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How Emotional Events Create Motivations

By Daniel Bobinski

In the realm of emotional intelligence, recognizing our own and others’ motivations is very important. Knowing our own is important for self-management, and recognizing other people’s motivators helps in relationship management, especially in the area of showing empathy.

When we practice empathy, it’s helpful to know that many of our attitudes and motivations are formed when we’re small children. In fact, most are in place before the age of five! What are the catalysts for this? The answer is, “Emotionally significant events.” Put another way, when we experience a strong positive emotion during a particular event, we are imprinted to find value in those types of events. The opposite is true if we experience a strong negative emotion during any given event.

For example, let’s say a young couple has recently bought a home in a quiet suburban neighborhood. It’s a beautiful spring day, and the couple is in their front yard with their 18-month-old identical twins.

Dad is a dog lover. He grew up with dogs and thinks dogs make the best pets. Conversely, mom is a cat lover. She thinks dogs are slobbery, disgusting creatures and she wants nothing to do with them.

While the family is enjoying the beautiful sunshine, a neighbor comes down the street walking his large, undisciplined German Shepherd. The dog sees the couple’s children in the yard and starts barking as he pulls on the leash while trying to make his way toward the kids.

Dad thinks nothing of it. All he sees is a beautiful animal, and he tells the neighbor, “Nice dog!” However, mom is terrified. Visibly shaken, she runs toward her children, fearful that her twins will become the dog’s afternoon snack.

With the commotion of the dog barking, both young children are wondering what to make of this new situation. The child closest to dad looks up and sees dad smiling and calm, giving the neighbor a thumbs up. Taking a cue from dad, the child relaxes and smiles, and the result is a positive emotional imprint.

The child closest to mom looks up at her and sees extreme fear. Taking a cue from that impression, the child starts crying, and the emotional imprint is decidedly negative.

And thus, identical twins receive very different imprints from the same event. If this happens a few more times, the first child will grow to love dogs while the second child will despise them.

If you think about your own viewpoints and realize that significant emotional events helped form them, then it’s easier to have empathy when interacting with people who hold distinctly different values from yours. People’s attitudes about money, aesthetics, the acquisition of knowledge, power, altruism, and systems for living are formed, in large part, because of emotional imprints. This is valuable to know because these attitudes drive our decisions and behaviors.

One key to remember is that it’s in these areas where we tend to ascribe the ideas of right and wrong. Good emotional intelligence suggests that we look past the right/wrong paradigm, exercise empathy and strive for win-win outcomes.

Daniel Bobinski, M.Ed. is a certified behavioral analyst, a best-selling author and a popular speaker at conferences and retreats. He loves working with teams and individuals to help them achieve workplace excellence. Reach Daniel through his website,



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