Facebook profile picture to include a filter of the French Tricolore, or when we tweet #PrayForX, that we are having the same visceral responses that a physical encounter would elicit (at least, it’s not necessary to feel those responses in order to take these actions – some people may, but it is not always the case. For example, the experience of sitting on a sofa with a glass of wine and an iPad is not to have the same visceral, nauseating, gut-wrenching response of grief as, say, finding out a family member has passed away). Public displays of grief can be false for a feeling theorist, then, if the appropriate visceral changes are not experienced prior to committing the act of public grieving, and we might reasonably argue that Tweeting #PrayForX is not necessarily induced by that same gut-wrenching grief that induces a genuine scream of anguish.

Cognitive Theory:

I’m not sure where Cognitive theory originated, but I was introduced to it in a paper by John Deigh called ‘Cognitivism in the Theory of Emotions’ which was very helpful. According to Deigh;

“[e]motions, then, are classified within this theory as cognitions, since the theory conceives of them as mental states in which the subject is cognizant of some object” (1994, p.828).

The cognitivist theory posits that an emotion is similar to a thought, or cognition, insofar as it has propositional content (it asserts something, that “this bear is fearsome”) it is about something (it has intentionality – towards the bear) and it provides a reason for something, or we have a reason for having it. This is quite an embarrassingly simplified way of explaining the cognitivist theory, but I would like to avoid getting bogged down in technicalities for the moment.

Here, I turn to the work of Tony Milligan. My position is very much a small tweak, or addition, to a comprehensive account put forward by Milligan in his paper ‘False Emotions’ (2008). In the aforementioned, Milligan discusses much that is pertinent to my discussion but, again, I will bring forward only what I feel is necessary to my argument. From the perspective of the cognitivist theory, Milligan says that he

“will take it that what is cognitive about an emotion response may be flawed in two quite different ways. The belief/construal that it involves may be false or it may be false that we are genuinely committed to it.” (2008, p.222)

Which I take to mean that an emotion can be false, according to a cognitivist, if (1) the propositional content is false (i.e. the bear is not actually fearsome – we were mistaken. It is in fact, not roaring at us, but calling for help, and not running towards us, but away from a predator – whatever preys on grizzly bears. I’m not sure anything does… but I’m not revising the analogy now. For arguments sake, the bear is running from a huge, scary, bear-catching machine) or (2) it’s false that we are committed to the proposition (i.e. in the case of fiction – we are not actually committed to the fate of the characters in a story, we know it makes no difference whether Jack could, in fact, have clambered onto the driftwood with Rose, but we might still cry when he doesn’t).

Milligan acknowledges a counter to (1) – a proposition will quite often elicit a genuine emotion even if the proposition is false. Imagine a friend bringing you a lottery ticket that he said he bought for you, you check the numbers and it’s a winner. You jump for joy and punch the air, you are elated at having won the jackpot. It transpires that your friend is a terrible person, and playing a prank on you. Now think back to the feeling of joy you had when you thought you’d won the lottery, does it seem false? It doesn’t seem right to say that it does – the emotion was real, but the proposition was false. In response to (2), Milligan openly stays neutral and “make[s] no appeal to the falsity of praiseworthy emotion responses to fiction” (2008, p.224), and I think that’s because he knows it’s a difficult concept, contingent on many elements that are yet to be formally defined, and he’d like to remain outside of the discussion. Still, it doesn’t seem right to call emotion as a response to fiction false. We’re not actually committed to the belief that “Jack could fit on the bloody door too!”, because we know the movie is a work of fiction, but it doesn’t seem correct to say we aren’t saddened by his death.

Here, we can appeal to a notion of Milligan’s, called transference. It agrees with folk psychology to claim that we’re emotionally attached to characters in a film, whilst knowing we’re not committed to the effects of their behaviours, and whether or not they die. We say things like “Put on a soppy film and have a good cry” when we’ve had a bad day, because transferring our emotion is, perhaps, a way of allowing it to manifest without acknowledging its painful source. According to Milligan, this counts as genuine emotion, it’s just misdirected. It’s worth noting that this isn’t a closed case, there may be differences between emotion inside and outside of fiction, but this is a different matter (See Saint, M. (2014) The Paradox of Onstage Emotion, for a related discussion).

To move briefly into the realm of psychology, and away from Milligan, it can also be demonstrated that amalgamating the cognitivist approach to emotion with social identity theory shows that when “group membership becomes an important part of the self, one can feel emotions on behalf of the group” (although these may differ qualitatively to individual emotions, as above, this is a different discussion altogether) – forgive me, I can’t find the paper that substantiates this. When I do, I’ll make the appropriate acknowledgements. One can feel emotion on behalf of the group, then, if the group identity is a salient part of one’s own identity. In fact, this can happen without the group being present (i.e. feeling pride in my football team winning the league, without being in the presence of the team, other fans, or anybody affiliated to the club). As a result, an emotion expressed online could be genuine, if the person was connected to a relevant group, even if they were alone. The emotion has the correct propositional content and there is a reason to feel this way.

A cognitivist then, might say the public grief in real life is genuine, so long as the emotion were about something – even if the proposition was wrong, and even if we weren’t actually committed to the proposition. The same is the case for public grief displayed online, although, there is an interesting discussion to be had as to whether online emotions are somehow qualitatively different those manifested physically.

Milligan’s Answer:

Milligan goes on to make an important point. After grappling with some difficult ideas, he argues that “desire, the conative constituent of emotion” can be what makes an emotion false (2008, p.225). Specifically, a desire for one of two things, either;

“(a) a first-order desire for the thrill of strong emotions and/or (b) a desire to be the kind of person who responded in a particular way” (2008, p.226)

This can be understood as either (a) a desire for the emotion itself, or (b) to be the kind of person who has that emotion. Insofar as this is the case, the falsity of an emotion is constituted by the emotion having the wrong kind of intentionality – it is about the wrong thing. An emotion can be false if we have a desire for the emotion itself, or to be the sort of person who was has the desire. Milligan notes that in the case of grief, the griever “will want (desire) to have them [the deceased] back again” (2008, p.225), and that “real grief is so dreadful that it is not something that any rational agent would opt into” (p.226). Contrast this with the incredible outpouring of public grief we might observe on Twitter after a tragic attack has taken place; this is, in fact, clearly an act of opting in – users who tweet expressions of their grief are opting into a situation that they can, arguably, totally avoid. This is not to say that tweeting #PrayForX or some such similar expression is insincere or dishonest, or that people who do so don’t feel some kind of compassion. My point is that an online expression of grief (such as “I am grieved by Y” or “I feel the grief of Z” is unlikely to be that of genuine, gut-wrenching, nauseating grief, if the tweeter has opted into the event by the act of tweeting. For Milligan, this explains a lot, such as why the emotion expressed is not as intense as the actual emotion of grief; the desire (a) or the desire (b) are both one step away from the actual feeling of grief. The desire for (a) or (b) can be satisfied much more easily than can the desire for an event not to have taken place, or for a loved one to be with us again.

Cool. So this has all gotten a bit heavy, theory wise. Let’s circle back – when I was researching this for my presentation I went through copious amounts of green tea with cranberry (shameless plug – Twinings, please do get in touch for sponsorship), racking my brains, trying to understand how this could be grounded in any of the theories of emotion I was familiar with. It seems difficult to say that a misplaced intentionality is constitutive of a false emotion. I just couldn’t couch it in any sensible discussion… but, then – Eureka! – that’s the point. It has no place in a theory of emotion because it doesn’t (always) result in what we would consider to be an emotion[2].

What I think:

I was able to corroborate Milligan’s hypothesis, based entirely on my personal Twitter feed (which I know is not a sound methodology for testing or postulating hypothesis but – hey – it was probably late). However, I feel there’s an important distinction to be made here (or perhaps addition would be the better term). It is similar to Milligan’s point “(b) a desire to be the kind of person who responded in a particular way”, but there is a problemissing outm. It seems to me that the falsity of an emotion, especially online, but perhaps equally so in real life, comes from wanting to be a part of something, rather than wanting to be someone, or to feel the upset of grief. Insofar as this is true, the falsity of public grief, we might say, comes from FOMO. Huh. Who’d have thought it?

After all, human beings are rational animals that spend most of our term trying to avoid grief. We take medication, go to classes, indulge in a vice, go to work to earn money, and engage in many other activities to actively avoid the unpleasantness of sadness and grief. It doesn’t seem to make sense to simply say that we desire to feel sad, or to be the sort of person who is sad. This desire must come from somewhere else, i.e. a fear of missing out. If there were a public celebration, yes, we might wish to say that we desire to be happy, or desire to be a happy person, but the opposite just doesn’t sit right with me.

It seems more accurate to say that I desire to be a part of something – for whatever reason. Perhaps because it helps me fit in, or to look cool, or to have something to contribute. The idea of a fear of missing out, of wanting to be a part of something is corroborated by psychological research too. In 2016, Porat et al. found that people with a need to belong tended to experience group-based sadness more, especially if those people expected this to benefit them socially. There was a fear among participants that missing out on the emotion would leave them out of the group (in this case, feeling like an outsider to the Israeli community on Memorial Day). It doesn’t seem right to use Milligan’s account and say these people wanted to be sad, but it does seem better to say they didn’t want to miss out on an event at which it would be socially beneficial for them to display emotion. What this shows is that the participants didn’t just have a desire for (a) or (b), they had both (arguably), but the likelihood of them experiencing this emotion was increased if they also knew they weren’t going to be socially ostracized.


I hope to have argued my point well enough to be able to make the following concluding remark; public grief can be false if it arises from the motivation to want to be a part of something, specifically, to not want to miss out on an event or being part of a social group.

Online or public displays of grief all arise from a motivation to be included

All online displays of grief are disingenuous in some way

Sad things aren’t sad and I don’t think people should be sad about them.

(I’m putting the ‘does not equal’ sign in red so there’s no way I can be misinterpreted.)

Public grief can be false if it arises from this motivation. But it is not always. The outpouring of public grief is often source of great consolation for many people. Indeed, it is a good signifier of humanity’s empathic tendencies and it promotes much good in the world. If it comes as news to anybody that some people are motivated by the wrong kind of things then, well, I’m sorry to have to be the bearer of bad news. We can, of course, never understand other people’s motivations without having access to the inside of their head (an epistemological problem, and a gooey, messy one too).

Thanks for making it to the end! I hope this makes sense and is clear. If you think I’m onto something, let me know. Similarly, if you spot a glaring falsehood in here somewhere, please point it out!


Recommended Reading:

DeGroot, J. M. (2014). “For Whom the Bell Tolls”: Emotional Rubbernecking in Facebook Memorial Groups. Death Studies. 38, pp.79-84.

Deigh, J. (1994). Cognitivism in the Theory of Emotions. Ethics. 104(4), pp.824-854.

James, W. (1994). The Physical Basis of Emotion. Psychological Review. 101(2), pp.205-210.

Merrim, W. (1999). Crash, bang wallop! What a picture! The death of Diana and the media. Mortality. 4(1), pp.41-62.

Milligan, T. (2008). False Emotions. Philosophy. 83(234), pp.213-230.

Porat, R., Halperin, E., Mannheim, I., & Tamir, M. (2016). Together we cry: Social motives and preferences for group-based sadness. Cognition and Emotion. 30(1), pp.66-79.

Saint, M. (2014). The Paradox of Onstage Emotion. British Journal of Aesthetics. 54(3), pp.357-369.

van Kleef, G. A., & Fischer, A. H. (2016). Emotional collectives: How groups shape emotions and emotions shape groups. Cognition and Emotion. 30(1), pp.3-19.

[1] It is not easy to distinguish between a philosophical theory and a psychological theory of emotion. William James, for example, was a philosopher and psychologist and his feeling theory advances discussion in both disciplines. For brevity, though, I refer to a philosophical theory.

[2] Milligan provides an example, originally posited by Iris Murdoch, that helps understand how a desire for an emotion could lead to one subsequently having the genuine emotion. In many ways, this is beside the point – desire can lead to emotion, but it does not necessarily do so, and it is still constitutive of a false emotion.


3 thoughts on “How can public grief be false? Tweeting crocodile tears.”

  1. Splendid! I’m tailing you henceforth.. Where’s the “follow” button?
    I instinctively started at your choice of words (couldn’t retrieve them from your text, pardon) that humans as rational beings shouldn’t be wanting to feel negative emotions. Far from being an expert in the field of emotions (or philosophy of) I’m inclined to advise some caution in making such a statement, especially if bringing in theories of identity and group belonging. Tailing research initiated by Tajfel and Turner (see their 1985 and 1987 writings) and expanded by a huge number of their followers, I’d be surprised if a strong desire to fit in the group WILL NOT activate desire to experience specific emotions IF group membership requires it. Speaking more from my field of expertise, I can tell you positively that people WILL do and want things that are in conflict with rational being if that contributes positively to their identity (see Akerlof and Kranton’s book from 2000; they also have a research article with the same title in the same year). Potentially, this might include desire for negative emotions.
    On top of my head, this should not in any way undermine the point you make in your text.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for your comment! You’re totally right. I think I should read up on some of the follow up studies to Tajfel and Turner’s papers. It seems, in some ways, that the paper from Porat et al. comes to a similar kind of conclusion as yourself; that given the appropriate socially desirable consequences an individual is likely to behave in a way that might induce negative emotions.
      There is a really interesting discussion to be had as to why, though. I wonder how much one must desire group membership in order to stimulate negative emotions, or where the “cut-off point” was, so to speak. I’ll be sure to take a look.
      Thanks again for your feedback!

      Liked by 1 person

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