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Emotions arise in individual experience, frequently with noticeable physiological signs, such as a racing heart, flushed or pallid face, tense gut, cold hands, and so forth, and thus may seem an unsuitable topic for sociological examination. This attitude, however, reckons without the incontrovertible facts that most human emotions result from real, imagined, recollected, or anticipated outcomes of social interaction and that interaction is the fundamental stuff of sociological analysis. Thus emotions are empirically linked to the social by virtue of their being a consequence of involvement in interaction. But emotions are also precursors of the social, by virtue of their mobilizing energy and motivation for the accomplishment of major social tasks, not the least of which is social solidarity itself.

Although emotions are thus important features of social life, they have had a varying place in the history of sociology. Early recognized as important by the great founders of the field—Marx, Durkheim, Weber, and Simmel—emotions declined in importance after the 1920s, as behavioral and cognitive approaches came to the fore in the social sciences. (Although these two approaches are thoroughly antagonistic to each other, they have agreed that emotions are irrelevant or unamenable to sociological analysis.) Resurrected after a long hiatus, emotions have once again come into their own and are now recognized both as exerting causal effects as well as serving as important results of social endeavors.

This article covers both early and present-day approaches to what has come to be known as the sociology of emotions and examines the role of emotions as both independent and dependent variable.


In the great effort to topple the entrenched structures of monarchy and clergy in eighteenth-century Europe, a signal weapon was reason. By virtue of the application of reason to traditional modes of thought and conduct, philosophers and political theorists concluded that the domininion of kings and priests was falsely premised and that all men were created equal. That reason alone could lead to such a startling conclusion for that day was the result of the conquest by reason in another domain, namely natural science. In astronomy, physics, chemistry and biology, the work of reason had accomplished transformations of thought and understanding of a revolutionary nature. The success of reason here gave social thinkers confidence that reason applied to social life would produce results equally significant. And, indeed, it did in form of the upheavals that culminated in the American and French Revolutions.

What had been only thought was put into practice and the tradition of a thousand years swept away. In the ensuing years, reason was enshrined, a new god replacing the old ones that had been discarded. But as this occurred, a counterrevolutionary ideological process was getting under way. In England, Thomas Burke, at first partial to the aims of the French Revolution, recoiled in horror at its excesses—reason had run amok, with a degree of passion and emotion that was terrifying. Burke argued that society was not amenable to quick constructions or reconstructions. Rather, a slow accretion of time-tested ways that ultimately refined the social rules and customs was the only reliable method for attaining a safe, stable, and satisfactory social order. Opposing the worship of reason, Burke posed rather the validity of an emotional basis for social solidarity. Longstanding mores garnered emotional support and, by virtue of this, violent social change, with its attendant upheaval, was averted.

Burke's conservative message, which rejected the application of reason to social forms, was to lie fallow for a century, until it was resurrected in a more systematic sociological way by Émile Durkheim. In the interim, Karl Marx, also an exponent of reason in the reorganization of society, had propounded his comprehensive historical theory of the growth and decay of societal organization. Yet in developing his understanding of how society, particularly capitalist society, works, Marx ([1842–1844] 1971, [1867] 1967; Engels [1846] 1947) also produced a paradigm for how to examine emotions sociologically. His approach remains important today, even if the specific political and ideological interests of Marxism are no longer attached to it.

Marx propounded the view that forms of social organization—feudalism, capitalism, socialism—were products of such factors as technology and the division of labor, which he termed the mode of production, and certain forms of authority and property rights, which he termed the relations of production. A given historical mode of production gave rise, for Marx, to a necessary set of relations of production. In feudal times, the relatively primitive technology required a great deal of hand labor, as exemplified in craft production, where producers owned their tools, their raw materials, and the products of their labor. Property rights and social relations were in line with the division of labor made possible by the technology of the time.

After the Industrial Revolution, with its relatively advanced technology, a new form of division of labor and property rights emerged. The factory system entailed labor sold by its owners, the workers, as if it were any other commodity. Factory workers owned neither the tools, the raw materials, nor the products of their labor. Thus a new set of property and authority relations came into existence because of the more advanced technology and the division of labor this enabled.

Here Marx looked closely at the horrible conditions of early entrepreneurial capitalism. The principal, although not the only, defect of capitalism was that workers were reduced to a state of what Marx called "immiseration," a condition fostered by subsistence wages. Poor housing, poor food, poor health, and impoverishment of spirit were the common lot of factory workers. Beyond this was the state of "alienation," a concept Marx adopted from the work of philosopher Georg Frederick Hegel. Hegel had reflected on the sad fate that befell human effort, which, once crystallized in material objects, exists separately and apart from the individual who exerted it and, in this sense, was alienated from its producer. Marx used this concept to forge a theory of emotional consequences for workers under capitalism.

The primary form of workers' alienation was the fundamental experience of chagrin, bitterness, and resentment because of the loss, or alienation, of the product of their labor to the capitalist, who did not labor or produce anything. According to Marx, this was the main emotional result of a system in which those who produced things were not the same ones who owned them.

A second form of alienation resulted from the boring and mentally numbing tasks of factory-based production. Instead of the inherent satisfactions of earlier craft forms of work, workers in modern industry, with its extensive division of labor, obtained little pleasure from their largely repetitive tasks.

A third form of alienation was the emotional isolation and competitive envy of others: both owners and fellow workers. This led to the breakdown of solidarity and community, the comfortable sense of belonging to a group in which one was an accepted member. Melvin Seeman (1959) translated Marx's forms of alienation into five elements: (1) powerlessness, or a feeling that one had no control over one's fate; (2) meaninglessness, or a sense of confusion about the value and significance of one's efforts; (3) self-estrangement, or a feeling of distance between what one felt oneself to be and what one was required to do at work; (4) isolation, or the longing for a sense of connection with others; and (5) normlessness, or the feeling that one's efforts lacked aim or goal.

Even if Marx's critique of capitalism is ignored, it is important to recognize his innovation in sociological analysis, what today we would call social psychology; that is, how social organization affects individual variables. In Marx's case view, how the social patterns by which labor is organized and its benefits distributed affects emotions. This mode of analysis, designated by the term social structure, is one of the two main types of approach to the analysis of emotions in current sociology. The other, designated as culture, was fostered by the work of Max Weber.

Although he recognized the power and utility of Marx's social structural analysis of capitalism and its emotions, Weber cast a different light on the process and examined different emotions. In his most famous work, The Protestant Éthic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber ([1904–1905] 1958) engaged Marx in an intellectual battle over who better understood the historical processes that led to capitalism. According to Marx, the economic infrastructure of society—the mode and relations of production—gave rise to the superstructures of society; namely, the way in which other institutions, such as the family, religion, politics, art, and so on, were organized. Further, Marx contended that the infrastructure even determined ideas. And here Weber demurred. Instead, Weber sought to show that capitalism was the product of a distinct set of religious ideas, along with the emotions that those ideas fostered.

For Weber, the crucial ideational matrix for capitalism was the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. This is the view that salvation in the religious sense is determined for everyone prior to birth. Some, the elect, are destined to be saved and the remainder, doomed to eternal damnation. According to this doctrine, there is nothing one can do to change one's fate—no action, no amount of devotion can change one's predestined fate. For many today, this seems like an odd doctrine, and many wonder how it could have held sway. But in Geneva and other places where Calvinism reigned for a while, the belief was of the utmost importance, since it spelled out the possible eternal fate of one's soul.

Weber conjectured that such a doctrine must have been accompanied by some powerful emotions, mainly a terrible anxiety. At this point, Weber argues, a reaction formation of necessary optimism intervened to forestall despair. Calvinists came to believe that somehow, contrary to doctrine, they might change a dire fate by the most faithful and dedicated service to God's commandments. One of the most important ways in which to do this was in one's God-given Beruf, or vocation; that is, one's life's work, whether it be as a farmer, artisan, merchant, and so forth. Pursuing one's daily work in so dedicated a fashion would perhaps avert the severity of a predestined fate.

But such religiously and emotionally driven attention to one's occupation brought an unsought consequence: It led to worldly success. This in itself, despite doctrinal objections, seemed like a divine signal. Those who succeeded in worldly pursuits began to see this as a hopeful sign that they were among the elect. And, if this were so, then even greater worldly success would ensure that prognosis. Given that Calvinism also inveighed against material display, it led the successful to plow their profits back into their work. In other words, said Weber, it led to the routine practice of the capitalist method of doing business, thus giving rise to that historic form of entrepreneurship. In Weber's view, anxiety and a form of coping with it were central to the emergence of capitalism.

In the terms of the present-day sociology of emotions, Marx originated an approach based on social structure, while Weber fostered an approach based on culture. The effects of this distinction will be elaborated below.

Émile Durkheim also entered the debate against Marx, but on a different front from Weber. Marx had viewed religion as an opiate, offering hope to and dulling the pain felt by workers who suffered from the extremes of dislocation and poverty, especially during the early stages of capitalism. Marx supposed that when socialism conquered, it would obviate the need for religious belief and practice. Durkheim ([1915] 1965) viewed this as a form of ultrarationalism and sought to uncover the universal wellsprings of religion, which, he believed, would flourish regardless of what form society took. In order to investigate religious phenomena at their simplest—and hence most likely to prove universal—Durkheim examined the religion of Australian Aborigines, a group that appeared to be about as primitive as one could find according to nineteenth-century understanding.

First Durkheim proposed a distinction between religious behavior and everyday behavior, the sacred and the profane. He saw the two as segregated by time and place as well as by behavior. Among the Aborigines, the sacred emerged during clan gatherings, with the worship of totems—animals that stood for the clan and with whom clan members identified. Worship was a matter of ritual practice involving highly emotional activities—rhythmic chanting, frenetic dancing, sexual intercourse—with individuals giving over emotional control to the impulses of the moment. Durkheim reasoned that in these moments of heightened emotional arousal, individuals felt themselves to be in the grip of forces greater than themselves, providing a sense of the presence of something greater than any single individual—a spirit, a god. But Durkheim argued that the only supraindividual entity present was the group itself; that is, the co-presence of the members of the group, giving themselves over to strong emotions, provided the sense of a superior force. In worshiping that force, group members were, unwittingly, worshiping the group itself.

Durkheim generalized this point, arguing that ritual conduct, with its element of emotional arousal, leads to a sense of solidarity among those who engage in the ritual. Thus, religious ritual, far from representing the dead hand of the past, as Marx would have it, enabled group members to cleave to each other and make group continuity possible. This is true, said Durkheim, even when the shared emotion is sadness. Indeed, in examining funerary rites, he showed that coming together on the death of a group member stirred up emotions that transcended the sadness itself. Remarkably, a feeling of strength and renewed vitality emerged from the co-presence of other mourners. Emotions, thus, are not merely individual phenomena; they are crucial to the existence of human groups. Society itself is possible only because its members periodically share emotions, whether elation over great victory or sadness over great loss.


Although present-day sociologists of emotions treat them differently in many ways than did the founders of the field, they nonetheless hue close to the main insight of the founders; namely, that emotions are socially constituted. This means several things.

First, emotions emerge from episodes of interaction in which valued outcomes are at stake. Second, emotions have a socially normative component. Thus, when one's emotions deviate from the normative emotional prescription, there is some constraint to adjust one's emotions to what is normatively specified. Third, over time, as social conditions change, emotional requirements change as well. New conditions mean a somewhat new recipe for emotional life.

In the present-day sociology of emotions, two major sociological traditions converge on the social constitution of emotions, but they do so in different ways. The social structural approach examines emotions as direct products of social interaction and its outcomes. For example, insult leads to anger; deflated ego leads to shame; threat leads to fear; and so on. In each case, the end result of the social interaction is experienced as an emotion.

By contrast, the cultural approach looks mainly at the regulation of emotional expression by social rules. For example, we are enjoined to be happy at weddings, sad at funerals, angry at injustice, and so on. In each case, the individual who is emotionally out of line with what is expected in the situation confronts the possibility of emotional deviance.

The social structural and the cultural approaches form the main body of work in the modern sociology of emotions, and we discuss each in turn.

Social Structural Approaches. The earliest modern sociologist of emotion was Erving Goffman (1959, 1967, 1981), a transitional figure between the works of the founders, especially Durkheim, and later approaches. He focused powerfully on ordinary conversation as one of the main settings of social interaction. In the social interaction we call conversation, he found high emotional drama. Although conversation most often proceeds without conscious reflection about it by the participants, a conversation has only to break down to receive considerable and sometimes perplexed attention. Goffman saw that conversation actually comprises a miniritual, much in the manner Durkheim described, and that a successful conversation is like a successful ritual: Everyone plays a necessary prescribed role, even if the exact content of the role is not prescripted. In a successful conversation, participants experience a degree of self-realization that produces the kind of satisfaction that ensues from a whole-hearted and authentic participation in a religious ritual. Indeed, there is a similar sacred aspect to conversation, with the most important sacred object on display being the participant's self. In conversation, that self is accorded a due reverence by other participants or is demeaned by them.

Goffman proposed that in a conversation every actor offers a "line" about him- or herself, one which the other participants are expected to take at face value. For example, one has just been promoted to a higher position, or one has sacrificed dearly for a loved one, or one has learned how to play a Bach partita, and so on. If one carries off the line in the conversation such that others confirm one's projected persona, one feels confident and self-assured. But if one stumbles conversationally and the projected self becomes noncredible, then embarrassment ensues. Unless the actor has what Goffman calls "poise," which is the ability to mask one's embarrassment, the conversation falters.

Since conversation by its nature is interactional, other participants must cooperate in sustaining the viability of the conversational interaction. Except in unusual circumstances, Goffman saw in ordinary talk a precarious social order that is supported by the emotions of the participants, requiring their cooperation and emotional sensibility to succeed. The social order of ordinary talk is an instance of social order in general. Although Goffman did not pursue the larger questions of social order in society, his point about the emotional underpinnings of the micro order was extended to the social macro order, especially in the formal precedence orders of social power and status. Randall Collins and Arlie Russell Hochschild examined this question in the domain of stratification.

Stratification is the division of the social order into a hierarchy of power, status, and benefits. Some individuals have more and some have less of these desirable attributes and commodities. Since so many life chances are tied up in the stratification order, it is understandable that emotions are focal here, too.

According to Collins (1975, 1981, 1990), social systems, whether large or small, are arenas of conflict in which power, status, and benefits are sought by the participants. In modern societies, the main field of conflict is in organizations devoted to work. Here there are order-givers and order-takers, whose daily interactions are fraught with emotional consequences. Relative to order-takers, order-givers are secure, confident, and charged with emotional energy. This is because they are at the head of organizational units that support their initiatives and legitimate their orders. Order-takers, on the other hand, are relatively resentful, indifferent, and alienated. They are under constraint from the organizational coalitions headed by the order-givers; they will be punished if they do not obey.

Following Durkheim's model, Collins views the daily interactions of order-givers and order-takers as a ritual in which the former display their social value by providing information, evaluating the performances of others, and mobilizing the morale and energies of group members. The order-takers are the objects of the ritual, which is intended to arouse them to the same pitch of organizational commitment experienced by the order-givers. But since the order-givers, as the main beneficiaries of the system of organizational stratification, are most aroused in the ritual, they are most likely to cleave loyally to the symbols of the organizations they represent. As beneficiaries of far less, order-takers are also aroused—but with different emotions that are less conducive to good feelings, high energy, and loyal commitment.

Hochschild (1979, 1983) examined some of the emotional accompaniments of labor in service organizations. In an exemplary study of airline flight attendants, she found these workers to be often conflicted in their emotions. Although they were trained specifically to do what Hochschild called emotional labor—namely, to cater to passengers' expectations in situations of high time and space constraints, as well as passengers' sometimes impolite or obstreperous behavior—flight attendants' own emotions had to be suppressed. Insulted by a passenger, they were required to suppress anger; disgusted by a passenger's conduct, they were required to overlook their own emotion; and so on—all in the service of not alienating customers. According to Hochschild, this left many of the flight attendants emotionally numb from the overpractice of emotion suppression. Hochschild generalized these findings to the service economy at large, where most of the occupations that require emotional labor are staffed disproportionately by women.

Taking a broader perspective on social structure, Theodore Kemper (1978, 1987, 1989, 1990) proposed that most emotions could be examined as resultants of interaction outcomes in two dimensions; namely, power and status. Power is a relationship in which one actor compels another actor to do something the latter does not want to do. This entails the employment or threat of employment of a variety of noxious stimuli—from physical and verbal violence, through withholding of deserved rewards, to subtle manipulations such as lying and deception. Power is exercised pandemically, whether in informal social interactions or in organizations that carry out the broad work of society.

Status (or status-accord), on the other hand, is a social relationship in which actors voluntarily provide rewards and gratification to other actors. Coercion plays no part here. Status-giving is the basis of true social solidarity, and individuals who voluntarily share membership with each other in a social group are normally motivated to provide each other with the benefits of status, the ultimate degree of which is love.

Kemper proposed that outcomes of interaction in power and status terms give rise directly to emotions. For a sense of how this works, it is important to see that a relatively simple model of social relational outcomes suffices for the analysis. Every relational exchange takes place along the dimensions of power and status. For each actor, the outcomes can be: an increase in power and/or status, a decline, or no change. This produces 12 possible outcomes (2 actors × 2 dimensions × 3 results), but only 4 of these will actually occur, namely a power and status outcome for each actor A. Emotions will flow from these.

In the power dimension, the available evidence suggests that actor A loses power or actor B gains it, the emotional outcome for actor A is some degree of fear or anxiety. If actor A gains power and/or actor B loses it, the emotional outcome for actor is likely to be a sense of security. In the status domain, the outcomes are a bit more complex. If actor A gains status, he is likely to feel contented, satisfied, and happy. If actor A loses status, the emotional outcome depends on the felt sense of agency: Who was ultimately responsible for the status loss? If actor B is held culpable, the emotional result is anger. If the self is held culpable, the emotional result is shame or, more seriously, depression, if actor A feels that the situation is irremediable.

When the situation is one in which actor A gives status to actor B, we may expect satisfaction and contentment on the part of actor A. When actor A withholds or withdraws status from actor B, several emotional outcomes are possible. If actor B is deemed responsible ("deserving" this treatment), the result is likely to be satisfaction of a self-righteous kind on the part of actor A. If actor B was not responsible (not "deserving" the treatment), then two emotions are possible, either singly or jointly. If actor A deems that he or she did not live up to his or her character standing—that is, the amount of status with which he or she is generally credited by others as deserving—he or she will feel shame. On the other hand, if actor A concentrates on the harm or hurt he or she did to actor B, guilt is likely to ensue. In the instance of shame, actor A recognizes that he or she has acted in such a way as not to deserve the status he or she has been accorded. In the case of guilt, actor A recognizes that he or she has used an excess of power against actor B.

Some aspects of emotion also follow from anticipations that are either confirmed or disconfirmed by subsequent interaction. Thus, the actor who anticipated losing power but did not should feel especially secure. The actor who did not anticipate receiving status but received it is likely to feel especially pleased. In general, disconfirmations of expectations tend to exert a multiplier effect on the emotions that would ordinarily be felt from the power–status outcome in the situation.

Kemper's approach to emotions through power and status analysis also allows a social relational perspective on love and on its frequently confused near-relation, liking. Kemper defines a love relationship as one in which at least one actor gives or is prepared to give extreme amounts of status (for terminological purposes, status is equated with affection) to another actor. The definition includes nothing about power, but since power is a feature of all relationships, including it allows for seven different ideal-typical love relationships: (1) Adulation, in which one actor gives or is prepared to give extreme affection to another who may not even know of the other's existence. Neither actor has or uses power. (2) Ideal love, in which each actor gives or is prepared to give extreme amounts of affection to the other. Neither actor has or uses power. (3) Transference or mentor love, in which each actor gives or is prepared to give extreme amounts of affection to the other, but one of the actors also has a great deal of power over the other. This pattern is prevalent in ideal teacher–student, therapist–client, or mentor–mentee relationships, in which the former in each case is the one with power over the latter. (4) Romantic love, in which each actor gives or is prepared to give extreme amounts of love to the other, but each actor also has a great deal of power over the other. This is the kind of relationship in which each can suffer intensely from the real or imagined withdrawal of affection by the other. (5) Unfaithful love, in which only one actor gives or is prepared to give extreme amounts of affection to the other, but both actors have a great amount of power. Infidelity is a case of this kind of relationship; the betrayer has withdrawn affection from the betrayed, although the betrayed still has a great deal of power, which is why most infidelities are kept secret. (6) Infatuation or unrequited love, in which one actor gives or is prepared to give extreme amounts of affection to the other but has no power, while the other actor gives no affection but has a great deal of power. (7) Parent–Infant Love, in which the parent gives extreme amounts of affection to the infant and the infant gives nothing in return, while the parent has a great deal of power and the infant has none. These seven relationships can also be represented visually in a two-dimensional space according to their power and status (affection) locations (See figure 1).

Kemper (1989; and Reid 1997) distinguishes love from liking as follows: one feels love for another when the other's qualities match one's standards to an extremely high degree. It does not matter what the standards are; they may be trivial (e.g., he dresses well; she dances well) or they may be profound (e.g., he is a noble man who would risk his life to preserve others; she is compassionate woman whose concern is with the well-being of others). In either case, if one has standards that are met by these qualities in the other, then it is likely that feelings of love will be induced. Ordinarily, more than one standard must be met by the qualities of the other in order for love to bloom. No small standard in Western culture is appearance, which often dominates all others, at least among the young. Love thus has to do with the qualities of the other and how they match our standards.

Liking, on the other hand, according to Kemper, is the pleasant feeling that arises when the other gives us status or affection. Liking requires that the other act well toward us; love has no such requirement, as shown by such types (above) as adulation, unfaithful love, infatuation or unrequited love, and parent–child love. In each of these, one party loves another who gives no affection in return. In love this is possible; in liking, it is not.

Kemper's use of power and status is matched by Heise (1979) and his colleagues (Smith-Lovin and Heise 1988; MacKinnon 1994) in another structural approach to emotions known as affect control theory (ACT). Heise's model of interaction and emotions stems from a linguistic paradigm, most notably the semantic differential (SD), which purports to get at fundamental categories of meaning in the use of language. Supported by many cross-cultural studies, the proponents of the SD have found three fundamental dimensions: potency (power), evaluation (status), and activity. Kemper does not include activity in his approach to emotions, although it has a place in a more general social organizational framework as standing for technical activity in the division of labor.

Working with the potency, evaluation, and activity dimensions, Heise and his colleagues have developed a mathematically sophisticated set of formulas to predict a variety of outcomes, including emotions. First, common language terms—nouns, verbs, adjectives—are rated by samples of respondents for their potency, evaluation, and activity standing. For example, the term father may stand relatively high on each of these; on the other hand, the term criminal may stand high on potency and activity but low on evaluation. Heise has compiled a large dictionary of such terms whose potency, evaluation, and activity values can be entered into complex regression equations to predict emotions.

The basic notion in ACT is that individuals behave so as to maintain their fundamental identity. If something has occurred—whether action by oneself or another—that questions the validity of that identity, an emotion results. For example, a parent may usually be loving to his or her child, but if the parent acts out of character by behaving cruelly or indifferently to the child, there is a felt need to reequilibrate the relationship and reclaim the identity of loving parent. The emotion, whether it is shame or guilt, provides some of the motivational energy to repair the relationship and maintain the fundamental identity.

In some examples of how this works, Heise and his colleagues found that when a father serves a son, the father's emotions were predicted to be pleased, contented, and relieved, while the son's emotions (the emotions of the recipient of interaction can also be predicted) were predicted to be amused, light-hearted, and euphoric. If a judge sentences a gangster, the judge's emotions were predicted to be contented, relieved, and proud, while the gangster's emotions were predicted to be uneasy and awestruck. Several emotions are usually generated by the ACT equations because they have approximately equal value in potency, evaluation, and activity terms for the given situation.

Heise has examined complex instances in which an individual is observed to perform an act and reveal a number of emotions. How others will judge the actor is predicted to be based on the emotions the focal actor reveals. For example, when a man kisses a woman, if he is cheerful, he is identified as a gentleman, pal, or mate, identities that gain significantly in evaluation, with some loss in the potency dimension. On the other hand, if he kisses a woman and manifests disgust, he is identitified at a much lower evaluation level, but with his potency remaining unchanged. If he displays nervousness, he is identified as having lower standing in both evaluation and potency.

Heise's method also allows for a distinction between emotions and moods. For example, if a father ignores a son, the father is predicted to feel unhappy. ACT now predicts that the father will act to reinstate his identity as a father who does not ignore his son. In contrast to the father who became unhappy over his act, there is the unhappy father, a fundamental identity combining a social position with an emotion. Heise identifies this as a mood. According to ACT, moods give rise to consistent behavior; for example, the unhappy father might neglect or attack the son.

In all, the structural theorists of emotion are concerned with predicting emotions from the social locations and relationships of actor. This assumes that there is a natural (or pancultural) universal reaction to certain kinds of social relational outcomes. For example, insult evokes anger. One of the most important differences between the social structural and cultural approaches (to be discussed next) hinges on whether this assumption is correct.

Cultural Approaches to Emotions. In contrast with the social structural view of emotions as direct results of social relations between actors, the cultural approach inserts an intervening stage; namely, the normative definition of situations and the specification of what emotions are appropriate in them. Hochschild proposes that these "feeling rules" define and regulate the expression of emotion. Examining emotions from this perspective leads to a strong emphasis on the study of how emotions are managed so that they conform with the normative requirements of given situations. Culturally oriented sociologists of emotion are also concerned with how emotions contribute to social order. Guilt and shame are significant emotions for this purpose.

The cultural approach to emotions is partial to cognitive and idealist models, since these concern themselves with mental processes that come to determine emotions. The fundamental source of the cultural approach is symbolic interactionism. In this school, whose prime practitioner and exemplar was George Herbert Mead (1934), the fundamental notion is that virtually nothing, not even mind or self, precedes social interaction. Thus social interaction actually constitutes or constructs these fundamental categories.

Mead proposed that after some cooperative interactions with another person, we have the capacity to call up in ourself the probable reaction of the other to any proactive behavior of our own. This is based on the recollection of the pattern of interactions with the other when one or another behavior on our part elicited one or another response on the part of the other. The ability to recapitulate all this in our head prior to any actual behavior is what Mead termed mind and the process, thinking.

Having derived mind from prior social interaction, Mead went further and located the origin of the self in the same kinds of interactive encounters with others. In Mead's terms, we become capable of putting ourself in the place of the other and looking at ourself as if we were an object. This mental operation provides us with a sense of self–our identity–as derived from the perspective of another. The actual self of the individual is some composite of the many selves that are available when one takes the perspective of the many others with whom one interacts.

The most widely known approach to emotions from the symbolic interactionist perspective is offered by Hochschild (1979, 1983). She posits that emotions arise in a somewhat natural way in situations or frames. But the emotion is then subjected to examination as more or less appropriate from the perspective of the normative borders of the situation. Expressed as "feeling rules," the norms specify the required emotions in given frames: happy at birthday parties, sad at funerals, and so on. Because most people react emotionally to situations in more or less the ways that the rules require, they are rarely conscious of the rules. But should there be a discrepancy between the emotion and the rule, there is a sense of discomfort and a felt pressure to adapt. Hochschild offers a number of likely strategies that are used to manage one's emotions in such emotionally deviant situations. Principally, one may engage in either surface or deep acting. In the former, one puts on the manifest signs of the emotion even if one does not authentically feel it; for example, smiling at the host of a party, despite the fact that one despises him. In deep acting, the individual actually tries to evoke the prescribed emotion.

For Hochschild, emotion essentially results from a discrepancy between what we perceive and what we expected. The inchoate feeling is labeled by cultural fiat as anger, fear, shame, and so on, and this provides a reservoir of cultural associations with the significance, meaning, implications, and so on of having such an emotion. These may ramify into modifying or seeking to change the emotion. Thus culture, the aggregate of normative understandings derived from others, intervenes early in the emotion process, leading to the judgment that emotion is a social construction. For example, shame is constructed from five perceptions: motive (I want to do right); possession (I have done wrong); value (I disapprove); agency (I am the cause of the event); and self–agent relations (the audience for my act is better than I am).

Hochschild's (1983) widely cited study of emotion management among airline flight attendants has led to a significant body of research that has focused on the emotional effects of managing emotions. These studies are reviewed by Morris and Feldman (1996) and Gibson (1997).

Peggy Thoits (1990) has taken Hochschild's ideas on emotion management to another level. In her view, emotions are comprised of four elements: situational cues, physiological changes, expressive gestures, and an emotion label. These are so connected in memory and behavior pattern that the elicitation of one evokes the others. Thoits proposes that when emotions and feeling rules are discrepant, the actor can manage this through either cognitive or behavioral manipulation of the four elements of emotion. For example, one can withdraw when a deviant emotion is felt (behaviorsituational), or one can exercise or take drugs to change the physiological base of the emotion (behavior-physiological), or one can redefine the situation so that its implication for emotion changes (cognitive-situational), and so on.

Thoits also expands Hochschild's notion of emotional deviance through proposing four situations that might dispose toward it: multiple role occupancy, subcultural marginality, role transition, and rigid rules governing ongoing roles or ceremonial occasions. Thoits also proposes that a deviant emotion not only violates the feeling rules but also includes emotions that are too prolonged, too intense, or directed at the wrong target. Yet even deviant emotions may become legitimate if they are widely shared, thus leading to a change in social norms. An example is the change in national sentiment brought about by the protests of the antiwar movement during the Vietnam period.

In another fundamentally symbolic interactionist approach to emotions, Clark (1997) examines sympathy, an emotion treated importantly by Adam Smith ([1759] 1853) in his Theory of Moral Sentiments. Clark sees sympathy as a pervasive emotion, making society possible, for without it there would be no "social glue." Indeed, since sympathy is so important, "sympathy entrepreneurs," emerge to facilitate the evocation and display of this emotion. These are voluntary organizations designed to mobilize sympathy for specific victims (for example, Mothers Against Drunk Driving [MADD]) or commercial organizations, such as greeting card companies, that facilitate expressions of sympathy by large publics. Clark also sees what she refers to as "sympathy margins" as regular features of social relationships. These are earned credits, so to speak, that enable individuals to call on the understanding, sympathy, and forgiveness of others when they are caught out, or caught short, or have otherwise become hapless victims.

Steven Gordon (1981) is another exponent of the social constructionist view of emotions. Although he acknowledges that emotions per se are elemental and biological, he contends that shortly after childhood they are culturally transformed into what he calls "sentiments." For example, the elemental emotion of anger is converted into such sentiments as resentment, righteous indignation, moral outrage, and so on. This is presumed to be the fate of all emotions. Since sentiments are socially formed, they can be invented or even abandoned.

Gordon stands within the tradition of Norbert Elias (1978a, 1978b), who offered an insightful historical perspective on the emergence of the emotion of shame as an important feature of social relations between different social classes. Elias examined especially the relations between the rising bourgeousie of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and the aristocrats who disdained them. In many instances the nobility, seeking to insulate itself from the incursions of lower-status merchants and traders, refined their practices in the execution of common daily chores involving dining, self-cleansing, toilet functions, and so on. Those who could not match the newly defined limits of gentility were exposed to ridicule and shaming. For a long historical period, the aristocracy were the arbiters of manners, that is, what passed for acceptable social conduct. Those who were ill trained in the ultrarefinements thus properly felt shame.

Although symbolic interactionism has been used to refute the idea of fixity in the domain of emotions, Susan Shott (1979) and Thomas Scheff (1979, 1988, 1994, 1997) have also employed it to show how emotions underlie social order and stability. The fact that pattern and predictability exist in much of social life, rather than chaos and randomness, poses one of the longstanding problems in sociological analysis. It is generally acknowledged that the reverse side of social order is social control, indicating that society manages somehow to instill in individuals a propensity to comply with required social forms and that deviance from these forms, though greater in some periods than in others, is actually quite limited. How is this accomplished?

There are two main answers to the question, and both of them turn on emotion. First, social order may be imposed by dominant and powerful groups. Their tactic is to evoke fear for nonconforming behavior. Although it has been argued by some, such as Talcott Parsons, that such regimes cannot be stable in the long run, in the short run they can have remarkable sticking power. Decades or even centuries may elapse before a feared government is overthrown.

The second ground for social order entails acceptance of the existing pattern of things. And here sociologists have split on what is accepted. On the one hand, social order can flow from belief in the validity of the social norms. One pays one's taxes, serves in the armed forces, does not steal even when there is an opportunity to do so undetected, and so on because the rules are deemed valid and it feels morally right to abide by them. A second view, which has come to prominence, is that underlying social order is an emotional order. Without an emotional basis, social order would not be possible.

Attacking the question from a symbolic interactionist perspective, Shott proposes a set of "role-taking emotions" that are central to social control: guilt, shame, embarrassment, pride, and vanity. Each of these involves the central symbolic interactionist mechanism of putting oneself in the place, or taking the role, of the other person and thereby evoking his or her perspective. The result of such role-taking can be an emotion directed toward the self, because it evokes in the self the judgment that others are making about the self. Guilt involves the self-and (presumed) other-judgment of "moral inadequacy." Shame entails the self- and (presumed) other-rejection of an "idealized self-image." Embarrassment arises from the realization that others view one's self-presentation as "inept." Pride comes from placing oneself in the position of others and regarding oneself with approbation; vanity is a reduced form of this, in that one is not sure of other's approval.

These emotions (with perhaps the exception of vanity) operate homeostatically. Individuals are moved to reduce the incidence of such unpleasant emotions as guilt, shame, and embarrassment and increase the incidence of pleasant emotions such as pride. How is this done? Obviously, one avoids the unpleasant emotions by avoiding conduct that would earn the disapprobation of others. One gains pleasant emotions by engaging in conduct of which others approve. In general, the emotions fit one into the moral requirements of others, who are themselves governed by the same set of preand proscriptions for social conduct.

Shott suggests that the role-taking emotions are an inexpensive way for society to obtain social order, since they make each person his or her own guardian in ensuring that the emotional tone of one's life remains, on balance, more pleasant than painful. Where such self-control fails, the prospects of social order are not entirely dim, for the emotions that ensue—guilt, shame, or embarrassment—motivate reparative action to reequilibrate the social order as well as others—therefore, one's own—opinion of oneself. Thus, guilt and shame have been shown to increase compensatory altruism toward others, and embarrassment has been shown to evoke compensatory supererogation or attainment as a way of reequilibrating the judgments of others about the self to return to a positive balance.

Finally, Shott proposes a role-taking emotion that is not reflexive, in that it does not pertain to a judgment of the self. This is empathy, which allows one to feel what the other person in the situation is feeling, or what one would likely feel if one were in the place of the other person. Empathy makes any emotion vicariously accessible. Where the emotion reveals the other to be in a socially vulnerable place, one has the embodied sense of the need that other has for social rescue, and the likelihood of engaging in that rescue is enhanced. Thus empathy allows for the evocation of solidarity with others and the preservation of social order through protective behaviors that take up the slack when others are unable to act suitably in their own behalf.

Scheff is also concerned with social order, but he focuses on shame and pride as the ne plus ultra emotions in this regard. He takes a cue from Charles Horton Cooley's ([1902] 1922) famous looking-glass metaphor: "Each to each a looking glass, reflects the other that doth pass" (p. 184). Cooley asserted that pride and shame were the emotional engines for getting individuals to conform to the requirements of their fellow members in society. Scheff proposes that individuals are continuously in a state of either pride or shame. But then the question arises as to why, if these emotions are so important, there is so little evidence of them.

Scheff proposes that shame is a recursive emotion. That is, once present it has a tendency to evoke more shame, or even anger, over the fact that one is ashamed. This can lead to a spiral of emotion about emotion about emotion . . . that leads to both an inability to escape the emotion and a tendency to hide it from others—a frequent response when coping with shame. This hiddenness, proposed as a defining feature of shame, ties in with the work of Helen Block Lewis (1971), whose intensive analysis of psychotherapy protocols revealed two types of "unacknowledged" shame: overt, undifferentiated shame and bypassed shame. The former is manifested by painful feelings and self-derogation ("I am stupid, foolish, feckless, incompetent," and the like). Often this is accompanied by stammering, unnecessary word repetition, averted gaze, and declining audibility of speech. Both the verbal, paralinguistic and proxemic forms are means of hiding the self from the evaluating gaze of others.

Bypassed shame, on the other hand, leads to covert such symptoms as obsessive focusing on the episode that evoked the inadequate response, as if the replay could retrieve the lost status. Thought and speech are hyperactive, actually preventing one from participating with others in the natural rhythm of conversational flow. Both types of shame share the common characteristic of low visibility, thus demonstrating the power of shame as the emotional foundation of social control. Only those with sufficient self-esteem can acknowledge their shame and thus discharge it. But self-esteem itself, as proposed by Mead, derives from the good opinion of others, which itself arises when one conforms to their normative requirements; that is, when there has been social control.

This formulation, implying catharsis in the discharge of shame, ties into Scheff's work on the problem of undischarged emotions. Scheff proposes that catharsis of these residual emotions can only occur in properly "distanced" settings. Here Scheff adopts the concept of "aesthetic distance," employed by Bullough in his analysis of drama. According to Bullough (1912), an audience can experience a dramatic presentation in various ways according to its emotional distance from what appears on stage. Too little distance involves the audience so deeply that it forgets it is merely watching a play and wants to mount the stage in defense of the hero. Too much distance leaves the audience uninvolved, indifferent to whatever murder or mayhem may be happening on stage. Optimum, or aesthetic, distance, like the last of Goldilocks's porridge bowls and beds, is "just right," providing a comfortable level of emotional arousal that leads to the "purgation of pity and terror," which according to Aristotle was the aim of drama.

In a similar vein, Scheff proposes that troublesome residual emotions may also be purged in social settings where there is optimum distance. To do so, he suggests, requires that the expressive emotional content be retrieved (for example, crying, trembling, sweating), but in a context in which the individual can be both participant and observer of his or her own emotional display. When these conditions for emotional aesthetic distance are met, catharsis occurs. This is signaled by an anomalous emotional outcome: even though the residual emotion may be unpleasant, discharging it is not unpleasant, and there is a succeeding state of clarity of thought, relaxation, renewed energy or exhilaration. Although the catharsis paradigm is somewhat different from the social control paradigm, the two are joined in that unacknowledged shame, which is not discharged, often leads to spirals of emotion (e.g., anger over shame over fear) that incapacitate individuals in their social interactions, leading sometimes to violent outbursts that break though all the bonds of social control.

Robert Thamm (1992) builds a theory of emotions on the foundations of Talcott Parsons's and Edward Shils's scheme for a general theory of action. In their formulatiion, social actors are linked in reciprocal forms of action and response through expectations and sanctions. In social settings, individuals have expectations of each other, and in light of those expectations they reward or fail to reward each other's behavior. From each actor's perspective, according to Thamm, this leads to four questions: (1) Is the self meeting expectations? (2) Is the self receiving rewards? (3) Is the other meeting expectations? (4) Is the other receiving rewards? These constitute a social matrix for the production of emotions. As the answers to these questions vary from yes (+) to no (−) to don't know (0), different emotions result. A given state of the system of self and other's expectations and sanctions can be coded by a pertinent series of pluses, minuses, and zeros. For example, if the answer to all four questions is yes, the coding is [++++]; if the answer to all four is no, the coding is [−−−−]; if the answer to the first two is yes and the last two is no, the coding is [++−−].

Based on the permutations of the many possible states of the expectations–sanctions system, Thamm hypothesizes a variety of emotional resultants. For example, when the self meets expectations [+000], the self feels pleased with itself. When the self does not meet expectation [−000], the self feels disappointed with itself. When the other does not meet expectations [00−0], the self feels disappointed in the other. When the self meets expectations but is not rewarded [+−00], the self feels powerless. When the other does not meet expections, so that the self is not rewarded [0−−0], the self feels anger at the other. Many additional hypotheses follow from the variations along the spectrum of expectations–sanctions possibilities.

The reliance of the cultural approach to emotions on mental structions susceptible to socialization and variable according to historical conditions of change, directly conflicts with at least some elements of the social structural position. The latter places more emphasis on universal situational determinants of emotion and on some biological mechanisms that articulate with the situation–emotion nexus. Kemper (1987) has attempted to reconcile some of the opposing views through a syncretic analysis, focusing on the issue of primary and secondary emotions.

Kemper proposes that a large body of cross-cultural, phylogenetic, autonomic, social relational, and classificatory evidence leads to a model of four primary emotions: fear, anger, sadness, and joy (or nominal variants of these). Since there are additional emotions, the question is: What is their source? Kemper proposes that emotions beyond the primary ones may arise from a specific pattern of socialization in which a social definition and label are applied to a situation in which one of the primary emotions is being felt. For example, pride may be derived from socialization to the idea of self-regard for accomplishment in a context of joy. Shame may result from socialization to the idea of self-rejection in a context of anger. And guilt may derive from socialization to the idea of self-rejection for what is defined as a morally wrong action in the context of fear. The primary emotion contexts are important because they provide the autonomic, therefore specifically emotional, underpinnings of the secondary emotions. The cultural components, such as situational definitions and emotional labels, are important because they help the person differentiate and ascribe the feeling to particular social and behavior contexts.

Gibson (1997) offers a different approach to the reconciliation of the structural and cultural approaches to emotions by incorporating aspects of both in his model for feeling and expression of emotions in organizations. Both structural conditions and display rules operate to instigate and control emotions in organizational contexts.


One of the longest-standing problems in the study of emotions is the relationship between emotions and reason. This question has engaged two millennia of philosophers and psychologists, including Aristotle, Aquinas, Spinoza, Hume, and Freud. Sociologists are latecomers here, but have substantially and persuasively claimed that reason is not an isolated domain of human action, but is imbued with emotion (Kemper 1993), a point that a sociological approach makes particularly clear.

Max Weber ([1922] 1947) set the stage by distinguishing between Zweckrational, or expedient action, and at least two types of emotional action: Affectuel, or impulsive action, and Wertrational, or value-oriented action. But he did little to develop the relationship between the two emotional types and the strictly expedient type. The latter is the prototypical action of economic theory, where means are examined and selected to attain the best possible outcome. In the economic version, money is the usual yardstick for the efficacy of the decision based on expediency. Other considerations are treated more or less as "noise," disturbing the adequacy of the model. The sociological version of this economic approach is rational choice theory.

In a radical confrontation with rational choice theory, Collins (1993) throws down the gauntlet to economically based theories. He argues that the main preference order is based on emotional currency, namely emotional energy (EE) which is acquired in successful interactions with others (see earlier description of Collins' work). The good feelings—confidence and enthusiasm—that individuals derive from participation in interaction are the summum bonum, and this is what individuals are attempting to maximize in their so-called rational choices, regardless of what the currency may appear to be—money, status, practical or aesthetic enjoyment of material goods, and so on.

Lawler and Thye (1999) approach the rational choice issue through the window of social exchange theory, in which self-interested actors are trying to obtain something of value from other self-interested actors. They examine the context of exchange, which ordinarily will have a certain emotional tone and emotional requirements, the processes of exchange, which may make actors feel satisfied, excited, or otherwise emotionally aroused, and the outcome of exchange at which point actors may feel gratified or angry, prideful or crestfallen. In a useful schematic formulation, Lawler and Thye organize the context, process, and outcome features of exchange according to six different mainly sociological approaches to the study of emotions. For context, the cultural-normative approach (Hochschild 1979) and the structural-relation approach (Collins 1975, Kemper 1978); for processes, a psychologically oriented social-cognitive approach (Bower 1991) and a sensory-informational approach (Heise 1979); and for outcomes, a social attribution approach (Weiner 1986) and a social formations approach (Collins 1981 and Lawler and Yoon 1998). This schematic formulation enables analysts to move easily into the examination of motions in social exchange situations.


Most sociological examinations of emotion are social-psychological; that is, social structures, processes, or outcomes of these are seen to produce emotions in the individuals involved, with emotions differing according to where in the structure, process, or outcome the individual stands. Jack Barbalet (1998) provides an important exception to this social-psychological approach, conceiving of emotion as integral to social relations and social processes themselves. Emotion is felt by individuals—this cannot be escaped—but as an aspect of societal patterns of social organization in terms of class, gender, race, and the like. This leads to another perspectival difference: Most sociological approaches to emotion examine social processes and social relations as the independent variables—they cause or produce emotions. Barbalet reverses this and examines how emotions cause or produce social processes and social relations. Furthermore, this is conceived at the macro level, engaging societal, as opposed to interpersonal, processes.

For example, working-class individuals might be expected to harbor social resentment against those who are better off, but such resentment is scant in the United States and has led to no effective political movements. Following Bensman and Vidich (1962), Barbalet tries to explain this in part by locating different sectors of the working class in different places in normal trade cycles in capitalist societies. A dynamic economy contains both expanding (e.g., computers) and contracting (e.g., textiles) industries, and workers in the different industries cannot be expected to experience the same emotions, thus vitiating any theory or program that views workers in a monolithic way.

In another venture into the macrosociology of emotions, Barbalet examines the emotion, mood, or feeling of confidence as an important feature of social process. Particularly in the business community, confidence is a necessary condition of investment. Indeed, in Barbalet's view, confidence dominates even rational calculation. This is because rational business planning is limited by the fact that it is future-oriented and the information that rational assessment requires is unavailable—it can only unfold in the future. Therefore, to undertake action under conditions of limited rationality, the business community must rely on its intuition that investment will be profitable. Put otherwise, it must have confidence. Government is an important constituent of the situation, sometimes enhancing and sometimes depressing business confidence. Barbalet proposes that what differentiates these effects of government policy is whether they reflect "acceptance and recognition" of the business community. For example, government spending on infrastructure or the bailout of the savings and loan industry reflect such appreciation. On the other hand, business interests feel slighted when the government proposes strict policies to reduce global warming, and business confidence falls accordingly. In both examples—those of the working class and business—the emotions are aggregated products of many individuals that then act as a discrete force in society.

In an unusually strong entry of a macrosociological approach into the domain of emotions, Jasper (1998) and Goodwin and Jasper (1999) have argued for the overlooked importance of emotions in the understanding of large scale social movements. Social movements, they argue, are awash in emotions. Anger, fear, envy, guilt, pity, shame, awe, passion and other feelings play a part either in the formation of social movements, in their relations with their targets who are either antagonists or possible collaborators, and in the lives of potential recruits and members. Without the emotions engaged in movement environments, dynamics, and structure it would be hard to explain how social movements arise, amass critical levels of support, maintain such support in long enduring campaigns in the face of often intense opposition, and provide means for recruiting and sustaining supporters, both as active members and as favorably disposed publics and bystanders. Understanding the dynamics of emotions thus clarifies social movement dynamics.


The sociology of emotions has a long history but only a short recent life. It is a diverse speciality, reflecting many of the axial divisions that currently rend the field, but one that lends itself to the illumination of a large number of problem areas from the micro to the macro level. The main requirement for the present-day sociology of emotions is, as Peggy Thoits (1989) has argued, to pursue empirical support for its many theories. Only in this way will it become clear in which direction theory can most fruitfully go.

(see also: Affect Control Theory and Impression Formation; Rational Choice; Social Exchange Theory)


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Theodore D. Kemper


views updated May 29 2018



In bioethics, as in ethics more generally, there is much debate about the significance of emotions in an account of moral character. Intuitively speaking, emotions are important because as moral beings we care not only about how we act but also about how we feel—what our moods are, as well as our attitudes and affects. Within the practice of healthcare, the emotions of compassion and empathy seem to have a particularly important place in a full description of decent and ethical treatment of a patient. The general point is not that emotion is internal and action external, because both action and emotion have exterior moments that point to deeper interior states, commonly thought of as character. Rather, emotions are important as modes of sensitivity that record what is morally salient and that then communicate those concerns to self and others. Thus, to grieve, pity, show empathy, or love is to focus on an aspect of self or other and to grasp information to which purer cognition or thought may not have access. Generally put, different emotions are sensitive to different kinds of salience. In the case of grief, what is salient is that humans suffer and face loss; in the case of pity, that they sometimes fail through blameless ignorance, duress, sickness, or accident; in the case of empathy, that they need the expressed support and union of others who can understand and identify with them; and in the case of love that they find certain individuals attractive and worthy of their time and attention.

In relations in which caring for others is definitive, emotional sensitivity plays a powerful role. In choosing physicians, for example, people tend to value medical skill and ability deeply, but value character and judgment as well. And part of what people look for in character and judgment is not just reliable and principled action but also a certain range of emotional responsiveness. Medical care ministered without human gesture may simply not be received in the same way as that conveyed through compassion and empathy. A physician's sensitivity to a patient's needs, worries, and fears is often also relevant to diagnosis, just as the physician's communication of emotions may be relevant to how a patient confronts illness and recovery. As in any relationship, emotional interaction is part of the exchange. In more intimate friendships, we hope that loved ones will be able to respond to our joy and suffering in more than merely intellectual ways and that they will communicate feelings through spontaneous affect and gesture as well as more deliberate action.

What Are Emotions?

In general terms, then, emotional sensitivity is a moral feature of personal interaction. But what are emotions? It is useful to first review some alternative views.

The first is the commonsense view in which emotion is thought to be an irreducible quality of feeling or sensation. It may be caused by physical states, but the emotion itself is the sensation we feel when we are in that state. It is a felt affect, a distinctive feeling, but not something dependent upon thought content or appraisals of situations. This view quickly appears faulty, however, when one realizes that on this view emotions become no more than private states—sensations such as itches and tickles that have little to do with what the emotions are about and how a person construes or represents those affairs.

A second view, associated with the American psychologist and philosopher William James and Danish physiologist Carl Lange is that emotions are an awareness of bodily changes in the musculature and viscera. We are afraid because we tremble or flee, not the other way around; likewise, we are angry because of the knots in our stomachs. This view, though rather counterintuitive, nonetheless captures the idea that emotions, more than other mental states, seem to have conspicuous physiological and kinesthetic components. These often dominate children's and adults' reports of their emotional experiences. They dominate the literary world, too. Consider in this vein the lines of the Greek poet Sappho composed around 600 b.c.e.:

When I see you,
my voice fails, my tongue is paralyzed,
a fiery fever runs through my whole body
my eyes are swimming,
and can see nothing
my ears are filled with a throbbing din
I am shivering all over …

Literary history, social convention, and perhaps evolution conspire to tell us this is love. But even here it is not hard to imagine that what is described could be dread or awe or perhaps, mystical inspiration. Even well-honed physiological feelings do not easily identify specific emotions. An awareness of our skin tingling or our chest constricting or our readiness to flee or fight do not specify just what emotion we are feeling. Many distinct emotions share these features, and without contextual clues and thoughts that dwell on those clues, we are in the dark about what we are experiencing (Schacter and Singer). The chief burden of the work of the American physiologist Walter B. Cannon was to show that many physiological affects are virtually identical across manifestly different states. While more current research suggests a tighter fit between specific emotions and specific autonomic system responses (such as skin temperature and heart rate), visceral responses such as these nevertheless have slow response times, too slow to determine what emotion one is actually feeling at a given time (LeDoux). So Cannon's general insight about the indeterminacy of the "feel" of an emotion still holds, though for different reasons than the ones he offered.

A third view with some kinship to the James-Lange view holds that emotions are felt action tendencies (Arnold). They are modes of readiness to act or, in the different idiom of psychoanalysis, discharge impulses. Supporting this view is the tendency of people to describe emotions in terms of dispositions to concrete behavior, for example, "I felt like hitting him," "I could have exploded," "I wanted to spit," and "I wanted to be alone with him, wrapped in his embrace." Nevertheless, the action tendency view seems at best a partial account of emotion. The basic issue here is not that some emotions such as apathy, inhibition, and depression seem to lack activation modes—while others are more a matter of the rich movement of thought so well depicted, for example, in Henry James's novels. It is rather that emotions are about something (internal or external) that people represent in thought. As such, emotions have propositional or cognitive content. They are identified by that content, by what we dwell on, whether fleetingly or with concentrated attention.

According to a fourth and most plausible view, emotions are constituted by appraisals or cognitive evaluations. (This is the view the fourth-century b.c.e. Greek philosopher Aristotle developed in the Rhetoric, and a view the Stoics put forth in more radical form. It is the clear favorite of most philosophers of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries—for a sampling, see de Sousa, 1987; Stocker; Goldie; Nussbaum, 2001. It is also the reigning view in cognitive psychology—see Lazarus; Oatley; Frijda; Scherer, and for an important criticism, see Zajonc.) Such an account need not exclude other features of emotion, such as awareness of physiological and behavioral responses or a particular phenomenological feel. But these, when present, are dependent on the appraisals of circumstances that capture what the emotion is about. Moreover, it is compatible with this view that emotions have complex neuropsychological structures that can be investigated by science.

To be more precise, an appraisal, on this view, is a belief or evaluation about the goodness or badness of some perceived or imagined event. Anger requires an evaluation that one has been unjustly slighted by another, fear that there is present harm or danger, grief that something valuable has been lost, love that one values a person as supremely important in one's life. On the Aristotelian view, the evaluation is experienced with pleasure or pain, and in some, but not all, cases with a reactive desire, not unlike the earlier mentioned action tendency. According to Aristotle, "Anger is a desire [orexis] accompanied by pain toward the revenge of what one regards as a slight toward oneself or one's friends that is unwarranted" (Rhetoric, 1378a30–32).

The appraisals constitutive of emotions can be weaker than strict beliefs (P. Greenspan). Thus, many of the thoughts that ground emotions are not judgments to which we would give assent, but are rather thoughts, perceptions, imaginings, and construals (phantasiai, Aristotle would say) that we dwell on in compelling ways, though without concern about "objective truth." Familiar sorts of examples illustrate the point. Juan may fear spiders, even though he knows that most spiders he is likely to encounter are harmless; or Clarissa may know that Joe is a no-good lover for her, but she still finds herself yearning for him. In these cases emotions have thought contents or appraisals, though ones that are at odds with more circumspect judgment. They are mental states that seem to lag behind what a person is ready to grasp through belief.

On an Aristotelian view, appraisals constitutive of emotions have a qualitative flavor—a feeling of pleasure or pain. The flavor may be intense or mild, present to consciousness or hidden somewhere as background noise. So, for example, a patient reflecting on her illness may have fears that all may not turn out well, even though she never feels any strong or noticeable tension when she focuses on that thought. Some emotions may be felt as a mix of both pleasure and pain. Even a quick "flash" of emotion, such as a "twinge" of envy, can seem to oscillate quickly from one affective pole to another, from pain at another's good fortune to pleasure at being in a position to slight that person.

Aristotle suggests that many emotions have a motivational aspect, that is, they involve a reason or motive for action. Again, recognition of the diversity and variety of emotions is crucial here. Some emotions, such as calmness, confidence, and equanimity do not in an obvious way involve desires for action. In contrast, anger often involves a desire for revenge, just as envy seems to involve a desire to thwart others from having various goods. These sorts of desires can go on to constitute a motive or reason for full-fledged action, although often we train ourselves not to act, and not to take as a motive for action all our impulses and desires. In some cases, we act out our emotions only in our minds, as when out of anger, we slay the object of our anger in our fantasy life. Here impulses and urgings are present, but they are not taken up as reasons for action.

At yet other times we do externally act out our emotions but in a way in which that emotion still seems to fall short of constituting a full-fledged reason or motive for action. In anger, we sometimes act impulsively, slamming doors and storming out of rooms. This is a venting, a way of letting out tension, not a strategy for sweet revenge. Defiling a photograph of an ex-lover comes closer to the mark, for here at least there is symbolic aim. Nevertheless, these cases of anger do not really aim at effective revenge. They are reactive more than purposeful. And yet, they seem to be voluntary. They are certainly not the involuntary responses of the viscera. Like stroking a patient's brow or tousling a child's hair, emotion motivates the action. These two actions are likely done out of compassion and affection. But it seems strained, at least in some of these cases, to say that one does these actions in order to show compassion or affection—which is the common pattern a demand for reasons often takes. The gesture just expresses compassion or affection. The explanation stops there. It is not like drinking in order to slake thirst, in which drinking strategically promotes that end (Hursthouse).

Emotions and the Brain

In recent years neurophysiologists have turned to an analysis of emotions and the underlying brain structures of specific emotions and emotional pathologies. Two of the leading researchers in this field are Joseph E. LeDoux and Antonio R. Damasio.

In his 1996 book, The Emotional Brain, LeDoux makes three central points. First, he contends that emotions form a two-track response system. One track involves the "low road," or fast route where information travels directly from the thalamus, a subcortical "relay station" in the brain that mediates between external stimuli and specialized parts of the brain that process information, to the amygdala, a small region in the forebrain which generates the behavioral, autonomic and endocrine responses which make up an emotional reaction. The other track involves a "high road," or slow route where information takes a detour through the cortex, the more recently evolved part of the brain which supports higher cognitive functioning, including thinking, reasoning and consciousness. The first, subcortical pathway is a primitive survival mechanism, fast but "quick and dirty" and often filled with errors. It is the basis of the human fear response not only to snakes but also to slimy, bent sticks that look like snakes. The second cortical pathway is slower, but more precise, correcting for errors in overreaction and adding the advantages of conscious judgment and more finetuned discernment. The very slowness that makes it a poor defense mechanism suits it well for leisurely appraisal.

LeDoux notes, secondly, that memories of emotional situations are laid down by a two-track memory system. One system involves implicit or procedural memory, another explicit or declarative memory. So LeDoux asks us to imagine being in a horrific car accident, in which the horn gets stuck on. Later, when you hear a horn your body may automatically have a conditioned fear response—you break out in sweats, have a fast heartbeat, and so on. Procedural memory is at work, bringing information directly from the auditory system to the amygdala and opening the floodgates of emotional arousal. But in hearing the horn you also may remember the accident, consciously remembering the intersection where it happened, who was with you at the time, where you were headed, and so on. The two kinds of memories are of the same event, though one is emotion drenched, the other, cool and calm. Research by Larry R. Squire and Daniel Schacter, among others, suggests that the two memory systems are physically housed in different parts of the brain, though the memories, in normal cases, are "seamlessly fused" as one conscious, unified experience of the moment. The fusion results in memories that are "emotional." In those moments when we have arousal without declarative memory, we may experience intense emotions without knowing why. (This may be one explanation of the notion of "objectless" emotions.) Conversely, declarative memories without the emotional arousal of implicit memory may be experienced as emotionally flat.

In his third point, LeDoux focuses on our primitive fear response, suggesting that the brain system responsible for this mechanism can bypass higher, cognitive brain systems. But this leaves to the side questions about more complex, socially constructed emotions, such as indignation, compassion, pity, or shame. Do they operate solely through the high road, or do they have low-road counterparts, which they routinely correct and educate? Again, are memories of feeling compassion or indignation marked by a two-tier system—the fusion of an awareness of a present arousal with a conscious evaluation of the situation that invoked arousal? These sorts of questions raise a more general concern about how to generalize from LeDoux's important study of the fear defense mechanism to the wide array of emotions that characterize people's waking and dreaming lives.

In his 1994 book, Descartes' Error, Damasio argues that a wide range of emotional behavior is not primarily subcortical but is a function of the frontal lobe of the brain, typically associated with reasoning and decision making. Indeed, Damasio's research suggests that the prefrontal cortex is involved in both emotional arousal and rational decision making and that the emotion centers and the reasoning centers in the frontal lobe are intimately related. Damasio begins his account with the famous case of Phineas Gage, a mid-nineteenth-century railroad worker whose frontal lobe was pierced by an iron tamping rod in an accident that occurred while Gage was blasting stone to make way for a straight rail track. To the surprise of his doctors at the time, Gage's severe brain injury (the rod exited the front of his brain and landed more than a hundred feet away) affected not just his reasoning capacities, but his emotional character as well. A calm and polite man prior to the injury, Gage became irreverent and foul mouthed, obstinate and capricious, and full of plans quickly hatched and soon abandoned. A similar pattern had been repeated in others with prefrontal lobe damage. While patients were able to generate emotional responses that travel subcortical, "low-road" paths ("primary emotions," as Damasio calls them), they could not generate "secondary emotions" that require evaluation of stimuli (LeDoux's "high-road" emotional responses). On the basis of a series of related experiments, Damasio concludes that prefrontally damaged patients are unable to have normal, automatic emotional responses. Though they may understand abstractly the emotional significance of some stimuli (such as the punitive side of the risky moves they repeatedly make), they fail to correct their strategies, Damasio argues, because they seem unable to pair that understanding with a mechanism to reenact, in this case, a negative emotional response. They lack what Damasio calls a "somatic marker" mechanism that stamps the appraisal with its appropriate emotional flavor.

Both LeDoux's and Damasio's work shed important light on the interdependence of emotion and reason in emotional behavior—LeDoux through his notion of "high-road" emotional pathways that stand ready to correct "quick and dirty" subcortical responses, Damasio through his analysis of prefrontal responses that embody pairings between representations of situations and appropriate emotional dispositions.

Control and Responsibility

Emotions are reactive responses. But in what sense are we human beings able to choose their emotional responses? How, if at all, can the will intervene in emotional behavior?

Aristotle is once again helpful here. Both action and emotion, he holds, are subject to choice in the following sense. We choose to develop a state of character that stabilizes certain dispositions toward action and emotion. Accordingly, how one feels (and acts) may be less a matter of choice at the moment than the indirect effect of choice over time. In the case of emotion, especially, there are few shortcuts. For unlike action, emotion does not seem to engage choice (or will) in each episode. At a given moment, we may simply not be able to will to feel a certain way however skilled we are at posing appropriate emotional, facial expressions, such as a polite smile or a look of interest.

Common parlance includes many expressions presuming that emotions are "up to us" in various ways. We exhort ourselves and others by such phrases as "pull yourself together," "snap out of it," "put on a good face," "lighten up," "be cheerful," "think positive," and "keep a stiff upper lip." In many of these cases, what the person is being implored to do is to take on the semblance of an emotion with the hope that it might "take hold" and rub off on the person's inner state. Practice as if you believe and you will believe. Or, as de Sousa put it, "earnest pretense is the royal road to sincere faith" (de Sousa, 1988, p. 324; also see Ekman; and Tomkins on posed expressions and facial feedback mechanisms). Similarly, we can sometimes fuel the flames of a sincerely felt emotion by allowing it bodily expression. To weep may intensify our grief or make us more conscious of its presence. The James-Lange theory, and its notion of proprioceptive feedback from the expression of emotion, may be in the background here. There are other sorts of actions a person might take that are not a matter of body language or putting on a new face. A person may try to talk herself out of love, but discover that only when she changes locales do the old ways begin to lose their grip. Other times, it is more trial by fire: staying put and exposing herself to what is painful in order to become inured. The latter process involves desensitization.

Sometimes changing one's mood may be more a matter of mental or perceptual strategy. It may be a matter of bringing oneself to focus on different objects and thoughts—trying to see things under a new gestalt or recomposing the scene. Exhortation and persuasion play an important role here. A patient depressed by the possibility of relapse might be reminded of the favorable statistics and the steady progress she has made to date. Seeing things in a new light, with new emphases and stresses, helps to allay the fear. In a different vein, anger at a child may subside when one focuses less on minor annoyances and more on admirable traits. One may work on a more forgiving attitude in general by choosing to play down others' perceived faults or foibles. In certain cases, experiencing emotions is a matter of giving inner assent—of allowing oneself to feel angry or giving the green light to a new interest or love. It is as if something grabs hold, and then it is our turn to have some influence.

Mental training can of course follow a more methodical and introspective model. An individual can learn to take more careful note of the onset of certain emotions and of the movement of mind from one perceived object of importance to another. So Buddhists speak of a watchful mindfulness, an intensification of consciousness such that through awareness and knowledge, one comes to be more in charge (Thera).

There are other methods of effecting emotional change that depend upon so-called "deep" psychology. In psychoanalysis the recapitulation of patterns of emotional response through transference onto an analyst is intended to be a way of seeing at a detached level. The patient relives an emotional experience at the same time as he watches and interprets it. This is the putative advantage of an empathetic, clinical setting: A patient can come to see an emotional pattern in a detached way, free from judgment and accusation and from the crippling emotions that those stances often involve. In some cases, a patient tries to relieve the pain of present disabling emotions, such as anger, anxiety, or shame by coming to see their roots in primitive conflicts and frustrations that may have long been repressed. The goal is not to remove the patient from the vulnerabilities of emotion, but rather to make possible a way of experiencing emotions, including shame and anger, that is less crippling and self-destructive.

More Radical Extirpation or Removal of Emotions

Because emotions are valued as modes of attention, motivation, communication, and knowledge, we tend to put up with their messiness while at the same time attempting their reform. But there are venerable traditions in which moderating emotions through transformation and education is viewed as an inadequate therapy and an inadequate way of training moral character and agency. The Stoic view, which influenced later Kantian views and bears rough similarities to certain Eastern traditions, argues that the surges and delusions of emotion warrant their extirpation. Investment in objects and events we cannot control is the source of our suffering, and modification of our beliefs about these values is the source of our cure. In Stoic theory, virtue comes to be rooted in reason alone, for it is reason alone that is most appropriate to our nature and under our true dominion.

The attraction of the Stoic view rests in its powerful description of the anguish of the engaged emotional life. Many emotions (though not all) lead to attachment, but objects of attachment are never perfectly stable. Abandonment, separation, failure, and loss are the constant costs of love, effort, and friendship. The more tightly we cling to our investments, the more dependent we become upon what is uncontrolled and outside our own mastery. Self-reproach and persecution are often responses to lack of control. In our relations with others, the same clinginess of emotions can lead to stepping beyond what is appropriate, just as it can lead to exclusionary preferences and partialities. Provincialism can grow out of stubborn preference for what is familiar and comfortable according to class lines or other restrictive values.

This is a reasonable portrait of some moments of the life lived through emotion. Detachment and watchful awareness directed toward the emotions are important therapeutic stances in such a life. In addition, detachment and watchful awareness should be directed toward reason itself and its own tendencies toward egoism and imperious control. This is clearly at odds with Stoic practice though more in line with Eastern practices such as Buddhism. But it is difficult to see how a thoroughgoing rejection of the emotions can be compatible with what is a human life. Emotions, for all their selectivity, intensity, and stirring, enable us, through those very vulnerabilities, to attend, see, know, and experience in a way that pure cognition cannot. Some of that way of knowing and being known anguishes beyond words. Poetry and literature can only begin to express the reality. But even if at times unruled by reason's measure, emotion must not, on that account, be an outlawed feature of human life. Nor must it be an outlawed feature of morality. How we care for others, and what we notice and reveal, depends greatly on the subtlety, fineness, and often deep truth of our emotional readings of the world.


From the above, it should be clear that emotions play an expanded role within bioethics and within the moral practices of healthcare professionals. Emotional sensitivity is important for discerning the complexity of situations and for appreciating the competing needs and interests of various parties. A simple matter of noticing a patient's distress or displeasure, perhaps by attending to her facial expressions and bodily gestures, could figure importantly in assessing a case. But by the same token, it is important to communicate emotions and not just record those of others. Conveying compassion to a patient can be a significant part of therapeutic treatment and, in general, be an important part of establishing a relationship in which medical counsel can be trusted and followed. Again, emotions figure in deliberation of choices. Compassion toward a patient can ground a reason for telling a patient the true nature of her condition in a tone that respects the patient's fragile, emotional state. The relevant choice a caretaker faces may not be whether to withhold or not withhold the truth, but rather how to tell the truth in a way that respects both a patient's autonomy and feelings. It is here that healthcare providers' own feelings of compassion and sympathy can importantly ground the specific choices she makes. Finally, healthcare providers, as morally responsible agents, need to have ready access to their own emotions, so that emotions help rather than hinder effective care. In cases, for example, in which fears and prejudice cloud more circumspect judgment, healthcare providers must recognize such fears and prejudice as emotional impediments standing in the way of delivering quality care. In general, a reflective stance toward one's own emotions becomes an important part of caring for others.

nancy sherman (1995)

revised by author

SEE ALSO: Care; Compassionate Love; Conscience; Grief and Bereavement; Life, Quality of; Narrative; Pain and Suffering; Psychoanalysis and Dynamic Therapies; Women, Historical and Cross-Cultural Perspectives


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views updated May 23 2018


Ideas about emotions and their function in human and animal life have been a major theme in philosophyand more recently in psychology and the social sciencessince the time of the ancient Greeks. The history of ideas about emotion is an essential part of the history of ideas about human nature and about human continuityand discontinuitywith other animals. Whether emotions are essentially part of our "animal nature" or products of culture and cultivation, for example, is an issue that determines a great deal about our attitudes toward and evaluations of them. The history of ideas about emotion plays a particularly controversial role in the history of ideas about gender and culture. Whether women are "more emotional" (and thus less rational) than men, whether Greeks are more emotional and less rational than "Barbarians" or Englishmen are more emotional and less rational than their colonized subjects have been central themes in the often ugly histories of sexism and racism. Thus it is noteworthy that recent feminist studies have deeply probed the political role of the emotions and gender politics. And the history of ideas about emotion provides several important threads in the history of ethics, whether in the guise of "passion as a threat to reason" or in the more benign role of sympathy and the moral sentiments. Whether emotions contribute to or undermine rationality has been a central issue in ethics (at least) since Socrates.


What is an emotion? And are emotions rational? Those two questions have dominated the philosophical history of the subject, and, of course, the answer to one suggests a set of plausible answers to the other. If emotions are such as to contribute to our well-being and the good life, and if emotions motivate moral behavior, then it makes good sense to say that emotions are rational or at least contribute to rationality. On the other hand, if emotions are merely an unintelligent residue of our "animal nature," they are more likely to be distractions or obstacles to civilized living and thereby irrational. Nevertheless, the picture is more complicated than this would suggest. One train of thought since ancient times suggests that the emotions are indeed an aspect of our animal life, unsuitable to civilized life. But since Charles Darwin (18091882), the emotions have been argued to be continuous in the evolution from animal to man and, so considered, probably functional and adaptive at least at some point in their history. In either case, this biological view of emotions has been supported in the past few centuriessince René Descartes in the seventeenth centuryby increasingly sophisticated physiological and neurological models of emotion.

The history of ideas about emotion is thus divided into two sometimes complex and interweaving tracks in which emotions tend to be "dumb" and "sophisticated," respectively. The first kind of theory takes an emotion to be a feeling or physiological process. In medieval medicine, the emotions were the result of organic "humors" in the body. In early modern philosophy, they were the product of "animal spirits" in the blood, which caused simple sensations of pleasure and discomfort. William James (18421910), at the end of the nineteenth century, insisted that emotions are sensations caused by physiological disruptions. In the twenty-first century, many psychologists and philosophers hypothesize that emotions, or at least the "basic" emotions, are "affect programs," essentially hard-wired and evolutionarily derived complexes of neurological, hormonal, and muscular responses, with accompanying feelings, of course. But such feelings are of minimal significance, mere "icing on the cake" according to one prominent researcher (Joseph le Doux). An emotion is for the most part an unconscious or at least not necessarily conscious physiological process, which may or may not still serve an evolutionary function but does not involve sufficient "cognition" to be rational in any meaningful sense.

By contrast, Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.) insisted that emotions, while fully natural, are also an essential part of rational, civilized life and themselves social and cultural, consisting of ideas, learned and cultivated and even "intelligent." In the twentieth century, many psychologists and philosophers defended various "cognitive" and "appraisal" theories of emotion, in which an emotion is constituted, at least in part, by ideas, beliefs, or judgments and by an active engagement with the world. Aristotle insisted, accordingly, that quite the contrary of a dumb reaction, an emotion such as anger was a learned and cultivated response to what was recognized as an offense or a "slight," and as such it required not only the recognition of the nature of the offense but a measured and appropriate response. As such, emotions represented sophisticated, sometimes uniquely human, behavior. A cat might be aggressive or defensive, but only a human being with a moral upbringing can be morally indignant. A dog might demonstrate dependency and affection, but only a human being can fall in love. Thus some contemporary theorists who defend an "affect program" conception of emotions distinguish between "basic" and "higher cognitive" emotions, perhaps insisting that only the former are "really" emotions but acknowledging that many of the most important emotionsguilt, shame, pride, and jealousy, for instancerequire cultivation and culture.

Many theorists would argue that whether or not anything like an affect program is involved in emotions (and no one would argue against the idea that emotions are somehow the product of our brains), that is not what an emotion really is. An emotion is a kind of experience of the world, and, as such, it necessarily involves intentionality, an orientation toward objects in the world (for example, situations, other people, or oneself). Thus anger is not just feeling flushed and tense; it is a feeling about something, involving, for instance, a judgment that someone has insulted or wronged you. And love is not just a feeling but an attitude (or a huge complex of attitudes) about someone. Emotions are "cognitive" in that they seem to involve and presuppose beliefs about the world; for example, fear is premised on the judgment that one is in danger, and shame is based on the recognition that one has done something shameful. They are also evaluative (and involve "appraisals") in that they involve the recognition that some things are important. Grief, for instance, is an emotion that recognizes a serious (perhaps devastating) loss. Emotions are therefore not "dumb" but, one might say, potentially as smart and sophisticated as the person who has them and the culture that embeds and teaches them. Anger may sometimes be nothing more than blind rage, but it can also be an exquisite response to injustice. Love may be as naïve and foolish as a teenage "crush," or it may be profoundly insightful and involve deep mutual intimate knowledge. Feelings and physiology play their roles, of course, but the emotion is much more than that.

How Rational Are Emotions?

Plato (c. 428348 or 347 b.c.e.) famously divided the soul into three parts: reason, spirit, and appetite. He also used a dramatic metaphor to explain the harmonious interrelation between them, reason as the charioteer driving two spirited horses. But Plato also recognized that what we call emotions seem to encompass not only spirit and appetite but reason as well. When, in his Rhetoric, Aristotle defines anger as "a distressed desire for conspicuous vengeance in return for a conspicuous and unjustifiable contempt of one's person or friends," he makes it quite clear that emotion and reason are not to be divided but combined. Aristotle, who was so precocious in so many disciplines, seems to have anticipated many contemporary theories. His analysis of anger includes a distinctive cognitive component, a specified social context, a behavioral tendency, and physical arousal. Whereas Aristotle took emotion to be essential to the good life, the Stoics analyzed emotions as conceptual errors, conducive only to misery. In modern terms, the Stoics Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4b.c.e.?65 c.e.) and Chryssipus (c. 280c. 206 b.c.e.) developed a full-blooded cognitive theory of the emotions two millennia ago. Emotions, in a word, are judgments, judgments about the world and one's place in it. The disagreement between Aristotle and the Stoics was whether these judgments were rational and thus conducive to happiness, or not.

Even before the ancients in the Mediterranean, fascination with the emotions occupied the best minds in early India and China. In India, the emotions (rasas ) were considered central to the arts, artistic expression, and, most important, aesthetic appreciation. Thus the cataloging and analysis of the emotions, their causes, and their effects on the mind and body formed the heart of Indian aesthetics. In Buddhism, the control of one's emotions, the elimination of the agitating emotions (klesas ), and the cultivation of compassion were all viewed as essential to enlightenment and to putting an end to the suffering that was so characteristic of life. In China, both Confucians and Daoists recognized that the cultivation and management of one's emotions (qing ) was essential to living well. The Confucians emphasized the importance of cultivating social emotions such as respect and reverence. The Daoists focused their attention on the more "natural" and spontaneous emotions. The concept of rationality as such did not play the central role it did in the Western tradition, but nevertheless, insofar as that concept embodied a general sense of wisdom and well-being, the cultivation of the right emotions played an essential role in their various philosophies. Meanwhile, in the Middle East, the ancient Hebrews endowed their God with a whole range of (super)human emotions, from wrath and jealousy to love. In the New Testament, the emphasis shifted to love and faith, which the medieval scholars argued to be the epitome of rationality. The great importance of such emotions guaranteed that the subject would remain of great interest to the theologians of the Christian tradition.

Friedrich Nietzsche (18441900), like Sigmund Freud (18561939), who admired him, described instead the darker, more instinctual and less rational motives of the human mind. This was not to say that all passions are wise; some, he declares, "drag us down with their stupidity," and others, notably the "slave morality" emotion of ressentiment, are devious and clever but nevertheless disastrous for both the subject and society. Nietzsche, like the ancient Greeks, insisted on the cultivation of the right emotionsthose having to do with strength and self-sufficiency, but he insisted even more on the self-destructiveness of emotions such as ressentiment and envy. There is wisdom in emotion, he says in The Will to Power, "as if every passion didn't contain its own quantum of reason." So, too, in The Emotions: Outline of a Theory, the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre (19051980) gave a "phenomenological" analysis of emotions as "magical transformations of the world"willful strategies for coping with a difficult world. Again, emotions were conceived as inherently purposeful, with an added twist: We choose our emotions, according to Sartre, and so we are responsible for them.

Thus, emotions have been conceived, in many cultures since ancient times, as conducive to wisdom and well-being, and in this sense at least some of the emotions can be said to be rational. And emotions, if conceived of as "cognitive" and involving beliefs and appraisals, are rational in a further sense. They involve concepts and judgments. But our emotions are rational or irrational within a culture depending on whether they are appropriate or inappropriate to the circumstances, more or less accurate in their perception and understanding and more or less warranted in their evaluation of the situation. Thus it is mistaken to say either that emotions (in general) are rational or irrational. It depends on the emotion and the circumstances as well as on the culture. But what is most important in this conception of emotions as much more than mere "gut reactions" and thus as rational or irrational is that what we think about our emotions, the ideas we have about them, in part determine what they are. It is not as if thought and reflection are irrelevant to the emotions, which have their own animal life. Our emotions are to some extent products of our thoughts and reflections, and, of course, our thoughts and reflections are often the product of our emotions. Thus the ideas we have about emotions become part and parcel of our emotional lives.

See also Friendship ; Intentionality ; Love, Western Notions of ; Moral Sense ; Philosophy, Moral .


Damasio, Antonio. Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York: Putnam, 1994.

. The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1999.

De Sousa, Ronald. The Rationality of Emotion. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 1987.

Lyons, William. Emotion. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. The Emotions: Outline of a Theory. Translated by Bernard Frechtman. New York: Philosophical Library, 1948.

Solomon, Robert C., ed. Thinking about Feeling: Contemporary Philosophers on Emotions. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

, ed. What Is an Emotion?: Classic and Contemporary Readings. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Robert C. Solomon


views updated Jun 11 2018


What Are Emotions?

What Are The Sources of Emotions?

Why Do We Have Emotions?


Emotions are specific and intense psychological and physical reactions to a particular event.


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One morning Mandy waited for the light to change so that she could cross the street to school. As the light in her direction turned green, she stepped off the curb. Suddenly, Mandy froze as a car shot right past her through the red light and crashed into a car already in the intersection. Mandy was not hurt. The car that went through the red light was not that close to her, but she felt terrified, then weak and shaky. She was so upset that she started to cry. That morning at school, whenever Mandy thought about the accident she had seen she felt nervous and shaky. By lunchtime, when she talked to her friends about the accident, the shaky feeling was starting to wear off, and she was beginning to feel anger toward the driver of the car that had run the red light. Although Mandy was not physically hurt, her mind and body were experiencing a strong emotional reaction to a dangerous situation.

What Are Emotions?

Emotions, often called feelings, include experiences such as love, hate, anger, trust, joy, panic, fear, and grief. Emotions are related to, but different from, mood. Emotions are specific reactions to a particular event that are usually of fairly short duration. Mood is a more general feeling such as happiness, sadness, frustration, contentment, or anxiety that lasts for a longer time.

Although everyone experiences emotions, scientists do not all agree on what emotions are or how they should be measured or studied. Emotions are complex and have both physical and mental components. Generally researchers agree that emotions have the following parts: subjective feelings, physiological (body) responses, and expressive behavior.

The component of emotions that scientists call subjective feelings refers to the way each individual person experiences feelings, and this component is the most difficult to describe or measure. Subjective feelings cannot be observed; instead, the person experiencing the emotion must describe it to others, and each persons description and interpretation of a feeling may be slightly different. For example, two people falling in love will not experience or describe their feeling in exactly the same ways.

The facial muscles involved in emotional expression are governed by nerves following a complex system of direct and indirect pathways to and from the motor cortex (voluntary smile circuit under conscious control) and the limbic system and brain stem (spontaneous smile circuit not under conscious control). This may explain why peoples faces can express emotions like happiness, fear, and disgust without their being aware of it.

Physiological responses are the easiest part of emotion to measure because scientists have developed special tools to measure them. A pounding heart, sweating, blood rushing to the face, or the release of adrenaline* in response to a situation that creates intense emotion can all be measured with scientific accuracy. People have very similar internal responses to the same emotion. For example, regardless of age, race, or gender, when people are under stress, their bodies release adrenaline; this hormone helps prepare the body to either run away or fight, which is called the fight or flight reaction. Although the psychological part of emotions may be different for each feeling, several different emotions can produce the same physical reaction.

* adrenaline
(a-DREN-a-lin), also called epinephrine, (ep-e-NEFrin), is a hormone, or chemical messenger, that is released in response to fear, anger, panic, and other emotions. It readies the body to respond to threat by increasing heart rate, breathing rate, and blood flow to the arms and legs. These and other effects prepare the body to run away or fight.

Expressive behavior is the outward sign that an emotion is being experienced. Outward signs of emotions can include fainting, a flushed face, muscle tensing, facial expressions, tone of voice, rapid breathing, restlessness, or other body language. The outward expression of an emotion gives other people clues to what someone is experiencing and helps to regulate social interactions.

What Are The Sources of Emotions?

Scientists have developed several theories about how emotions are generated based on subjective feelings, physiological responses, and expressive behavior.

The James-Lange theory

American scientist William James (18421910) and Danish scientist Carl Lange (18341900) both studied the relationship between emotion and physical changes in the body. In about 1885, they independently proposed that feeling an emotion is dependent on two factors: the physical changes that occur in the body and the persons understanding of the bodys changes after the emotional event. James and Lange believed that physical changes occur first, and then interpretation of those physical changes occurs. Together, they create the emotion.

According to the this theory, when Mandy experienced a threatening situation (almost being hit by a car), her body first sent out chemical messengers, like adrenaline, that caused physical changes such as increased breathing and a faster heart rate. Her brain then sensed these physical changes and interpreted them as the emotion fear.

One of the problems with the James-Lange theory is that emotions seem to happen too quickly to be accounted for by the release of chemical messengers and the changes they cause. Another problem is that different emotions (for example fear and anger) have been shown to cause the same physical responses.

The Cannon-Bard theory

In 1927, about 40 years after the James-Lange theory was developed, Harvard physiologist Walter Cannon (18711945) and his colleague Philip Bard (18981977) developed a new theory that related the workings of the nervous system to the expression of emotions. Cannon and Bard found that people could experience emotion without getting physical feedback from chemical messengers. They proposed that upon experiencing a stimulating event, information about the event is collected by the bodys senses and is sent through the nervous system to the brain.

In the brain, the message is sent two places at the same time. The message is sent to the cortex*, which creates emotions; in Mandys case it created fear. At the same time, the message also goes to the hypothalamus (hy-po-THAL-ah-mus). The hypothalamus is the part of the brain that controls automatic body responses. It tells the body to send out chemical messengers that cause the body to respond. Some of these responses are experienced as behaviors such as shaking, rapid breathing, and crying.

* cortex
is the part of the brain that controls conscious thought; it is where people experience thinking and feeling.

The Schacter-Singer model

In 1962, American scientists Stanley Schacter (19221997) and Jerome Singer (still teaching at Yale University in 2000) took elements of both the James-Lange and the Cannon-Bard theories and modified them to try to better explain the relationship between physical responses and emotional experience.

According to the Schacter-Singer model, both physical changes and conscious mental processing are needed to fully experience any emotion. In this model, in response to her near-accident, Mandys body sent out messages to create physical changes such as an increased heart rate. Mandys brain sensed these changes and then analyzed them and put a label on them. The emotional label selected for the feelings was fear, and it depended in part on Mandys experience with large fast cars; in other words, she knew from experience in her past that cars are dangerous. This model explains why the same physical responses can produce different emotions. The brain decides, for example, whether fear or anger or surprise is the appropriate emotion based on mental processing of physical information. Thus, interpretation of information from the environment, body feelings, and experience figure more prominently in the Schacter-Singer model.

Researchers believe that the frontal lobes and the amygdala are among the most important brain structures affecting emotions. Feelings of happiness and pleasure are linked to the prefrontal cortex. Anger, fear, sadness, and other negative emotions are linked to the amygdala.

Research continues on the relationship between the body, the brain, and the perception of emotions. One current area of research is focused on whether certain areas of the cortex are dedicated to specific emotions and whether a person can feel an emotion when a particular part of the cortex is stimulated directly by an electric impulse.

Why Do We Have Emotions?

Emotions appear to serve several physical and psychological purposes. Some scientists believe that emotions are one of the fundamental traits associated with being human. Emotions color peoples lives and give them depth and differentiation. For many people, strong emotions are linked to creativity and expression. Great art, music, and literature deal on a fundamental level with arousing emotions and creating an emotional connection between the artist and the public. Some scientists also believe that emotions serve as motivation to behave in specific ways.

Physiologically, emotions aid in survival. For example, sudden fear often causes a person to freeze like a deer caught by a cars headlights. Because animals usually attack in response to motion, at its simplest level, fear reduces the chances of attack. When Mandy froze in response to a car racing by her, this was an example of a physical response to an emotion that improved her chances of survival.

The French neurologist Guillaume Duchenne (18061875) studied the bodys neuromuscular system. In this experiment (c. 1855), he used an electrical stimulation device to activate the involuntary facial muscles involved in smiling and laughter. Getty Source/Liaison

Emotions also help people monitor their social behavior and regulate their interactions with others. Every person unconsciously learns to read the outward expressions of other people and apply past experience to determine what these outward signs indicate about what the other person is feeling. If a person sees a man approaching who is walking very aggressively, holding his body stiffly and frowning, the person might correctly assume that the man is angry. Using this information, the person can decide whether to leave or to stay or what tone of voice and body language to use when approaching the man.

What Is Emotional Intelligence?

Emotional intelligence refers to peoples ability to monitor their own and other peoples emotional states and to use this information to act wisely in relationships. Emotional intelligence has five parts:

  1. Self-awareness: recognizing internal feelings
  2. Managing emotions: finding ways to handle emotions that are appropriate to the situation
  3. Motivation: using self-control to channel emotions toward a goal
  4. Empathy: understanding the emotional perspective of other people
  5. Handling relationships: using personal information and information about others to handle social relationships and to develop interpersonal skills

Researchers are beginning to develop tests that can measure emotional intelligence. Scientists who study emotions generally believe that people with high emotional intelligence usually work well in cooperative situations and are good at motivating and managing others. People with low emotional intelligence often misinterpret emotional signals and have difficulty with relationships. Although emotional intelligence probably has an inherited component, many psychologists believe that people can be guided into making better use of the emotional intelligence that they possess.

Some outward expressions of emotions (body language) mean different things in different cultures. For example, if a young person avoids looking directly at a person in authority, it is taken as a sign of respect in some cultures. In other cultures, this expression suggests guilt or a lack of trustworthiness.

See also

Anxiety and Anxiety Disorders

Bipolar Disorder




Goleman, Daniel. Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam Books, 1997. This book introduced the idea of emotional intelligence to the public.

LeDoux, Joseph The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998. This book examines the connection between physical responses and emotions.

Mackler, Carolyn. Love and Other Four-Letter Words. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 2000. Young adult fiction that addresses trying to make sense of the strong emotions that occur during adolescence.


views updated May 29 2018


Jewish tradition has shown a positive interest in human emotions, and they are portrayed and discussed in the Bible, Talmud, Jewish philosophy, and mysticism.


Biblical figures are frequently emotional, and in this lies much of their human appeal and credibility. Genesis introduces feelings of *Love, *Joy, Fear, and their opposites (in, e.g., 3:6; 4:5; 29:18; and 37:3) that are later found in such figures as Saul and David, the psalmist, and the lovers of the Song of Songs. Similarly, in His initial appearances God is portrayed as a deity who acts out of deep feelings of compassion and anger (Gen. 4:10; 15; 6:5; 8:21; 18:17; 29:31), emotions which are revealed at Sinai as essential to His nature (Ex. 20:5, 6; 34:6). The Israelites encountered God's fearsome, possessive love, frequently expressed in jealous wrath and moral indignation, in their desert wanderings, and the prophets tended to identify with these same emotions (see Ex. 19:3; 32:9; Num. 14:11; 17:8; Isa. 65:3; Jer. 7:19; Ezek. 16:36). However, the Torah advocates a different set of relationships and emotions as an ideal, one in which God loves His people and wishes them to respond in love as well as fear (Deut. 6:5; 10:12, 15), and in which man is exhorted to rid himself of hatred and lust, relate to his fellow man in love and kindness, and joyfully observe God's commandments (Ex. 20:14; Lev. 14:17, 18; Deut. 16:11). Then God will bless men both materially and spiritually, meaning with emotional peace and happiness (Num. 6:24–26; Isa., 65:17ff.).


Prophetic and rabbinic Judaism also appeal, in particular, to such emotions, as in Micah's terse summary of the religious ethic (6:8: "to do justice, to love kindness (ḥesed), and to walk humbly with your God"; and in Hillel's paraphrase of Lev. 19:18: "what is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man" (Shab. 31a)). Anger, jealousy, lust, and pride are all condemned by the rabbis (see, e.g., Avot 2:11; 4:21); the Talmud even blames the destruction of the Second Temple on the Jews for the sin of unjustified hatred, Sinat ḥinnam (Yoma 9b). The ideal emotional type, according to the rabbis, is one who controls his passions and is goodhearted, humble, and peace loving (Avot 1:12; 2:9; 4:1; 5:11). Such a man finds emotional gratification in the study and observance of the law, enjoying a happiness (simḥah shel mitzvah) that, while itself a reward, is an intimation of future bliss as well. Prayer (as well as devotional, i.e., musar, literature, and most poetry), study, and ritual increasingly became outlets for the Jewish psyche in exile, and deeply felt personal and national emotions were formalized in such holidays as Simhat Torah and such commemorations as the Ninth of Av.

Medieval Jewish Philosophy

Medieval Jewish philosophy resumed the attempt of Hellenistic Jewish thought to subjugate the emotions to the intellect, and attempted, even more than rabbinic exegesis did, to rationalize away the biblical depiction of God's emotions (see *Allegorical Interpretation and *God, Attributes of). Using Arabic mediated Greek models, Jewish philosophers analyzed emotions in terms of both the humors and organs of the body and the faculties, or parts, of the soul. Whatever the variation in details (for which see *Soul), however, the philosophers generally agreed with Aristotle that moderation should be observed in expressing emotion (see, e.g., Solomon ibn Gabirol, The Improvement of the Moral Qualities (1901), pt. 4, 84–86; and The Eight Chapters of Maimonides on Ethics (1966), 54ff.). Yet for all its rational emphasis, like that of its Arabic and late Greek predecessors, Jewish philosophy views the dispassionate, analytical search for Truth as a religious quest, beginning in anxious doubt and culminating in feelings of certitude and the bliss of divine love (Saadiah Gaon, The Book of Beliefs and Opinions, trans. by S. Rosenblatt (1948), introduction, 6ff.; Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed, trans. by S. Pines (1963), introduction, 5ff., 51, 618ff.).

Mysticism and Hasidism

Jewish mysticism seeks to lead man from a state of psychic alienation to one of ecstatic intimacy with God. Mostly, however, it attempts to reach this emotional goal through an intellectual process and a discipline parallel to that of philosophy. It is mainly *Ḥasidism, with its suggestion of antinomianism and its anti-intellectual direction, that emphasizes the emotions – particularly joy, trust, and gratitude - as a primary means to the religious life.


S. Schechter, Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology (1909), 148–69; S. Belkin, In his Image (1960), 185–93.

[Alfred L. Ivry]