views updated May 21 2018


The term emotion or affect is used to refer to a broad class of behaviors that include facial and vocal expressions as well as neurological and physiological patterns. The term feeling refers to the subjective experience of emotionwhich may last seconds or minutesand the term mood involves feelings that last over a protracted period of time. The scientific study of emotional behavior, feelings, and moods has a relatively short history, and the study of emotion and aging has had even a more limited history. Fortunately, during the last two decades of the twentieth century, the field of psychology began to accumulate a great deal that is of importance to understanding emotion and the aging process.

Historical perspective

For most of recorded time, at least in the Western world, the vast majority of people, including scientists, regarded emotion as the antithesis of reason or rational thought. Emotion was also associated with being femalethe other gender being ruled by logic. Furthermore, emotion was seen as a disruptive force in life, to be harnessed and controlled. Because of these implicit assumptions and stereotypes, emotion was not regarded as a fit topic for scientific research until Charles Darwin began to record the emotional expressions of animals and humans late in the nineteenth century and noted their evolutionary significance. His works introduced the idea that there were certain basic emotions and that emotions served adaptive functionsthat is, that they were essential to survival rather than something that interfered with it. These basic emotions include anger, fear, sadness, disgust, shame, contempt, joy, interest, and surprise.

In the early part of the twentieth century, the behaviorist John Watson began using laboratory studies to examine the basic or fundamental emotions in human infants. Although he believed, along with Darwin, that certain emotions were innate, his studies showed that emotional behaviors were responses that could become "conditioned" and thus shape the personality of the child. However, his work did little to redeem the value of emotions in the mind of the public because he shared the view of most of his contemporaries that emotions caused pathological problems and needed to be constrained. In fact, in his popular childrearing guide of 1928, Psychological Care of the Infant and Child, he urged parents to strictly control their displays of affection toward their children and to engage in behaviors designed to ensure that children would dampen or suppress their emotions.

After a small flurry of research inspired by Watson's work, the field lay relatively dormant until the late 1970s. At this time, the theoretical contributions of Silvan Tomkins, Carroll Izard, Paul Ekman, and Robert Plutchik sparked a new wave of research on the emotions. These theories stressed the unique motivational, expressive, physiological, neurological, and feeling states of the basic emotions. They also repeated and amplified Darwin's notion that emotions are fundamentally adaptive, though of course certain conditions could lead to more problematic behaviors such as depression or anxiety disorder. The new surge of research inspired by these theories led to fresh insights on the role of emotion and moods on cognition, memory, personality, and interpersonal process; there was also a good deal of research on how emotional expressions of infants and children changed over time and how children learned to talk about their emotions.

Research on emotional development in adulthood and aging accumulated more slowly. In some of the early studies before the 1980s, the general impression of both the lay public and developmental psychologists was that aging was accompanied by a blunting of the emotions; people also thought that there was a drift toward negative affect over the adult years. However, this impression was based largely on studies of institutionalized persons and therefore hardly representative of the population at large, since, both then, as well as presently, only about 5 percent of the older population live in nursing homes.

Work on affect and aging that began in the 1980s took an entirely different approach. It started to examine emotion as a life course process, and the work on older adults at the upper end of the life span was based on persons living independent lives in their own communities. By the end of the twentieth century, there was a substantial corpus of theory as well as research mapping continuities and changes in emotion over the adult life course. The key figures in the field include Laura Carstensen, Caroll Izard, Gisela Labouvie-Vief, Powell Lawton, Carol Malatesta Magai, and Richard Schulz. The bulk of this literature has centered on issues of continuity and change in physiological patterns, expressive behavior, feeling states, emotion regulation, and emotion traits.

Emotions over the life course

Most of the research on continuities and change in emotional patterns during the adult years shows that the fundamental properties of the emotions remain relatively stable. However, there are also subtle changes.

Physiological patterns. The emotions are linked to certain anatomical sites in the brain such as the amgydala and to neurological and neurochemical processes that govern the autonomic nervous system. The chief way that psychologists have studied the physiological aspects of emotion involves monitoring the autonomic nervous system during states of emotional arousal. Although there has been a good deal of work on the physiological aspects of emotion during the latter decades of the twentieth century, research on adult development and aging is particularly meager. In one study that is relevant (Levenson, Carstensen, Friesen, and Ekman, 1991), participants were asked to participate in two emotion evoking conditions while their skin conductance, heart rate, and other physiological measures were monitored: to recollect and relive salient emotional events, and to make facial expressions of emotion. The researchers found that older people showed the same emotion-specific pattern of response as younger individuals, though the magnitude of the response was less pronounced in older subjects. That is, older people showed smaller increases in heart rate for anger, fear, and sadness. Nevertheless, the older participants reported the same degree of subjective emotional experience. In another relevant study (Levenson, Carstensen, and Gottman, 1994), where younger and older couples were asked to talk about neutral, problem, and pleasant situations with their spouses, the older couples had smaller heart rate increases and greater lengthening of pulse transmission time to ear, indicating less physiological reactivity.

A much larger body of literature has examined whether emotion inhibitionthe deliberate attempt to suppress emotional feelings or expressionsalters physiological reactivity in adults. The literature indicates that emotionally inexpressive individuals are more physiologically reactive than expressive persons, though this does not necessarily mean that inexpressive persons deliberately inhibit their emotions. There is also literature indicating that the chronic inhibition of some emotions, particularly anger or hostility, is linked to essential hypertension and coronary heart disease. However, these correlational studies do not necessarily mean that emotion inhibition causes disease. Emotion-expressive or inhibitory patterns and health may both be influenced by a third factor such as genetic background. Experimental work helps clarify the pattern. Indeed, laboratory studies in which participants are asked to deliberately suppress their emotions while physiological measures are monitored, have shown that inhibition is associated with a number of changes in physiological measures and that the changes are emotion specific. For example, the inhibition of the visible expression of disgust causes an increase in parasympathetic arousal, as indexed by increased skin conductance and decreased finger pulse amplitude; in contrast, suppression of sadness expressions leads to cardiovascular activation. These findings have been obtained with college-age research participants. There are as yet no experimental investigations examining the effects of emotion inhibition in older respondents. Nor is it known what the consequence might be of a lifetime pattern of emotion inhibition, though it has been argued that if inhibition requires a form of "work," then prolonged or repeated efforts at inhibition may cause wear and tear on bodily systems and result in disease.

Expressive patterns. There is a more substantial body of literature concerning expressive behavior, almost all of it having to do with facial expressions of emotion; this literature goes beyond the study of the association between facial expressions and physiological reactions. For the most part, the literature on facial expressions has centered on changes in the expression of emotion with development as well as changes in sensitivity to the perception of emotion in others.

Changes in emotion expression. In early development, facial expressions of emotion, which are innate and gradually unfold during the opening months of life, become more modulated and take on the characteristics of family and culture. In general, expressive behavior becomes more conventionalized, and this includes a dampening of expressive behavior; these changes are well in place by adolescence. But there are also changes during the adult years. For example, one study showed that when emotional memories were prompted and subjects asked to relate their experiences, older adults were more facially expressive in terms of the frequency of emotional expressions than younger individuals across a range of emotions, as detected by an objective facial affect coding system (Malalesta-Magai, Jonas, Shephard, and Culver, 1992). In another study, researchers also found that the expressions of older adults (women in this case) were more telegraphic in the sense that their expressive behaviors tended to involve fewer regions of the face, and yet more complex in that they used more blended or mixed expressions when recounting emotional events (Malatesta and Izard, 1984). These changes, in part, account for why the facial expressions of older adults are more difficult to read.

One of the other changes that comes with age that make older faces more difficult to read involves the wrinkling of the facial skin and the sag of facial musculature. What is particularly interesting is that the pattern of wrinkling is so different across individuals. Of course, part of this is due to biologically based aspects of aging, but individual differences also appear linked to personality process. One study (Malatesta, Fiore, and Messina, 1987) was able to show that facial patterns were related to dominant personality characteristics. For example, persons who tended to experience contempt frequently, had facial expressions that looked contempt-like, even when they were attempting to pose other kinds of emotionthat is, the contempt that was dominant in their personalities tended to leak through and contaminate the clarity of the posed expressions.

Other studies have looked at expressive behaviors in late life and under conditions of dementia. These studies, using observational methods and objective coding of facial and bodily expressions, indicate that for the most part the expressive behavior of dementia patients resembles that of nondemented older adults (Magai, Cohen, Gomberg, Malatesta, and Culver, 1996). The entire range of basic emotion expressions can be detected, and recognizable facial expressions of emotion are observed across the spectrum of cognitive deterioration, including the most severely impaired, end-stage patients, although there are changes with advancing intellectual impairment. Of note, there is a lower frequency and duration of happiness or pleasure, especially in the later stages of the disease. These findings indicate that the ability to express affect, as observed in interpersonal contexts, remains intact during the course of one form of debilitating disease, dementia; in fact, sensitivity to affect encoded in nonverbal communication may be even more acute in dementia patients since the neuronal fallout associated with dementia releases cortical inhibitory control of the centers that control emotion.

Emotion expressions seen in dementia patients appear linked to precipitating events in the environment rather than constituting random muscle movement patterns. For example, one study showed that as patientsall of whom were moderately to severely impairedwere observed during a family visit, their faces expressed sadness when their relatives prepared to leave (Malatesta et al., 1996).

Changes in sensitivity to the expressive behavior of others. A few studies have looked at potential age-related changes in the ability to read the expressive behavior of social partners. In one study (Malatesta, Izard, Culver, and Nicolich, 1987), where older and younger individuals were asked to identify negative and neutral facial expressions, the older adults were significantly less accurate than the younger participants. Similarly, in another study, where young, middle-aged, and older untrained "judges" attempted to label the facial expressions of other young, middle-aged, and older women, the older women did most poorly, but their performance was best for older faces. This suggests that contact with like-aged peers assists the process of understanding the emotional messages of interactants. Moreover, older individuals may have a greater facility in discounting the "noise" of facial wrinkling so as to discern the essential emotional messages of older social partners.

A handful of other studies have examined sensitivity to other nonverbal channels of emotion expression. One study found an overall decline in the ability of older adults to identify specific emotions from vocal indicators (Allen and Brosgole, 1993). In another case, where researchers examined age-related differences in the ability of adults to read emotion signals through body movements and gestures, the study found that while both younger and older adults made accurate emotion identifications well above chance levels, older adults made more errors overall. They were especially inaccurate with negative emotions, and were especially likely to misidentify emotional displays as being neutral in content (Montepare, Koff, Zaitchik, and Albert, 1999). It must be noted, however, that the actors who depicted the emotions were all young adults, and if age congruence between sender and receiver makes a difference, as one study suggested, this research will bear replication.

In summary, the data on the expression and perception of emotion across the life span indicates that there are developmental trends indicating increased complexity of facial expressions in terms of greater idiosyncratic responses, increased use of blended affect, and changes in facial musculature and skin elasticity, all of which make it more difficult to read the emotional expressions of adults as they age. However, this is compensated by familiarity with social peers. Moreover, since expressive behavior does not occur in a vacuum, but is typically accompanied by verbal expressions of emotion, the above findings do not suggest that older adults are at risk for misinterpretation of their feelings. Indeed, there is a small but substantive body of literature indicating that older adults up through middle age become more adept at describing their experiences than younger adults, and that their descriptions are more complex and nuanced; very old persons, however, seem to show a decline in this ability, though this may be a cohort effect, that is, one related to the historical epoch in which they were reared, rather than an aging effect per se. Persons born earlier in the twentieth century were born during less child-centered and permissive times and their parents were exposed to the exortations of John Watson, who remonstrated against the open expression of emotion and physical affection. In terms of the perception of emotion in others, the slim literature that exists suggests that there may be declines in the accuracy with which nonverbal emotion signals are understood, though age congruence between social partners may compensate.

Feeling states. Research in this area has covered the frequency and intensity of emotion states, as well as the quality of emotional feelings; the latter have included the salience of emotional stimuli and their ability to elicit emotional reactions, hedonic tone (pleasure/unpleasure), discrete emotions (anger, fear, sadness, etc.), and emotional complexity (emotional/cognitive interaction).

Intensity. Although there are conflicting data on changes in affective intensity with age, in general, studies have indicated that there is no substantive decline in affective intensity or the intensity with which a person experiences emotions. This pattern holds true when adults of different ages are asked to gauge whether the intensity of their emotions has changed over the years, when they report the intensity of their emotional experiences as sampled randomly throughout the day, or when they recount emotional experiences in the laboratory.

Hedonic tone. In terms of general hedonic tone, the bulk of the literature indicates that the frequency or level of positive affect either remains the same or increases over the adult years until very late in life, when there is a decline. In terms of negative affect, the most sophisticated studies seem to indicate that there is a gradual lessening of negative affect over the adult years up to approximately age sixty, after which there is a nonsignificant increase. The subtle changes in positive and negative affect during late life are likely linked to release from childrearing and work rolesin the case of gains in happiness and chronic debilitating illnesses of old age as well as the deaths of important intimates such as spouses and friendsin the case of negative affect.

Discrete emotions. Investigators have also looked at changes in discrete emotionsthat is, the various emotions that comprise positive affect and negative affect. This is the area of greatest disparity in findings, largely due to the use of different methodologies for assessing change and stability in emotion, and in the range and kinds of emotions sampled. However, one fairly consistent finding stands out. Across a range of studies, both cross-sectional and longitudinal in nature, results indicate that there is a decrease in the level and frequency of anger across the adult years. The reason for this may relate to the functional role of anger, which is to overcome obstacles and barriers to goals. To the extent that age brings with it changes in a reduction of blocked goals, its prevalence should decline. Research has also suggested that older adults shift from an external to internal strategy to control feelings associated with success and failure of goals. Rather than acting on the environmentexpressing anger openlythey may use more internally controlled responses such as positive reframing or repression. Finally, as social networks narrow and older adults depend on a fewer, more intimate partners for their socioemotional needs, the expression of anger may pose a threat to these relationships.

In terms of emotional complexity, in memory tasks, narrative analyses of recollected emotional experiences, and in experience-sampling methodologies, research indicates that emotional experience becomes more complex across the adult years. In the experience-sampling work, older adults report more mixed and bittersweet emotions and more poignancy within the same sampled moment. Older adults also orient to the emotional significance of events more so than younger adults. For example, when older and younger participants were asked to recall narrative material that they had read, older individuals recalled more of the emotional versus the neutral material. In recounting emotional experiences, young adults rarely refer to inner subjective feelings and are likely to describe their experiences in terms of normative proscriptions; middle-aged adults, in contrast, are able to acknowledge complex feelings, are less influenced by conventional standards, and can sustain feelings of ambivalence and tension without needing to resolve them immediately. Moreover, research indicates that emotional complexitythe interaction between emotion and cognition and their integrationappears to improve with age, although the data also suggest that this trend peaks during middle age, after which there is a decline.

In summary, emotions become more important to individuals as they mature, they are better at tolerating mixed feelings, and there is a deepening appreciation of the emotional complexity of the world both within and around the self. The fact that these trends do not continue into old age, at least on the basis of this research, may be related to cohort effects and/or to changes in emotional regulatory strategies, as discussed in the next section.

Emotion regulation. Emotion regulation is the ability to modulate feeling states and emotional responses in reaction to emotional elicitors. People can moderate emotion by avoiding emotionally charged situations, by cognitive strategies such as denial and intellectualization, or by engaging in processes that permit the cognitive elaboration and integration of experience. The literature suggests that there is an age trend toward affective optimization or the tendency of persons to actively create environments that permit them to achieve a better mix of emotionally stimulating versus insulating features. Older adults also report greater abilities to control their emotions and to moderate affective responses. However, there are also distinct individual differences in terms of the tendency to dampen versus elaborate emotional experiences. One style, which is responsible for maintaining an affectively positive self core involves equilibrium-regulating strategy; negative affect is dampened, lessening the deviation from positive affect. In contrast, the other style, an affect-elaborating strategy, permits movement into a zone that is more chaotic or unstable; it tolerates and even seeks out a range of experience and is therefore more flexible and results in the ability to integrate positive and negative affect. There may be a preference for affect dampening strategies in old age, given greater physical frailty and reduced energy reserves. If so, this would explain why older persons seem oriented toward actively avoiding conflict. Another means by which older adults accomplish affective regulation involves the selective narrowing of social networks. Both cross-sectional and longitudinal studies show that adults shed more peripheral relationships in later life, while retaining those that are most intimate and emotionally gratifying.

In summary, the literature on emotion regulation indicates that there is increasing facility at emotion regulation with age. Some of this is achieved through an ability to tolerate and sustain ambiguity and mixedness of experience and to integrate positive and negative affect, while some is due to active avoidance of emotionally charged circumstance and the narrowing of social relationships.

Emotion in personality. As people mature their personalities become more stable or crystallized. That is, a young woman who is extroverted is likely to be extroverted in later life as well; a man who shows neurotic behavior in his thirties, is likely to show these same features in his fifties and sixties.

One personality dimension, sensitization/repression, relates to the way in which persons habitually attend to or avoid emotionally disturbing or threatening stimuli. Repressors tend to avoid or disattend to threatening stimuli or to route them from consciousness, whereas sensitizers monitor the environment for the presence of such stimuli. The literature indicates that these tendencies are relatively stable over short periods of time; less is known about the stability of these traits over longer stretches of the adult life course, however, sensitization is related to trait anxiety and thus stability for this characteristic may be quite strong, as indicated in the literature on trait emotion.

Many dimensions of personality have an affective aspect to them. Some theorists have even argued that personalities are organized around distinctive affective patterns or emotional traits. Indeed, on an informal basis, it is widely observed that some individuals are more hostile than others, some more somber, some more ebullient, and so forth. The empirical research on emotion traits has generated substantial support for this observation. These affective organizations create emotionally biased ways of processing the world that affect attention, perception, memory, judgment, and other cognitive processes, and also affect behavior and interpersonal process. Emotion traits for the broad dimensions of positive and negative affect, as well as the specific mood states of anxiety, sadness, and anger, among others, have shown substantial stability over months and even years. Such data suggest that emotional moods may represent enduring dispositions. However, these stability figures mask individual differences in change. Sophisticated modeling procedures indicate that there are substantial inter-individual differences in longitudinal change over a number of years, at least when it comes to broad personality traits such as neuroticism and extroversion; some people's trajectory remains level, others show increases, and still others show decline. Inter-individual differences in the pattern of personality change may as well hold for more circumscribed emotion traits or aspects of emotional organization, as suggested by a slim but growing literature.

Given the evidence of both stability and change, some commentators have suggested that one of the more challenging jobs for today's personality researchers is to account for the processes underlying personality change. Examination of the factors that support personality change have only begun, but two factors have emerged. There is some preliminary evidence that severe illness can precipitate personality change. Another major precipitant appears to involve emotionally charged events that involve interpersonal process. Events associated with change include psychotherapy, and participation in groups, workshops, or retreats, where intense affiliative relationships are experienced. One study (Magai, 1999) tracked changes in adults' emotion traits and their perspectives, goals, personality, feelings, and ways of relating to others over an eight-year period, using personality scales, as well as self-reports and observer reports. There was evidence of both stability and change. Emotion traits tended to remain stable, although individual differences were also in evidence. An aggregate measure of personality change in terms of ratings on feelings, attitudes, and goals, indicated that change was associated with positive and negative interpersonal life events including marriage, divorce, and death of loved ones. Change was unassociated with other emotionally charged high and low points in people's lives such as job losses, career advances, changes in residence, and more distant social relationships.

In summary, there is substantial support for the stability of emotion traits in personality when mean level or aggregate data are examined. When individual trajectories are examined, we find more evidence of inter-individual variation, with some persons evidencing no change, other showing increments or decrements. It is now clear that structural change in personality, including aspects related to emotional organization, is possible under certain circumstances. Experiences with acute or chronic illness is one such precipitant, and emotionally charged inter-personal encounters is another. However, a full description of the causes, the process, and the types of affective change have yet to be charted.


This entry covered the issue of continuity and/or change in aspects of emotional development over the life course of adults, including physiology, expressive behavior, subjective experience, emotion regulation, and emotion traits. The substantial literature that accumulated over the last two decades of the twentieth century, during an upsurge of research on emotions in the adult years, indicates that emotional capacities remain functional across the life span. There are, however, some changes, refinements, and upper boundaries to emotional development. The literature indicates that physiological patterns remain relatively unmodified, though the amplitude of responses appear somewhat reduced. In terms of phenomenology, however, the subjective aspects remain relatively intact in terms of intensity, hedonic balance, and frequency of distinct affective experiences. Changes include a decrease in the level and frequency of anger, which is a robust finding across cross-sectional and longitudinal studies. The data also indicate a curvilinear function with respect to emotional complexity, with a peak in middle age, although there are strong individual differences as well; complexity appears to undergo a change in later life, with a preference for positivity over complexity, though it is not yet clear that this is a true developmental change or an artifact of the fact that work on affective complexity has relied only on cross-sectional studies. Expressive behavior becomes more nuanced and complexly textured. In terms of the perception of affect, the ability to read emotional signals of a facial, vocal, or bodily nature may become less accurate with age, although it is difficult to ascertain with certainty since, again, the studies involved have been cross-sectional rather than longitudinal. The literature also suggests that people become more comfortable with their emotional selves as they age, that they are more likely to acknowledge their emotional states and to recognize and acknowledge the mixedness of affective life. Emotions apparently become more complex and experienced more keenly, even as emotion regulation capacities in general improve, in the sense that there is greater affective control in maintaining positive states and avoiding negative states. The organization of emotion in personality is a relatively enduring trait, although also responsive to environmental challenge, at which point both positive and negative transformations may evolve. All in all, the picture of emotional development across the adult years, based on empirical research rather than stereotype, is more positive than the earlier literature in the field indicated. Adults do not become more affectively blunted with age; neither is there a drift toward negative affect.

The above relatively sanguine picture of emotional aging is tempered by the recognition that at very advanced ages the picture may change. In any case, the literature thus far only begins to map the trajectory of emotional life in adults and there is clearly room for further research, especially longitudinal studies that will help clarify whether age differences observed in cross-sectional studies are really age changes or an artifact of cohort differences.

Carol Magai

See also Anxiety; Depression; Personality.


Carstensen, L. L. "Social and Emotional Patterns in Adulthood: Support for Socioemotional Selectivity Theory. Psychology and Aging 7 (1992): 331338.

Labouvie-Vief, G.; Hakin-Larson, J.; DeVoe, M.; and Schoeberlein, S. "Emotions and Self-regulation: A Lifespan View." Human Development 32 (1989): 279299.

Lawton, M. P. "Environmental Proactivity and Affect in Older People." In The Social Psychology of Aging. Edited by S. Spacapan and S. Oskamp. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage, 1989. Pages 135163.

Levenson, R. W.; Carstensen, L.; Friesen, W. V.; and Ekman, P. "Emotion, Physiology and Expression in Old Age." Psychology and Aging 6 (1991): 2835.

Levenson, R. W.; Carstensen, L. L.; and Gottman, J. M. "The Influence of Age and Gender on Affect, Physiology, and their Interrelations: A Study of Long-term Marriages." Journal of Social and Personality Psychology 67 (1994): 5668.

Magai, C., and McFadden, S. H., eds. The Role of Emotion in Social and Personality Development. New York: Plenum, 1995.

Magai, C. "Emotion Over the Lifecourse." In Handbook of the Psychology of Aging. Edited by J. Birren and K. W. Schaie. San Diego: Academic Press. Forthcoming.

Schulz, R., and Heckhausen., J. "Emotion and Control: A Life-Span Perspective." In Annual Review of Gerontology and Geriatrics. Series edited by P. Lawton. Vol. 17, Focus on Emotion and Adult Development. Volume edited by K. W. Schaie. New York: Springer, 1998. Pages 185205.


views updated May 23 2018


Over the centuries, the emotions have proven to be a notoriously recalcitrant philosophical subject, defying easy classification and stubbornly straddling accepted philosophical distinctions. With changing conceptions of the mind and its powers, categories such as emotion, desire, appetite, passion, feeling, and sentiment come and go. The general term the emotions is a relatively recent arrival to the English language, first gaining prominence in the nineteenth century, long after terms such as fear, shame, and joy were in common use. Its introduction was an attempt to clump together states that were supposedly marked by a degree of "emotion," a metaphorical extension of the original sense of the word, namely, agitated motion, or turbulence. Only the vagueness of the metaphor allows it to stretch far enough to cover typically quiescent "emotions" such as being pleased or sad about something.

Probably one influence on the extension of the term is the older category of "passions," in the sense of ways of being acted upon. In many languages nearly all emotion adjectives are derived from participles: for example, the English words amused, annoyed, ashamed, astonished, delighted, depressed, embarrassed, excited, frightened, horrified, irritated, pleased, terrified, surprised, upset, and worriedand even sad (from "sated"). When people are, for example, frightened, something acts on them, that is, frightens them: typically, something of which they are aware. However, even if the terms commonly used for the various emotions suggest that the notion of passivity is central to the ordinary concept of emotion, that notion seems irreparably vague, at best reflective of a prescientific picture of a person (or, for that matter, a physical object) as acting and acted on, as doing and "suffering." Indeed, it is not obvious that the states we call emotions have anything interesting or important in common that distinguishes them from all other mental states. Some philosophers and scientists have argued that what we call "the emotions" do not belong to a "natural kind" or class, and even that the concept of emotion should be banished entirely, at least from scientific discourse. These issues will be taken up in a later section.

The Philosophical Tradition

Since William Alston published his seminal article on "Emotion and Feeling" in the first edition of this Encyclopedia, philosophical scholarship in the area has undergone tremendous growth and variation. Among the major catalysts for change in philosophical thinking about the emotions have been new developments in psychology and neuroscience. However, the medium within which this ferment has largely been taking place is linguistic and conceptual analysis. Although analytic philosophers of emotion use relatively sophisticated logical and linguistic tools, their task has not been much different from that of the many classical philosophers who attempted definitions of various emotions: for example, Aristotle in the Rhetoric, Descartes in The Passions of the Soul, Hobbes in the Leviathan, Spinoza in his Ethics, and Hume in A Treatise on Human Nature. Moreover, the most important outcome of the analytic thrust was a view that had been at least implicit in traditional accounts, namely, cognitivism. Although there are several varieties of cognitivism, perhaps the most influential versions hold that the various emotions are distinguished in part by the types of situation that evoke them; or, more exactly, by the types of situation the awareness of which evokes them; more exactly still, by the content of the beliefs and other propositional attitudes that cause them. Note the importance of situational and cognitive features in Spinoza's definitions, for example:

Fear: an inconstant pain arising from the idea of something past or future, whereof we to a certain extent doubt the issue.

Regret: the desire or appetite to possess something, kept alive by the remembrance of the said thing, and at the same time constrained by the remembrance of other things that exclude the existence of it.

The classical philosophers contributed more than definitions, of course. For example, some declared certain emotions to be the primary or basic emotions. However, the philosophers remained armchair theorists, putting forward at best introspective or anecdotal data. The scientific advances of the nineteenth century, particularly in biology, made it possible to move beyond this.

Bodily Responses and Feelings: Darwin and James

In The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, published in 1872, Charles Darwin investigated the various, mostly involuntary physiological changes, especially in the facial and skeletal muscles, which constitute the so-called "expressions" of emotions (1998 [1872]). Others broadened the investigation to include the internal visceral phenomena associated with various emotions. Still, these were thought to be investigations into mere manifestations or accompaniments of emotions. As John Dewey pointed out, "The very phrase 'expression of emotion,' begs the question of the relation of emotion to organic peripheral action, in that it assumes the former as prior and the latter as secondary" (p. 553). It was left to the introspectionist psychologists, most notably Wilhelm Wundt and Edward Titchener, to offer a systematic account of what they regarded as "the emotions themselves," namely the subjective feeling qualities characteristic of the various emotions, an account that relied heavily on what subjects reported.

To William James, these descriptive studies of "what it is like" to feel the various emotions afforded no insight or understanding. Turning instead to the causes of these feelings, he argued, in his classic 1884 paper, "What is an Emotion?" that they were actually the felt awareness of precisely those physiological "manifestations" of emotion that Darwin and the biologists had been studying. Thus, according to James's theory (also known as the James-Lange theory), an emotion is the felt awareness of reverberations of the "bodily sounding-board," that is, of bodily reactions to something perceived or thought: reactions such as trembling, quickening of pulse, crying, running, or striking someone. It is this perception of one's own bodily responses that endows each type of emotion, such as fear, anger, and joy, with its special feeling quality. From this premise James drew the radical conclusion that emotions or emotional states were effects rather than causes of these bodily reactions. Thus common sense has it backwards: The truth is that "we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble, and not that we cry, strike, or tremble, because we are sorry, angry, or fearful" (James 1884, p. 190). However, this conclusion drew on the further assumption, which James inherited from the introspectionists and from Darwin himself, that the various emotions or types of emotional state were nothing but particular feeling qualities. That is, if the emotions are just a subclass of feeling qualities, and if these feeling qualities are caused by the bodily reactions that commonsense regards as manifestations or expressions of emotion, then common sense has it backwards.

Whatever the merits of his arguments, the influence of James brought about a major shift in philosophical and scientific thinking about the emotions. Most important, the study of emotional feelings could no longer be regarded as a special introspective science, insulated from our general theory of human beings as biological organisms.

Philosophical Cognitivism

Opposition to the first of the Jamesian premises, which treats the various emotions as just so many feeling qualities, was a major impetus to the cognitive turn in the philosophy of emotion. However, it was above all the intentionality of emotions that put the cognitive revolution on its positive course. Starting with Anthony Kenny (1963), various authors endeavored to show that, unlike the brute physiological feeling states celebrated by James, emotions and their associated feelings had the characteristic of being about things and events. Thus, people sometimes are (and feel) scared of snakes or angry about the fact that their car was stolen. In this respect, emotions were thought to differ from mere bodily feelings, which, if they are about anything at all, are about bodily phenomena, rather than snakes or car thefts.

The intentionality of emotions also distinguishes them from moods, which are general response templates that are not about anything in particular, even though they may have been precipitated by the awareness of particular facts or events. In many languages the same term may be used for both a mood and an emotion: one may be sad (or: depressed, euphoric) about something, or simply in a sad (depressed, euphoric) mood or frame of mind; or both at once. How deep the distinction between emotion and mood goes is debatable, as many so-called emotions tend to spill over from one category to the other: Initially about their original precipitant ("He's angry about the theft of his car."), they develop into a general response template ("Don't go near him, he's in an angry mood!").

Among cognitive theorists, the notion that the content of emotions takes a propositional form assumed special importance. Suppose I believe that John stole my car. I may say that my anger is about the car, about the car theft, or about what John did. However, fully parsed, my anger attribution can be logically reformulated by the phrase: I am angry about the fact that "John stole my car." Because propositions are the primary vehicles of logic and cognition, the propositional nature of emotion and its intentional objects made it easy to think of emotions in both cognitive and logical terms. It was now possible to articulate and debate what were termed the logic and structure of the various emotions and even their inferential ties to one another.

An early and forthright propositional theory is due to Robert Solomon (1976), who, with a strong emphasis on phenomenology, revived the Stoic view that emotions were themselves simply normative judgments of an urgent kind. Ronald de Sousa (1987) argued that emotions are better assimilated to perceptions. Emotions of a given type, such as fright, represent what they are about as having the corresponding propertyfor example, as being frightening. They also impose "determinate patterns of salience" on our thought processes: guiding our attention, our lines of inquiry, and our inferential strategies. De Sousa's view in some ways anticipates Jesse Prinz's "embodied appraisal" theory, described in the section, "Somatic Wisdom" (2004). Robert Gordon (1987) argued that most emotions are propositional attitudes that are identified by their causal relations to other propositional attitudes, especially beliefs and wishes. Most emotions are "factive," that is, about a fact (or what the subject takes to be a fact) that frustrates or satisfies a wish; others, such as being afraid or hopeful, are uncertainty emotions.

Some critics argue that propositional accounts would exclude animals and infants lacking language. This criticism would seem committed to the controversial thesis that animals without language do not have any propositional attitudes, including desires or beliefs. Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to try to force all emotions into a propositional framework. It is hard to think of a that -clause that describes what love or hate is about. In some cases, what is called the same emotion (or emotion type) has both propositional and nonpropositional forms. Although one may be startled (to discover) that something is the case, one may also be startled by a soundwith no associated proposition or cognition at all. Even in the case of an emotion about a fact, it is not obvious that its content is exhausted by its propositional content.

Finally, even where propositionality is not in dispute, one may not be able to explain it in terms of standard states such as beliefs and desires. For example, to sustain the claim that fearing (hoping) that p depends on being uncertain whether p, one needs to allow for compartmentalization, for example, to distinguish between emotional and intellectual certainty; otherwise one could not account for cases where the fear (hope) that p persists despite a belief that it is not at all possible (epistemically) that p. To make such a distinction with any clarity, however, may be beyond the competency of analytic philosophy. It may require reference to the underlying neural architecture. For example, Joseph LeDoux (1998) discovered that there are distinct pathways by which the amygdala may be activated, a cortical "high road" that is cognitive, and a "low road" that bypasses the cortex and is strictly perceptual. This hypothesis nicely complements the claim that some emotional states and processes might be modular, that is, "hardwired" in a manner that makes them impenetrable by changes in beliefs and desires. The "quick and dirty" low road often alerts us to emergencies that our cortex "knows" do not exist. These examples suggest an analogy with perceptual illusions, which a correct belief sometimes fails to dispel.


Emotions are often classified by their valence. Theorists and laypeople tend to readily agree that emotions, or most of them, are either positive or negative. The agreement evaporates, however, as soon as they are asked, "In what respect?" One point of disagreement concerns what is being evaluated: Is it what the emotion is characteristically about that makes it positive or negative (intentional valence), or is it one's having or experiencing the emotion (experiential valence)? What it is about may be good, or something the subject appraises favorably or would wish to be the case, as in pride, delight, and hope; or it may be bad, or something the subject appraises unfavorably or would wish not to be the case, as in shame, regret, and fear. Having or experiencing the emotion might also be judged positive or negative in any of several respects. It might be characteristically positive or negative in affect (i.e., pleasant or unpleasant), or even unconsciously aversive or attractive, and it might be beneficial or harmful, or morally good or bad. Because of such disagreements, some argue that the idea of emotional valence is of dubious value and should be abandoned.

However, it may be an important feature of emotions that they have multiple dimensions of valence. If an emotion's experiential valence is of the same sign (positive or negative) as its intentional valencefor example, an aversive emotion that is about something that is bad for you or goes against your wishesthen it is likely to promote rational decision-making and action. The actions people take to alleviate the unpleasantness or aversiveness of fear (a negative aspect of having or experiencing the emotion) tend to reduce the risk of bad things happening (a negative aspect of what the emotion is about): for example, fear of a flood leads the inhabitants to retreat to high ground, thereby averting disaster. (There are of course thrill-seekers for whom the very aversiveness of fear has a second-order attractiveness, and, within the safe confines of dramatic art, many people can enjoy the fear or "as-if" fear they empathetically experience.)

Likewise, the possible negative consequences of a decision tend to be amplified in our minds by our anticipation of regret and remorse: For example, if I buy this appealing but unreliable car, I may kick myself if anything goes wrong with it. These premonitory influences may on the whole guide us to useful behavior, in roughly the way that hunger, thirst, and sexual feelings lead us, wittingly or not, to behavior that is conducive to biological fitness. Add to this theme of doubly valenced emotions a revival of James's second premise, that emotional feelings are perceptions of bodily reactions, and we are led to the topic of the next section.

Somatic Wisdom

From Plato onward, European and North American philosophers have thought the regulation of emotion essential to a rational life, and a similar view was promoted even earlier in Buddhism and other Asian religions. The underlying supposition was that unregulated emotions are impediments to the rational life. However, this is compatible with the thesis held by a number of philosophers that emotions, or at least some of them, make a positive and possible indispensable contribution to rational decision-making. According to De Sousa, for example, emotions are indispensable for guiding our attention, our lines of inquiry, and our inferential strategies.

It was suggested earlier in this article that if an emotion's experiential valence matches its intentional valence, then it is likely to promote rational decision-making. A similar view has received support from findings in neurology and neuroscience, most prominently by the cognitive neuroscientist Antonio Damasio (1994) and his coworkers. Damasio's somatic marker hypothesis holds that successful and unsuccessful decision outcomes produce differing bodily responsesfor example, as measured by skin conductanceand the accumulation of such responses over time leads to anticipatory bodily responses that guide future decision-making. One need not be aware (phenomenally conscious) of these responses in order for them to influence decision-making. However, a part of one's frontal cortex (functionally, the somatosensory or body-sensing cortex) must keep track of them. Most of the supporting data have come from observations of decision-making deficits in people with prefrontal damage and comparison with normal subjects in experimental gambling tasks. Additional data suggest that the capacity to recognize and to name certain emotions in others on the basis of their facial expressions also depends on the capacity to monitor one's bodily responses when observing them. Damasio's theory goes far beyond this, and some of it is controversial; but this brief statement makes it clear why Damasio thinks the aversiveness or attractiveness of undergoing certain emotions can be a premonitory influence that sometimes "knows" better than pure reason does which decision paths are likely to lead to preferred outcomes.

Prinz is probably the first philosopher to build a general theory of emotion on a broad and richly detailed account of empirical research. Although sympathetic to the somatic theories of James and Damasio, he argues that our emotional "gut reactions," unlike pains, tickles, and feelings of fatigue, are representational states. Applying Dretske's thesis that a state may be representational in virtue of having an evolved function of carrying a certain class of information, he argues that these bodily changes constitute perceptual appraisals or evaluations of our relationship to the environment with respect to well-being. He calls his view a non-propositional appraisal theory, because he holds that emotions need not involve propositional attitudes such as belief, judgments, and desires (2004).

The Nature of Things

The classical definitions of emotions were answers to questions of the traditional Socratic form: "What is regret?" "What is fear?" and so forth. The aim was not to capture the nuances of ordinary usage, but rather to be telling us something about ourselves: to explain, as Spinoza said, "not the meaning of words, but the nature of things" (1883 [1677], p. 178). However, if this is the ambition of the philosophy of emotion, then some philosophers would reply that it is up to science and not philosophy to tell us about the nature of things. In particular, we have to look beyond the terms of ordinary language and the concepts embedded in our everyday "folk" psychology, beyond even the best philosophical attempts to regiment these terms and concepts, if we are to discover what the emotions really are. This appears to be a special application of a more general view in philosophy of mind, that of eliminative materialism. However, whatever the merits of that general indictment of everyday psychology and any philosophy that attempts to build on it, there may be special reasons to be skeptical of traditional philosophical thinking about the emotions in particular.

Paul Griffiths maintains that we should use biological evolutionary principles of classification to determine what emotions really are. Following Paul Ekman (1992), a leading innovator on the role of facial expression in emotion, Griffiths posits surprise, anger, fear, disgust, sadness, and joy as the basic emotions. These adaptive responses are evolutionary homologues, discrete genetically ordained behavioral syndromes that are a legacy of our shared mammalian heritage. Appearing in all cultures, these adaptive responses are associated with the same facial expressions in each culture. The classification here is by descent and homology, rather than by resemblance and analogy, which is more typical of analytic approaches. The special evolutionary status of these basic emotions is reflected in Griffith's philosophical declaration that they are natural kinds. That is, they are projectible kinds: They share causal properties that are sufficiently well correlated to sustain generalizations from known to unknown cases. However, the term emotions does not designate a natural class of kind, for it would serve no scientific purpose to group them with the so-called higher cognitive emotions, such as envy, regret, and shame. Predictably, this thesis has sparked controversy, just as the general thesis of eliminative materialism did two decades earlier. Prinz counters that all emotions are valenced appraisals that exploit common aversive or appetitive mechanisms. Louis Charland (2002) suggests that there is a natural kind of organism that might be called an emoter, in virtue of having a brain that meets certain criteria of functional organization.

Normativity and Culture

Evidently all cultures have implicit rules governing at least some emotions: not just whether and how they should be expressed, but also whether and under what conditions and in what degree one should have them. In European and North American cultures, at least, emotional responses are commonly measured by standards of rationality, appropriateness, and morality. A particular instance of an emotion may be thought irrational if it is based on an irrational belief or desire. However, it is common to think an instance of emotion may be irrational even if it is not based on an irrational belief or desire; typically, because it is not suited to what it is about. We also judge instances of emotions as too little or too much, for example, in the case of grief or remorse.

It was suggested earlier that the notion of passivity, of being acted on, may be an important feature of the ordinary concept of emotion. However, it is widely assumed that people have some control over how the environment acts on them and are to some degree responsible, not only for the expression of emotion, but for their having the emotion. Aside from regulating one's exposure to eliciting situations, it is supposed that one can in many cases alter the course of the emotionfor example, by intervening cognitively to reappraise the eliciting situation. Indeed, attending to one's emotional state and labeling it may alter the state. It is plausible that when we use emotion labels in giving expression to our emotion, as in, "I'm angry!" Or "I'm in love!" We are shaping as well as describing our emotional state. Emotion kinds would thus be what Ian Hacking (1995) calls "interactive kinds," like race, ethnicity, and gender: To classify one's own state as of a particular interactive kind, or to be so classified by others, tends to alter the state and to influence one's feelings and behavior accordingly.

Social constructionists would emphasize that we are shaping our emotions to fit it into an acceptable cultural mold. The psychologist James Averill argued that the various emotion concepts are merely cultural creations that shape our assessment of certain transitory syndromes. While pretending to be passively moved to behave in certain ways, people are actively adjusting their behavior to fit these cultural categories. Although this theory is a valuable counterbalance to the widely held assumption that our emotions simply "are what they are," it would be extreme to assert that our emotion categories simply create our emotions ex nihilo or to deny that the categories themselves are, perhaps in some societies more than in others, flexible and open to change (Reddy 2003).

Emotions seem a particularly nuanced category, varying in uncharted ways from instance to instance. They also vary in the course they follow from moment to moment and day to day. For reasons such as these, as Iris Murdoch (1970), Martha Nussbaum (2001), and Jon Elster (1999) have emphasized, often the best way of defining an emotion type is by reference to literary examples. Literary examples also make it clear that conceptions of emotion vary over time as well as from one present-day culture to another.

The issues addressed in this section may seem hopelessly tender-minded to philosophers who prefer to focus on biological mechanisms and natural kinds. In turn, philosophers drawn to the issues of this section may find the naturalistic focus excessively narrow. What is chiefly at issue is the proper equipment to bring to philosophical thinking about emotions. Should we allow ourselves to conceive human organisms as people and to employ the full panoply of concepts, learned or biologically preordained, that appear to be indispensable for everyday social perception and understanding? Or should we lay aside these concepts and steadfastly conceive human beings only as complex biological systems?

Retaining our everyday tools of social perception, we will find normative questions, matters of passivity and freedom, and the richness and perspectivity of narrative understanding coming to the fore. Laying these tools aside, we can focus on purely naturalistic explanations of emotional phenomena and the natural kinds that enter into these explanations. Partisans of the naturalistic approach may be tempted to assert that only by laying aside the accustomed tools can we discover what emotions "really" are. Partisans of the other approach might argue that to lay down these tools of social perception is precisely to forego understanding people. One important challenge task for the philosophy of emotion will be to determine whether and how to reconcile these two approaches.

See also Alston, William P.; James, William.


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Louis C. Charland (2005)

Robert M. Gordon (2005)


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Emotion as a conscious experience

Emotional behavior

The physiology of emotion

The dynamics of emotion


It is virtually impossible to give a definition of emotion that all psychologists will accept, although there is fair agreement that such phenomena as fear, anger, joy, disgust, and affection should be classified as emotions. Nearly all theorists relate emotion in some way to motivation, and all assign important roles in emotion to the functioning of the autonomic nervous system. All, except the most rigidly behavioristic, classify emotions as affective phenomena.

One difficulty in defining emotion is that emotional phenomena are exceedingly complex and must be observed and analyzed from different points of view. An emotional episode can be observed and studied as a conscious experience from the point of view of the experiencing individual. It can be analyzed from the point of view of a behavioral scientist, a physiologist, a social scientist, or a psychiatrist.

Emotion as a conscious experience

Emotions and other affective processes . The term “emotion” is sometimes used to include the whole gamut of affective experiences, but this usage is too broad. Traditionally, the term applies to a single variety of the affective process. The term “affect,” in psychiatry, designates a class of experiences including, among others, emotions, moods, and guilt feelings.

The main varieties of affective processes can be classified as follows: (1) A simple feeling of pleasantness is associated with such sensory stimulations as the odor of a perfume, a sweet taste, or a musical harmony, and a feeling of unpleasantness with a painful burn, a bitter taste, or a bad odor. (2) Pleasant organic feelings are associated with good health, buoyancy, or sexual satisfaction, and unpleasant feelings with hunger, thirst, fatigue, cramps, or headaches. (3) Interests are mild feelings of pleasantness associated with games, sports, plays, and other activities. Aversions are unpleasant affects associated with the rejection of foods, persons, and activities. (4) Sentiments are feelings associated with something valued or held sacred; they are based upon past experience and training. There are patriotic, moral, religious, aesthetic, and intellectual sentiments. The term “sentiment” also refers to a stable disposition to react with feeling to a class of objects or situations. (5) Emotions are acute affective disturbances arising from the psychological situation and expressing themselves in conscious experience, behavior, and physiological processes. (6) Moods are typically less intense and more chronic than emotions but are similar in affective tone and underlying dynamic mechanisms. (7) Temperament designates the affective aspect of personality as a whole. Temperaments are said to be apathetic, moody, phlegmatic, cheerful, vivacious, depressed, sanguine, etc. Although temperaments are stable, they are known to change with age, health, and environmental conditions.

In this classification, it will be noted that emotions and moods are distinguished, but they are closely related. An emotion may calm down into a mood or a mood build up into an emotion. Thus a fright may taper off into a mood of anxiety; anger may subside into a mood of hostility or resentment; laughter may become a mood of cheerfulness; weeping, a mood of sorrow or grief. Depression is a mood characterized by the decrease of an individual’s vitality, hopes, aspirations, and self-esteem. The mood may be a mild feeling of tiredness or sadness. In psychopathic states a depression may become a profound apathy with psychotic disregard for reality and with suicidal tendencies. Moods and emotions cannot be sharply distinguished; any line of distinction is arbitrary.

“Emotion” is a substantive term; the adjective “emotional” would better characterize the process. Emotional activities are commonly contrasted with rational, intellectual, or even mental processes, as well as with motivational processes.

Emotions and cognition . Emotions are elicited by the awareness of a situation in which an individual finds himself. Magda B. Arnold (1960) argued that emotional behavior follows the intuitive appraisal of a situation. She defined emotion as a felt tendency to move toward anything intuitively appraised as good (beneficial) or away from anything intuitively appraised as bad (harmful). Thus, the feelings of a male enticing a female are emotional; the feelings of a man running a race for his life are emotional.

The cognitive basis of emotion becomes clear when we consider conditions that elicit emotions in different societies. For example, among the Negroes of the Niger delta, it is a rule that if a woman gives birth to twins, she and the twins are put to death. If the mother is allowed to live, her life is little better than a living death, for she becomes an outcast and must live the rest of her days in the forest. But among the Bankundo of the Congo valley, the mother of twins becomes an object of veneration. She is entitled to wear a special badge and her name is changed to “Mother-of-Twins.” Obviously, the type of affective arousal by such an event as the birth of twins depends upon the beliefs, attitudes, and practices of a group.

Emotion and motivation . Although it is generally agreed that emotions bear an important relation to motivation, there is disagreement concerning the exact nature of the relationship. In general, there are two main views: First, it is claimed that emotion is a conscious experience associated with purposive, organized activity. Second, it is claimed that emotion is a disorganized experience due to conflict, frustration, thwarted expectation, tension, or the release of tension.

Emotion as organized experience. The first view of emotion is illustrated in the writings of William McDougall (1908), who defined emotion as the consciously felt aspect of instinctive activity. He paired instincts with emotions: the instinct to flee from danger was paired with the emotion of fear; the instinct of pugnacity was paired with the emotion of anger; parental instinct, with tender emotion; sexual instinct, with lust; self-abasement, with the emotion of subjection; self-assertion, with the emotion of elation. McDougall regarded instinctive behavior as always purposive, goal-directed, and integrated, and emotion as the felt equivalent of instinctive behavior.

Other psychologists, e.g., Carl R. Rogers, have emphasized that “emotion” facilitates goal-directed behavior. Feelings of success, self-confidence, and cheerfulness do, in fact, facilitate performance. A question can be raised, however, whether these feelings are properly classified as emotions.

Emotion as disorganized experience. The second view—that emotion is a disorganized experience dependent upon a dynamic disturbance—is widely held by psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, and others who are concerned with health, counseling, and human adjustment. Thus, the psychologist Edouard Claparede argued that emotion occurs precisely when adaptation is hindered for any reason whatever: the man who can run away does not have the emotion of fear; fear occurs only when flight is impossible. Anger is experienced only when one cannot strike his enemy. The uselessness, or even the harmfulness, of emotion is known to everyone, said Claparede.

There has been considerable controversy over these basic concepts. Robert W. Leeper (1948) regards disorganization as a concept inadequate to define emotion and prefers a “motivational” definition. Paul T. Young (1949), in a reply to Leeper, pointed out that the problem is one of definition and emphasis. Some affective reactions are organized and organizing; some facilitate performance. But the term “emotion” has been used traditionally to define a special class of affective processes characterized by disturbance, upset, and disorganization. Affective disturbances, both pleasant and unpleasant, assuredly exist. If there were no disturbances, the term “emotion” could be dropped from the psychological vocabulary, because existing motivational and affective terms and concepts are fully adequate for the descriptive analysis of organized, adaptive activity.

Emotional behavior

The radical behaviorist does not recognize conscious feelings as such but restricts the science of psychology to the phenomena of behavior and associated bodily processes that can be objectively observed. It was John B. Watson, the founder of American behaviorism, who defined emotion as “an hereditary pattern-reaction involving profound changes of the bodily mechanism as a whole, but particularly of the visceral and glandular systems” (1919, p. 165). He described the stimulating situations and the pattern-reactions for three basic emotions in the infant: fear, rage, and love.

The pattern-reaction theory of emotion has been popular with physiologists and physiological psychologists for obvious reasons: The patterns of reaction appear reflectively under specified conditions of stimulation. They resemble simple reflexes but are more complex. They are well integrated. The emotional patterns can be conditioned and extinguished. The neural mechanisms that regulate many of the emotional patterns have been described and localized within subcortical regions of the brain.

Among the patterns of reaction that have been described and analyzed are the following: There is the rage pattern in cats, dogs, and other animals, as well as a similar pattern called “sham rage” in decorticate animals. There are patterns of escape, including impulses to run or fly or dart away when startled and patterns of defense that differ from species to species. There are male and female patterns of sexual response, the startle pattern in man and other animals, and the disgust pattern. There are internal patterns of visceral and glandular response that differ in hostility and fear. There are human patterns of facial expression—smiling, laughing, crying, and weeping. There is no doubt about the objective existence and functional importance of these patterns of reaction.

Critique of the pattern-reaction theory . Despite the obvious advantages of a pattern-reaction theory of emotion, there are certain difficulties. The theory does not distinguish between emotional and non-emotional patterns. Coughing, sneezing, hiccoughing, sucking, swallowing, and blinking are well-integrated reflexive patterns that are frequently accompanied by changes regulated through the autonomic nervous system. No one regards these reflexes as emotions. Again, the startle pattern, described in detail by Carney Landis and William A. Hunt, was regarded by them as a general skeletal reflex rather than as a true emotional pattern, because startle is completed in the fraction of a second before visceral responses can get under way.

Further, it is difficult to specify the grouping of elements that constitute an emotional pattern. For example, Watson claimed that “fear” is an innate emotional pattern in infants; but his description of “fear” included patterns known to be more elementary: crying, catching the breath, the startle response, possibly the Moro reflex, and an impulse to crawl away. Watson’s “fear” is thus a complex of more elementary patterns.

The pattern-reaction concept disregards the acute affective disorganization that is characteristic of emotion. And, further, the observed patterns do not correspond to the “emotions” of everyday life. What patterns, for example, correspond to mother love, pride, embarrassment? It would be wiser, we believe, to describe the patterns of reaction that occur in or during emotion for their own sake than to define emotion as a pattern of reaction.

The expressions of emotion . The objective expressions of emotion have been observed and studied since the earliest times. Charles Darwin (1872) made detailed observations on emotional behavior in man and other animals. After studying the data, he formulated three principles of emotional expression.

First, Darwin believed that many expressions of emotion are reduced segments of biologically serviceable acts or acts that once were serviceable in an earlier stage of evolution. Thus an angry man raises the lips involuntarily and shows the canine teeth although he does not intend to bite. The complete expression would be biting and hostile attack.

When a dog is about to attack, it approaches its enemy with a stiff gait and tail erect; the head is slightly raised; the hair, especially along the neck and back, bristles; the ears are pricked up and directed forward; the eyes are wide open and have a fixed stare; the animal shows its teeth and growls. No one is likely to misinterpret the significance of this emotional behavior. Even a small part of the total reaction, e.g., showing the teeth and growling, expresses hostility.

Second, Darwin pointed out that some emotional expressions are directly antithetical to biologically serviceable behavior. To illustrate, suppose the hostile dog suddenly perceives that a man it is approaching is not an enemy but its beloved master. The bearing of the animal instantly changes. Instead of walking upright with a stiff gait, the body sinks downward or even crouches; the animal’s movements are flexuous and supple; its tail, instead of being stiff and upright, is lowered and wagging from side to side; the hair is smooth; the ears are depressed and relaxed backwards; its lips hang loosely, and it salivates; the eyelids become elongated, and the eyes no longer appear round and staring. The behavior of the friendly dog is directly antithetical to that of the hostile animal.

Third, Darwin recognized that the above two principles do not explain all expressions of emotion. He formulated a third principle: Some emotional expressions can be explained only in terms of the constitution of the nervous system and associated bodily mechanisms. For example, the writhing of an animal during the birth of young can be explained only in terms of bodily constitution. The excessive activity is neither biologically serviceable nor antithetical to a serviceable act.

Emotional and social expressions . In an experiment on the facial expressions of emotion, Carney Landis (1924) drew an important distinction between emotional and social expressions’. The emotional expressions, he said, are involuntary and reflexive. They involve changes in the skeletal musculature, glands, and smooth muscles. They are regulated by neural mechanisms that include processes within the autonomic nervous system. The social expressions are voluntary and learned.

Otto Klineberg (1938) studied expressive behavior as recorded in the Chinese novel and drama. He found that many phrases in the Chinese language describe involuntary changes that anyone will recognize as emotional. For example, fear is indicated by such expressions as “every one of his hairs stood on end, and the pimples came out on the skin all over his body” and “they were so frightened that their waters and wastes burst out of them.” The meaning of other expressions, however, would not be recognized by persons in Western society. For example, the phrase “they stretched out their tongues” indicates surprise; “he made his two eyes round and stared at him” means anger; “he scratched his ears and cheeks” (in the novel Dream of the Red Chamber) means happiness; “he clapped his hands” is likely to mean worry or disappointment.

These conventional expressions are culture-bound. They serve to communicate feelings within a group as spoken words convey meanings. We have all learned, of course, to express joy, sorrow, concern, amusement, and other feelings sympathetically, as actors do on the stage. The voluntary and conventional expressions are not true reflexive patterns of emotion. [See EXPRESSIVE BEHAVIOR.]

The physiology of emotion

Walter B. Cannon (1915) supplemented and extended the Darwinian doctrine of biological utility by carrying the principle of adaptation to the interior of the body. In a series of experiments, he showed how the bodily changes in pain, fear, and rage are serviceable and adaptive in a struggle for existence. During a biological crisis, widespread organic changes mobilize the energy reserves of the body for a prolonged fight or flight.

During an emergency there is a diffuse discharge across the sympathetic nervous network and increased secretion of the adrenal glands. This neural and glandular discharge produces widespread bodily changes: (1) cessation of processes in the alimentary canal, thus freeing the energy supply for muscles and brain; (2) shifting of blood from abdominal organs to the organs immediately essential to muscular exertion; (3) increased vigor of contraction of the heart; (4) discharge of extra blood corpuscles from the spleen, thus facilitating the process of oxygenation; (5) dilation of the bronchioles, along with deeper respiration; (6) quick abolition of the effects of muscular fatigue through adrenal discharge; and (7) mobilization of sugar in the circulation. All of these changes, Cannon claimed, are directly serviceable in making the organism more effective in the violent display of energy that fear, rage, or pain may involve.

Critique of the emergency theory . Physiological studies (for example, Arnold 1960) have pointed to weaknesses in Cannon’s emergency theory of emotion. Critics agree on the following points: (1) Emotional processes are a function of the entire autonomic nervous system, not of the sympathetic division alone. The sympathetic and para-sympathetic divisions of the autonomic system function simultaneously and reciprocally in fear, rage, “sham rage,” pain, general excitement, and sexual and other emotions, producing patterns of visceral response that differ from one emotional state to another. (2) Whereas Cannon thought that the secretion of epinephrine was the main hormone in the defensive fight-flight reactions, it is now known that there are two chemical factors—norepinephrine and epinephrine—involved in this reaction. These two hormones are secreted independently and have different physiological effects: norepinephrine appears to be concerned with hostile states, and epinephrine with fear and anxiety. Hormones from the pancreas and pituitary body also are involved in emotional reactions. (3) The autonomic nervous system is on continuous duty 24 hours a day, and the bodily changes produced during a biological crisis correspond to departures from normal conditions. The autonomic system has two main functions: first, it prepares the body to respond defensively to danger; second, it plays its major role in maintaining homeostasis. (4) Cannon emphasized the utility of bodily changes in emotion, but many changes are disruptive, disturbing, and disintegrating rather than an aid in adaptive behavior.

Cannon’s work should be brought into relation with that of Hans Selye (1956) upon the general adaptation syndrome and the adjustments of the organism to stress [see STRESS].

The neural basis of emotion . The phylogenet-ically older structures, collectively, and the limbic system and hypothalamus, in particular, are actively involved in pleasurable and painful experiences, in emotional behavior associated with fight, flight, food, and sex. We are just beginning to understand the central dynamics of the emotional reactions.

The hypothalamus is of critical importance in the regulation of emotional behavior. It has long been recognized as a center of endocrine and auto-nomic-nervous-system control. It forms a critical juncture in the circular feedback system that regulates neural impulses concerned with emotions and neuroendocrine activity. The hypothalamus influences and is influenced by the reticular activating system, the limbic system, secretions of the pituitary, and other endocrine glands, as well as by the neocortex.

The explorations of the reticular activating system by Magoun and associates (Magoun 1958) have altered neurophysiological thinking about motivation and emotion. It is now known that every sensory stimulation has two kinds of effects upon the cerebral cortex: (1) impulses discharged through thalamic nuclei are relayed to the cortex, where they provide sensory information; (2) sensory stimulation also sends impulses through collaterals into the reticular activating system. These impulses are conducted over multisynaptic pathways to the cortex, where they have a nonspecific activating influence. The degree of activation varies with intensity of stimulation. In emotional excitement there is a high level of cortical activation, as Donald B. Lindsley has shown in studies with the electroencephalograph.

The limbic system has been called the “visceral brain” by McLean (1949), who considers that it mediates visceral needs rather than ideational processes; it is concerned with feelings rather than with symbolic activities. The frontotemporal limbic activities may be concerned with self-preservative behavior; the more posterior regions, with sexual behavior and sexual hormones.

The limbic system is involved in positive and negative affective arousals. James Olds (1955) implanted bipolar needle electrodes within the limbic system of rats’ brains and demonstrated that electrical stimulation of subcortical points could be either rewarding or punishing. When stimulated within the septal area, the rats acted as if they were pleased; but when stimulated within the medial lemniscus, the animals acted as if the stimulation had hurt them and had been unpleasant. Clearly the neural locus of affective arousals, physiological drives, and emotions is being penetrated. [See NERVOUS SYSTEM, article on BRAIN STIMULATION.]

The dynamics of emotion

A dispositional approach . According to David Rapaport (1942), a good deal of confusion concerning the definition of emotion has been the result of a failure of investigators to distinguish between the phenomena of emotion and the underlying dynamic mechanisms. The phenomena of emotion are complex but can be analyzed from several points of view. The phenomena include (1) the consciously experienced affect, (2) the emotional behavior, and (3) the physiological processes occurring during emotional upheavals. The dynamic mechanisms, in contrast, are always inferred or assumed.

Psychologists assume persistent dispositions that were originally formed by emotional experiences. For example, an intense fright may produce a phobia for high places, enclosures, blood, or some other thing. The grounds of a phobia may seem unreasonable to the subject, but nevertheless the fear persists. Children normally develop fears of thunder, darkness, death, insects, ghosts, and other things on the basis of some fright. The emotion clearly leaves a disposition to fear [see PHOBIAS].

Attitudes and motives are formed on the basis of emotional experiences. The story is told that when Abraham Lincoln saw slaves being sold on the New Orleans market, he was so disturbed emotionally that he resolved: “If ever I have the chance, I will hit that thing hard.” The emotional disturbance left upon him an indelible imprint that later may have influenced his decisions and actions.

A dispositional approach to the study of emotion implies a temporal dimension. Whenever we speak of emotional development, emotional maturity, or emotional stability, we imply a persisting individual with persisting dispositions.

Dispositions include memory traces, attitudes, beliefs, specific motives, expectancies, hopes, and desires, as well as conflicts and unsolved problems. All of these are residues from the past. Among the dynamic conditions that produce emotional upsets, moods of anxiety, depression, and the like are conflicts, frustrations, thwarted expectations, successes, failures, tensions and the release of tensions, painful stimulations, and other factors of stress. A dispositional approach to the complex phenomena of emotion can bring unity out of the diverse data.

Emotion and mental health . In an address to the American Neurological Association in New York City in 1876, George M. Beard maintained that disease might appear and disappear without the influence of any other agent than some form of emotion. Fear, terror, anxiety, grief, anger, wonder, and a definite expectation he regarded as mental conditions likely to produce disease [see Lewis 1959, p. 8]. Beard argued that certain emotional states could neutralize therapeutics and increase the effects of drugs. At the time, his ideas were new and startling; later the ideas were recognized in a movement known as psychosomatic medicine.

Today, it is widely accepted that persistent emotional disturbances constitute an important factor in certain disorders, such as peptic ulcer, essential hypertension, rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis, bronchial asthma, hyperthyroidism, and neuroder-matitis. The health of a patient is strongly influenced by stressful conditions of living that produce emotional traumata, such as financial failure, bereavement, insult, injury, unrequited love, threatened divorce, and loss of self-esteem. These several factors are well recognized by clinical psychologists and psychiatrists.

Emotion plays an important role in psychotherapy. The psychiatric examination is concerned with the whole personality but places special emphasis upon emotions as related to thought processes. During an interview the psychiatrist observes emotional reactions as the patient talks and seeks to elicit thoughts that accompany the emotional reactions. A dominant emotion is associated with something important to the patient, something that affects him deeply. Why it is important can be learned only by getting the patient to tell his thoughts.

Psychoanalysts have long recognized the importance of affects, especially repressed emotional experiences, in the etiology and treatment of neuroses. Some repressed hostility or an unsolved emotional conflict, possibly unknown to the patient, may underlie neurotic symptoms. Free association, aided recall, and the interpretation of dreams, along with free emotional expression, may reveal unconscious motivations and alleviate the mental disorder.

According to Robert W. White (1948), psychotherapy is not an intellectual process. It has wrongly been said that the way to bring about readjustment is to help an individual understand his problems. Awareness of motivations and frustrations on the cognitive level is helpful but not enough to effect a cure. Psychotherapy operates in the sphere of emotion. The main aim of psychotherapy is to provide corrective emotional experience by relaxing the subject’s defenses and permitting him to reappraise his anxieties. In the major methods of psychotherapy, the subject is encouraged to feel, to express his emotions.

It should be pointed out that emotional upsets are only one manifestation of neurosis. There are other aspects, such as dissociation, delusion, amnesia, tics, and functional paralyses. Emotional upsets appear also in psychoses and disorders that have a definite organic basis as well as in normal everyday living.

In the light of the above discussion, an emotion may be defined as an acute affective disturbance originating within the psychological situation and expressing itself in conscious experience (affect), emotional behavior, and physiological processes. The dynamic determinants of emotion include conflict, frustration, thwarted (or satisfied) expectation, tension or its release, painful stimulation, threat, insult, and similar conditions of stress and relief. Clinically viewed, an emotion is a persisting dynamic disturbance within the individual that may influence his health, happiness, and well-being.

Paul Thomas Young



Arnold, Magda B. 1960 Emotion and Personality. 2 vols. New York: Columbia Univ. Press. → Volume 1: Psychological Aspects. Volume 2: Neurological and Physiological Aspects.

Cannon, Walter B. (1915) 1953 Bodily Changes in Pain, Hunger, Fear and Rage: An Account of Recent Researches Into the Function of Emotional Excitement. 2d ed. Boston: Branford.

Darwin, Charles (1872) 1965 The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Edited by Francis Darwin. Univ. of Chicago Press.

English, Horace B., and ENGLISH, AVA C. (1958) 1962 A Comprehensive Dictionary of Psychological and Psychoanalytical Terms: A Guide to Usage. New York: McKay.

Klineberg, Otto 1938 Emotional Expression in Chinese Literature. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 38:517–520.

Landis, Carney 1924 Studies of Emotional Reactions. 2: General Behavior and Facial Expression. Journal of Comparative Psychology 4:447–501.

Leeper, Robert W. 1948 A Motivational Theory of Emotion to Replace “Emotion as Disorganized Response.” Psychological Review 55:5—21.

Lewis, Nolan D. C. 1959 American Psychiatry From Its Beginnings to World War II. Volume 1, pages 3–17 in American Handbook of Psychiatry. Edited by Sil-vano Arieti. New York: Basic Books.

Mcdougall, William (1908) 1950 The Principal Instincts and the Primary Emotions of Man. Chapter 3 in William McDougall, An Introduction to Social Psychology. London: Methuen. → A paperback edition was published in 1960 by Barnes and Noble.

Mclean, Paul D. 1949 Psychosomatic Disease and the “Visceral Brain”: Recent Developments Bearing on the Papez Theory of Emotion. Psychosomatic Medicine 11:338–353.

Magoun, Horace W. (1958) 1963 The Waking Brain. 2d ed. Springfield, III.: Thomas.

Olds, James 1955 Physiological Mechanisms of Reward. Volume 3, pages 73–139 in Marshall R. Jones (editor), Nebraska Symposium on Motivation. Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press.

Rapaport, David (1942) 1950 Emotions and Memory. 2d ed. New York: International Universities Press.

Selye, Hans 1956 The Stress of Life. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Watson, John B. 1919 A Schematic Outline of the Emotions. Psychological Review 26:165–196.

White, Robert W. (1948) 1956 The Abnormal Personality: A Textbook. 2d ed. New York: Ronald.

Young, Paul T. 1949 Emotion as Disorganized Response: A Reply to Professor Leeper. Psychological Review 56:184–191.

Young, Paul T. 1961 Motivation and Emotions: A Survey of the Determinants of Human and Animal Activity. New York: Wiley.


views updated May 29 2018



Over the last three decades, the sociology of emotions has developed a number of distinct theoretical and research programs (for recent reviews, see: Turner and Stets 2005, 2007; Stets and Turner 2006). While there is considerable overlap among some perspectives on emotions in sociology, they can be roughly grouped into six basic approaches: (1) dramaturgical and cultural, (2) ritual, (3) symbolic interactionist, (4) exchange, (5) structural, and (6) evolutionary.

Dramaturgical and cultural approaches all draw upon the early insights of Goffman (1967), who argued that human interaction is very much like a performance on a stage. Like all stage performances, there is a scriptin this case written by cultural ideologies and norms of a societywith actors engaging in strategic performances as they interpret the script and use props to make a dramatic presentation of self to an audience. Hochschild (1983) was the first to adopt elements of this metaphor by analyzing how the cultural script, social structure, and audience expectations force individuals to manage emotions that they do not feel. As a consequence, individuals must engage in emotion work that is inherently alienating. Other researchers have stressed how individuals use cultural scripts as a cover for more strategic performances in games of micropolitics and microeconomics (Clark 1997).

Ritual approaches draw from Durkheims analysis of collective effervescence and emphasize that when individuals are co-present, the dynamics that ensue can build up positive and negative emotional energy that, ultimately, is the energy driving the formation, reproduction, and change of social structures and culture (Collins 2004). When initial greeting rituals arouse mild positive sentiments, subsequent talk and body language become rhythmically synchronized, leading to emotional entrainment and heightened emotions that increase social solidarity, which, in turn, is represented with group symbols. When these processes fail, negative emotional energy is aroused, thereby lowering solidarity.

Symbolic interactionist approaches all emphasize the central place of self in arousing emotions (Stryker 2004; Burke 1991). When self is verified by others, positive emotions ensue, whereas when self is not confirmed, negative emotions are aroused. Self is seen as a cybernetic control system in which individuals seek to maintain consistency among cognitions about self, behavior, situation, and other; discrepancies between any of these cognitions lead to negative emotional arousal that serves as the motivation to change the self presented, behaviors, definitions of the situation, or assessments of others (Heise 1979). Psychoanalytic variants of symbolic interactionism emphasize that individuals often protect self through the activation of defense mechanisms, which push the negative emotions, such as shame, below the level of consciousness (Scheff 1988). Once repressed, the emotions are transmuted into new kinds of more intense negative emotions (Turner 2002).

Exchange approaches view social interaction as the reciprocal flow of resources. Individuals seek to gain a profit in all exchanges by assessing whether or not their rewards exceed costs and investments. When individuals see that their and others shares of resources are proportionate to respective costs and investments, they experience positive emotions; and when they do not, negative emotions are aroused (Lawler 2001). People always compare their receipt of resources to cultural standards of justice. When actual shares of resources meet standards of what constitutes a just share, positive emotions are experienced; when shares do not correspond to perceptions of a just share, negative emotions are aroused (Homans 1974; Jasso 1980). The positive emotions in profitable exchanges become yet another resource to be exchanged and lead individuals to make suboptimal commitments (or less than maximum payoffs) to social relations that increase solidarity (Lawler and Yoon, 1996).

Structural approaches see interaction as revolving around the distribution of power and prestige, with individuals having expectations for how much power or prestige they can claim in a situation (Kemper 1978; Ridgeway and Johnson 1990). When these expectations are realized, positive emotions ensue, but when there is competition for status and/or prestige or when a person does not receive anticipated prestige or power, negative emotional arousal among some actors will ensue. Moreover, once the distribution of power and prestige is established, expectations operate to sustain this distribution, and the emotions generated become yet another expectation state.

Evolutionary approaches seek to outline the selection pressures that operated on humans hominid ancestors to produce the neurological structures responsible for emotional arousal (Wentworth and Yardly 1994; Turner 2000; Hammond 2004). Although these approaches vary in terms of how much they see biology as determining specific emotional responses, they all emphasize that the human brain was rewired under intense selection pressures to produce a wider palate of emotions, which enhanced the fitness of humans ancestors by increasing bonds of social solidarity.

As is evident, then, the sociology of emotions has grown enormously from its tentative beginnings in the 1970s. There is a broad set of approaches, each with a coherent body of theory and most with active research programs testing and extending these theories. The sociology of emotions is now the leading edge of sociological social psychology and microsociology in general.

SEE ALSO Emotion and Affect; Psychosomatics, Social


Burke, Peter J. 1991. Identity Processes and Social Stress. American Sociological Review 56 (6): 836849.

Clark, Candace. 1997. Misery and Company: Sympathy in Everyday Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Collins, Randall. 2004. Interaction Ritual Chains. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Goffman, Erving. 1967. Interaction Ritual: Essays in Face-to-Face Behavior. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.

Hammond, Michael. 2004. The Enhancement Imperative and Group Dynamics in the Emergence of Religion and Ascriptive Inequality. In Theory and Research on Human Emotions, Advances in Group Processes 21, ed. Jonathan H. Turner, 167188. New York: Plenum.

Heise, David R. 1979. Understanding Events: Affect and the Construction of Social Action. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Hochschild, Arlie Russell. 1983. The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Homans, George C. 1974. Social Behavior: Its Elementary Forms. 2nd ed. New York: Harcourt Brace and World.

Jasso, Guillermina. 1980. A New Theory of Distributive Justice. American Sociological Review 45 (1): 332.

Kemper, Theodore D. 1978. A Social Interactional Theory of Emotions. New York: John Wiley.

Lawler, Edward J. 2001. An Affect Theory of Social Exchange. American Journal of Sociology 107 (2): 321352.

Lawler, Edward J., and Jeongkoo Yoon. 1996. Commitment in Exchange Relations: Test of a Theory of Relational Cohesion. American Sociological Review 61 (1): 89108.

Ridgeway, Cecilia L., and Cathryn Johnson. 1990. What Is the Relationship between Socioemotional Behavior and Status in Task Groups? American Journal of Sociology 95 (5): 11891212.

Scheff, Thomas. 1988. Shame and Conformity: The Deference-Emotion System. American Sociological Review 53 (3): 395406.

Stets, Jan E., and Jonathan H. Turner, eds. 2006. Handbook of the Sociology of Emotions. New York: Springer.

Stryker, Sheldon. 2004. Integrating Emotion into Identity Theory. In Theory and Research on Human Emotions, Advances in Group Processes 21, ed. Jonathan H. Turner, 123. New York: Plenum.

Turner, Jonathan H. 2000. On the Origins of Human Emotions: A Sociological Inquiry into the Evolution of Human Affect. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Turner, Jonathan H. 2002. Face to Face: Toward a Sociological Theory of Interpersonal Behavior. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Turner, Jonathan H., and Jan E. Stets. 2005. The Sociology of Emotions. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Turner, Jonathan H., and Jan E. Stets. 2006. Sociological Theories of Human Emotions. Annual Review of Sociology 32, 2552.

Wentworth, William M., and D. Yardley. 1994. Deep Sociality: A Bioevolutionary Perspective on the Sociology of Human Emotions. In Social Perspectives on Emotion, eds. David D. Franks, William M. Wentworth and John Ryan, 2155. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

Jonathan H. Turner


views updated May 14 2018


The role of emotions in moral behavior has been debated by ethicists since ancient Greece. The scientific study of emotions is much more recent, yet the advances in twenty-first century understanding of the neural mechanisms that subserve emotions take on added meaning in the context of these ancient debates. New developments in emotional technologies add further nuances to these old questions. This entry provides a brief account of what emotions are, outlines the way emotions have been viewed in some major philosophical traditions, and discusses the ethical questions raised by some forms of technology.

What Are Emotions?

Emotions may be defined in a number of ways (Evans 2001). From a neurobiological perspective, emotions are defined in terms of the neural mechanisms that implement emotional processes in the brains of humans and other animals. In all mammals most emotional processes are mediated by a set of neural structures known collectively as the limbic system. The limbic system is an ill-defined term, but usually refers to a variety of subcortical structures, including the hippocampus, the cingulate gyrus, the anterior thalamus, and the amygdala (see Figure 1).

Neurobiological definitions of emotion can be regarded as parochial, because they exclude organisms that lack brains like those of humans from having emotions. A less chauvinistic alternative would be to define emotions in functional terms—that is, as dispositions to behave in certain ways. Fear, for example, disposes the organism to mobilize defensive and flight behaviors, and to focus attention on possible threats.

Functional definitions of emotion have been criticized on the grounds that they leave out feelings. Feelings—the conscious awareness of emotional states—have often been regarded as the central component of emotions, but some neuroscientists such as Antonio Damasio prefer to distinguish between emotions, which they regard as objectively measurable processes, and subjective feelings.

Emotions may be distinguished from other affective phenomena such as moods and personality traits by temporal duration. Many psychologists regard emotions as relatively rapid and brief processes, lasting no more than a minute or two, and class longer-lasting affective states as moods, although this distinction is not universally accepted.

Emotions in Philosophy and Ethics

At the risk of over-simplification, it is useful to distinguish three main traditions in Western thought regarding the role of emotions in moral behavior. First many thinkers, such as Plato (c. 428–348 b.c.e. and Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), have regarded emotions principally as obstacles to good conduct. Plato compared the rational mind to a charioteer whose task was to keep his horses (his emotions) under a tight rein. Kant argued that good actions were only truly moral when performed purely out of concern for the moral law, and not motivated by any emotion.

A second tradition, exemplified by thinkers such as Aristotle (384–322) b.c.e. and economist Adam Smith (1723–1790), has regarded emotions as vital ingredients in generating moral behavior. Aristotelian ethics is based on the idea of virtue, which is a golden mean halfway between opposing vices. Because many vices are defined as deficits or excesses of particular emotions, Aristotelian virtues may be regarded as optimal midpoints between emotional extremes. This ancient approach to ethics finds many echoes in the modern concept of emotional intelligence, which also stresses the need for cultivating emotional self-regulation. Smith argued that certain social emotions such as sympathy, which he called moral sentiments, lay at the heart of all ethical conduct.

Finally, a third tradition takes issue with both of the preceding positions, arguing that all moral judgments are merely an expression of the speaker's emotions. According to this view, championed by philosopher David Hume (1711–1776), when someone says that a certain action is right or wrong, what is meant is that the speaker has a feeling of approval or disapproval toward the action. This is sometimes referred to as the emotive theory of ethics.

More recently the philosophy of emotions has begun to address other questions besides the role of emotions in moral behavior. Contemporary philosophers such as Paul Griffiths, for example, have argued that emotions are such a heterogenous bunch of phenomena that they cannot constitute a single natural kind. Others have attempted to clarify the complex relationship between emotions and rationality (de Sousa 1991).

Emotions and Technology

Since its very beginning, much human technology has been driven by the desire to exert greater control over the emotional states. Many human inventions, from cooking to music, may be viewed as technologies of mood, in the sense that they are designed primarily to induce certain emotions in the user. Modern developments such as psychotherapy and antidepressants, therefore, may increase the effectiveness of the ability to manipulate emotions by artificial means, but the ethical questions they raise are not new. The objections raised by critics such as Francis Fukuyama (2002) to the possibility of cosmetic psychopharmacology, in which people manipulate their emotional states at will by means of sophisticated new drugs, have many echoes in ongoing debates about authenticity. Such objections seem to some to smack of psychopharmacological Calvinism, the niggardly belief that happiness must be earned the hard way—that is, without the help of drugs (Kramer 1994). The inflammatory rhetoric that has so far characterized such debates needs to be eliminated if people are to have a mature and reasoned discussion about the benefits and dangers of developing more powerful technologies for influencing moods and emotions.

Other modern technologies raise ethical questions that had not previously been considered. The advent of neuroimaging techniques and other means of monitoring emotional processes that were previously thought to be irreducibly private and subjective raises new issues of neural privacy. How much of one's emotional life should others be able to assess by means of these technologies, and how reliable are they? These questions will become more urgent as new technologies such as sensitive clothing (garments with embedded sensors that monitor physiological changes) and brain-machine interfaces permit further intrusion into the emotional lives of others.

Another technology that raises new ethical questions concerning emotions is affective computing, a branch of artificial intelligence that attempts to build emotional machines (Picard 1997). One line of thinking in robotics argues that robots will need emotions if they are to be truly autonomous, and some commercially available entertainment robots already come programmed with a repertoire of basic emotions. It is arguable, of course, whether such mechanisms constitute genuine emotions or merely simulated emotions, but this distinction may be irrelevant because people tend to react to such robots as if they possessed genuine emotions. The ethical problems raised by such developments have been explored in great detail in science fiction, from Isaac Asimov's (1920–1992) short story "The Bicentennial Man" (1976) to Arthur C. Clarke's famous novel 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). While such fictional scenarios often postulate devices that are far in advance of available technology, the questions they raise are deep and sometimes disturbing. In Asimov's short story, for example, a robot redesigns his own circuitry so that he may experience the whole range of human emotions. Because some rights are often held to be contingent on having certain emotional capacities, a robot with human-like feelings might have to be accorded a moral status equivalent to that of a human. There are parallels here with the animal rights movement, which has placed great emphasis on the capacity of certain animals for pain and suffering in its attempts to provide them with greater legal protection.

More sinister scenarios envision emotional machines turning against their human creators, raising the question of whether efforts in affective computing should be curtailed. In Clarke's novel, for example, an onboard computer called HAL turns against the crew of the spaceship Discovery I, killing all but one of the astronauts. Asimov has suggested that such dangers might be avoided by programming machines to obey certain principles such as his three laws of robotics, stated in several of his stories and novels from 1950 onwards (including "The Bicentennial Man"), of which the first is that "a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm." Yet it is hard to see how such principles could be implemented in a computer program.

This list of issues raised by technologies of emotion is not exhaustive, but illustrates how a greater understanding of emotions impacts ethics. Science and technology have powerful emotional dimensions that are often ignored by those involved in developing them. Yet it is vital to think about these dimensions, because adverse emotional reactions to new technologies among the general public can have serious consequences. From the Luddites, eighteenth-century English artisans who destroyed machinery during the industrial revolution, to twenty-first century environmentalists who oppose the planting of genetically engineered crops, new technologies have often inspired deep feelings of mistrust. Those developing future technologies risk provoking similar reactions unless they engage the public at large in open and informed debate in which emotional dimensions are addressed as well as the scientific facts.


SEE ALSO Artificial Intelligence;Emotional Intelligence;Evolutionary Ethics;Psychopharmacology;Neuroethics;Risk and Emotion;Robots and Robotics;Scientifc Ethics.


Asimov, Isaac. (1976). "The Bicentennial Man. In The Bicentennial Man and Other Stories. New York: Doubleday, 1976. In this story Asimov manages to explore many of the moral dilemmas of giving computers emotions more effectively than any non-fiction account.

Clarke, Arthur C. (1968). 2001: A Space Odyssey. New York: ROC. A science-fiction classic, featuring HAL, the onboard computer.

Damasio, Antonio. (2003). Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain. London: Heinemann. A prominent neuroscientist explores the distinction between emotions and feelings.

De Sousa, Ronald. (1991). The Rationality of Emotion. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. A philosophical discussion of the role of emotions in rational behavior.

Evans, Dylan. (2001). Emotion: The Science of Sentiment. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. A good overall introduction to the science of emotion.

Fukuyama, Francis. (2002). Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution. London: Profile Books. An emotional polemic against modern technology.

Griffiths, Paul E. (1997). What Emotions Really Are: The Problem of Psychological Categories. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. A philosophical discussion of the concept of emotion.

Kramer, Peter D. (1994). Listening to Prozac. London: Fourth Estate. A forceful advocate for the view that drugs can improve our emotional lives.

Picard, Rosalind W. (1997). Affective Computing. Cambridge, MA, and London: MIT Press. Discusses recent attempts to build emotional computers and robots.


views updated May 23 2018


A reaction, both psychological and physical, subjectively experienced as strong feelings, many of which prepare the body for immediate action.

In contrast to moods, which are generally longer-lasting, emotions are transitory, with relatively well-defined beginnings and endings. They also have valence, meaning that they are either positive or negative. Subjectively, emotions are experienced as passive phenomena. Even though it is possible to exert a measure of control over one's emotions, they are not initiatedthey happen to people. Objectively, emotions involve internal physiological responses and expressive outward displays that are both learned and innate. Certain emotions themselves, considered to be primary emotionsjoy, anger , sadness, fear , and loveare thought to be innate, while complex emotionssuch as altruism, shame, guilt , and envyseem to arise from social learning.

The first influential theory of emotion in modern timesthe James-Lange theorywas formulated independently in the 1880s by both American psychologist and philosopher William James and Danish physiologist C.G. Lange (1834-1900). Both scientists arrived at the view that the physiological manifestations of emotion precede the subjective onesrather than trembling because we are afraid, we are afraid because we tremble. Even though the brain responds to a threatening situation by activating peripheral responses, we do not consciously experience the emotion until these responses are activated. Thus, the central nervous system itself does not actually produce the emotion. Over the following decades, this theory drew widespread response and criticism.

An alternative model of emotional experience was formulated in 1927 by Walter Cannon (1871-1945), who proposed that emotions do originate in the central nervous system. Cannon argued that nerve impulses first pass through the thalamus , from which subjective responses are routed through the cerebral cortex, directly creating the experience of fear at the same time that physiological responses are passing through the hypothalamus . The Cannon-Bard theory, whose name reflects later modifications by Phillip Bard, thus delineated the psychological and physiological components of emotion as simultaneous and argued that the experience of emotion comes directly from the central nervous system. Some more recent theorists have once again moved closer to the James-Lange model. The 1962 Schachter-Singer theory restores James's emphasis on the interpretation of physiological responses but adds another elementa cognitive evaluation of what caused the responses. This theory thus contradicts James's assertion that emotion is communicated solely on the basis of physical feedback, asserting that this feedback by itself is not clear enough to specify a particular emotion. Rather, the brain chooses one of many possible interpretations and "labels" the feedback pattern, and it is this labeling that results in the experiencing of a particular emotion.

Areas of the brain that play an important role in the production of emotions include the reticular formation, the limbic system, and the cerebral cortex. The reticular formation, within the brain stem, receives and filters sensory information before passing it on the limbic system and cortex. The limbic system includes the hypothalamus, which produces most of the peripheral responses to emotion through its control of the endocrine and autonomic nervous systems; the amygdala, which is associated with fear and aggressive behavior; the hippocampus; and parts of the thalamus. The frontal lobes of the cerebral cortex receive nerve impulses from the thalamus and play an active role in the experience and expression of emotions.

While the physiological changes associated with emotions are triggered by the brain, they are carried out by the endocrine and autonomic nervous systems. In response to fear or anger, for example, the brain signals the pituitary gland to release a hormone called ACTH, which in turn causes the adrenal glands to secrete cortisol, another hormone that triggers what is known as the fight-or-flight response, a combination of physical changes that prepare the body for action in dangerous situations. The heart beats faster, respiration is more rapid, the liver releases glucose into the bloodstream to supply added energy, fuels are mobilized from the body's stored fat, and the body generally goes into a state of high arousal. The pupils dilate, perspiration increases while secretion of saliva and mucous decreases, hairs on the body become erect, causing "goose pimples," and the digestive system slows down as blood is diverted to the brain and skeletal muscles. These changes are carried out with the aid of the sympathetic nervous system, one of two divisions of the autonomic nervous system . When the crisis is over, the parasympathetic nervous system, which conserves the body's energy and resources, returns things to their normal state.

Ways of expressing emotion may be either innate or culturally acquired. Certain facial expressions, such as smiling, have been found to be universal, even among blind persons, who have no means of imitating them. Other expressions vary across cultures. For example, the Chinese stick out their tongues to register surprise, in contrast to Americans and other Westerners, who raise their eyebrows and widen their eyes. In addition to the ways of communicating various emotions, people within a culture also learn certain unwritten codes governing emotional expression itselfwhat emotions can be openly expressed and under what circumstances. Cultural forces also influence how people describe and categorize what they are feeling. An emotion that is commonly recognized in one society may be subsumed under another emotion in a different one. Some cultures, for example, do not distinguish between anger and sadness. Tahitians, who have no word for either sadness or guilt, have 46 words for various types of anger.

In daily life, emotional arousal may have beneficial or disruptive effects, depending on the situation and the intensity of the emotion. Moderate levels of arousal increase efficiency levels by making people more alert. However, intense emotionseither positive or negativeinterfere with performance because central nervous system responses are channeled in too many directions at once. The effects of arousal on performance also depend on the difficulty of the task at hand; emotions interfere less with simple tasks than with more complicated ones.

Further Reading

Powell, Barbara. The Complete Guide to Your Child's Emotional Health. Danbury, CT: F. Watts, 1984.

Your Child's Emotional Health: Adolescence. New York: Macmillan, 1994.


views updated May 29 2018


The word emotion is derived from the Latin emovere, "to set in motion." It initially referred to the idea of physical movement and then assumed a figurative meaning associated with mental movement.

The term is infrequently used in psychoanalysis, where the term affect, derived from German Affekt, is preferred. Sigmund Freud, however, in a text written in French in 1895, used the expression "étatémotif" ("emotive state") to designate what was translated in the German editions as Affekt. It is with the theoretical developments associated with Kleinian psychoanalysis that the term emotion reappeared. The reasons for the change are significant.

Freudian metapsychology is centered on the study of the mental apparatus, which is considered, if not as an isolated entity, at least as one that can be isolate. In the Freudian model the mental apparatus is charged with drives, whose effectsaffect and representationare observable. Affect corresponds to the quantitative aspects, and mental representations correspond to the qualitative aspects of the drives. Positive affects accompany the satisfaction of drives, negative affects accompany the state of tension within the mental apparatus (pleasure/unpleasure principle). The object of satisfaction, that is, the object that triggers the discharge of the impulse, is contingent, vicarious. For Daniel Widlöcher, the affect refers to internal regulatory functions of the mental apparatus: a discharge of impulses and signals intended to provide information to the mental apparatus, as Freud suggested in his second theory of anxiety, and that emotion adds a third reference, that of communication with the external object, "a modality of expression intended to inform others of a particular situation, laden with value for the subject."

It should come as no surprise therefore that the theories assigning greater importance to object relations have given a central place to the concept of emotion. Compared to affect, it contains levels of additional complexity, because it is a means of communicative exchange between self and other, through its behavioral (especially facial) expressions, which have been extensively studied by specialists in development and cognitive function, and because it refers to nuanced qualitative aspects rather than simply quantitative aspects combined with a positive or negative valence.

Melanie Klein insisted on the extreme nature of the baby's emotions at the start of its extra-uterine existence, associated with love and hate relations directed at the (partial) object in what she called the "paranoid-schizoid position." Later, when the infant achieves the "depressive position," emotions become more nuanced, hate is tinged with guilt, love with ambivalence. Wilfred Bion gave the concept of emotion an essential role in his description of the intrapsychic world as a world of relations between internal or interiorized objects. For Bion the links between internal objects are emotional links, just as the links between the subject and its external objects are emotional in nature. He chose three types of emotional links: these correspond to love relations (L link = love), hate relations (H link = hatred), and knowledge relations (K link = knowledge). The first two, L and H, are emotional links; these are unstable and associated with splitting. The K link is the psychoanalytic link par excellence and has the advantage of stability. It does indeed involve an emotional link, in the sense that it corresponds to an emotion associated with uncertainty and the tension experienced in the face of the unknown in anticipation of meaning. Psychoanalytic therapy develops K links.

Didier Houzel

See also: Concept; Darwin, Darwinism, and psychoanalysis; Shame; Links, attacks on; Love-Hate-Knowledge (L/H/K links); Memories; Paranoid-schizoid position; Quota of affect; Unconscious as Infinite Sets: An Essay in Bi-Logic, The.


Bion, Wilfred. R. (1962). A theory of thinking. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, XLIII, 4-5; in Second Thoughts, London: Heinemann, 1967.

Freud, Sigmund. (1895c [1894]). Obsessions and phobias: their psychical mechanism and their aetiology. SE, 3: 69-82.

Klein, Melanie. (1952). Quelques conclusions théoriques au sujet de la vieémotionnelle des bébés. In M. Klein, P. Heimann, S. Isaacs, and J. Riviere (Eds.), Developments in psychoanalysis (pp. 187-253). London: Hogarth Press.

Widlöcher, Daniel. (1992). De l'émotion primaireà l'affect différencié. In P. Mazet and S. Lebovici (Eds.)Émotions et Affects chez le bébé et ses partenaires (pp. 45-55). Paris: Eshel.


views updated May 23 2018

emotion has usually, in the European– American tradition, been seen as the opposite of reason; the definitions provided in the Oxford English Dictionary emphasize emotion as agitation, perturbation, and ‘feeling’ or ‘affection’ — as distinguished from cognitive or volitional states of consciousness. Philosophically this split became entrenched through the thought of Rene Descartes, with his famous ‘I think, therefore I am’. Emotion has thus come to be associated with the body the way reason has been associated with the mind.

The European–American tradition often values reason over emotion, except in specifically defined events such as funerals, weddings, or births. Some cultures, notably that of Japan, are even more reserved, wanting to avoid negative emotional expression altogether. Other cultures, especially those of South and Latin America, and some south-east Asian cultures, see emotional expression as essential to living life, and value a wide range of emotional experience.

Emotion's connection to the body is frequently reinforced through our metaphoric description of emotion; it is frequently described as a visceral event. Disappointment means a sinking heart; nervousness, butterflies in the stomach; depression, weight in the chest area; joy, lightness and freedom of movement; excitement, racing heart and blood and tingling nerves. Emotions are conveyed to others through bodily configurations, including facial expressions, posture, muscle tension, voice tone, and gestures.

While emotions and their physical expression are culturally specific (especially gestures), studies have suggested that facial expressions are remarkably similar across cultures, with the biggest differences or confusions occurring for anger or surprise. We learn to identify and reproduce facial expressions as infants, where we study the expressions on adult faces and learn to associate them with emotions. Western cultures have long attributed special emotional intelligence and capability to women, who have traditionally borne the largest burden of emotional work in the culture.

Emotion frequently plays an important role in religious ritual. Many Christian sects revere emotional ecstasy as a direct encounter with the Holy Spirit and an expression of our oneness with God. Buddhism, on the other hand, rejects both self-denial and self-indulgence in a quest to extinguish the craving for physical or material pleasures. Religious emotion is often balanced through paired rituals; Catholic cultures often have a festival period preceding the asceticism of Lent.

Julie Vedder


views updated May 18 2018

e·mo·tion / iˈmōshən/ • n. a natural instinctive state of mind deriving from one's circumstances, mood, or relationships with others: she was attempting to control her emotions. ∎  any of the particular feelings that characterize such a state of mind, such as joy, anger, love, hate, horror, etc.: fear had become his dominant emotion. ∎  instinctive or intuitive feeling as distinguished from reasoning or knowledge: responses have to be based on historical insight, not simply on emotion.DERIVATIVES: e·mo·tion·less adj.


views updated May 18 2018

emotion †agitation, tumult XVI; †physical disturbance; disturbance of mind or feeling; affection of the mind, feeling XIX (rare before second half of XVII). — F. émotion, f. émouvoir excite, move the feelings of (:- Rom. *exmovēre; see EX-1, MOVE), after mouvoir, motion.
Hence emotional XIX. So emotive †causing movement XVIII (rare); pert. to or expressing emotion XIX. f. pp. stem ēmōt- of L. ēmovēre.