Bottom-Up or Top-Down? How We Generate Emotions

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Carrie Steckl earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology with a Minor in Gerontology from Indiana University – Bloomington in 2001. She has spent over ...Read More

Are you a bottom-up or top-down type of person? No, I’m not asking about your drinking habits or your sunbathing techniques. I’m wondering how you generate your emotions.

“Huh?” you might be thinking. Don’t emotions just kind of happen? Not necessarily. According to researchers at the University of Denver and Stanford University, there’s a difference between “bottom-up” and “top-down” emotional responses. Bottom-up emotions are immediate, ingrained responses to a stimulus (such as an instant feeling of fear in response to a car pulling out in front of us). Top-down emotions are more conscious responses to the way we think about a situation (such as a feeling of anxiety after deciding that we didn’t study hard enough for a test).


Another way to think about the difference between bottom-up and top-down emotions is that top-down emotions involve an extra step. There are two steps involved in the generation of bottom-up feelings: (1) a stimulus occurs, and (2) an emotion is immediately sparked. In contrast, top-down emotions occur in three steps: (1) a stimulus occurs, (2) our thinking patterns provide us with a little “self-talk” about what’s happening, and (3) we feel something based on our thoughts about the stimulus.

If this is all getting a little too clinical for you, bear with me. The researchers I mentioned above conducted a cool study that involved inducing both bottom-up and top-down emotions in a group of participants. Then, they asked the participants to try to decrease the negative impact of their emotions through cognitive reappraisal (a fancy term for readjusting your thinking about something). Interestingly, the researchers found that people were better able to regulate top-down emotions than bottom-up ones.

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This makes sense to me. Bottom-up emotions are more visceral and seem connected to the fight-or-flight response mechanism with which we are born. It would be difficult, and questionably effective, to force a thought pattern into the mix. If a car pulls out in front of us, do we really want to stop and think about it before deciding how to respond? No thanks – I’ll take my instant bottom-up emotion and use it to avoid an accident.

But most of life doesn’t need the fight-or-flight response. We usually have more time to evaluate circumstances. In fact, many of our emotions are driven by how we think about the world, how we interpret situations, and what kinds of ideas we have about ourselves and others. Whether or not we realize it, most of our emotions are products of our thinking.

So, it turns out my original question was tricky. In reality, we are all bottom-up and top-down people. But some of us are more aware of our top-down emotions – and what causes them – than others. I strongly encourage you to begin paying attention to the thoughts that may be driving your emotions, because this is the beginning of the road to emotion regulation. If we are aware of the thoughts that create our top-down emotions, we then have the power to readjust those thoughts so that they engender happier, more peaceful feelings.


McRae, K., Misra, S., Prasad, A. K., Pereira, S. C., & Gross, J. J. (2011). Bottom-up and top-down emotion generation: Implications for emotion regulation. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 7(3), 253-262.

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