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An emotion is a mental and physiological state associated with a wide variety of feelings, thoughts, and behaviours. It is a prime determinant of the sense of subjective well-being and appears to play a central role in many human activities. As a result of this generality, the subject has been explored in many, if not all of the human sciences and art forms. There is much controversy concerning how emotions are defined and classified.


The English word 'emotion' is derived from the French émotion and émouvoir. This is based on the Latin emovere, where e- (variant of ex-) means 'out' and movere means 'move'. The related term "motivation" is also derived from movere.

Defining Emotion

To begin, many researchers distinguish feeling and emotion, where feeling refers to the subjective experience of the emotion. Some believe that emotions can occur unconsciously, and hence that emotion is a more general phenomenon than its subjective feeling. Feelings may also more narrowly refer to the experience of bodily changes.

A second distinction focuses on the difference between the emotion and the cause of the emotion. For example do we say that thoughts about a loved one cause the emotion of love or that these thoughts are part of the emotion? One way to resolve this issue is to see whether the emotion can occur independently of these thoughts. Thus, thoughts about a particular person or situation could not be part of the emotion of love, since one can experience the same emotion about many other things. Yet could one experience love without some thought or other of a loved person or object? If not, then we may stipulate that thoughts of a loved object are part of the emotion. Some theorists argue that at least some emotions can be caused without any thoughts or indeed 'cognitive activity' at all. They point to very immediate reactions (e.g. LeDoux 1996), as well as the conjectured emotions of infants and animals as justification here. Debate on this point is ongoing but represents a major distinction between what are called 'cognitive' theories of emotions and 'non-cognitive' theories of emotions, where non-cognitive theories regard some other feature of emotions, such as bodily responses to be essential.

A related distinction is between the emotion and the results of the emotion, principally behaviours and emotional expressions. People often behave in certain ways as a direct result of their emotional state, such as crying, fighting or fleeing. Yet again, if one can have the emotion without the corresponding behaviour then we may consider the behaviour not to be essential to the emotion. However some theorists such as Nico Frijda who hold a functionalist approach to emotions point to the idea that emotions have evolved for a particular function, such as to keep the subject safe. If the behaviours associated with an emotion are the determining factor for the very existence of that emotion then goal-directed behaviour should be regarded as essential to the emotion. Yet since we recognise that the behaviour need not necessarily occur, we can stipulate that emotions involve what are called 'action tendencies'. So for instance, fear involves the tendency to flee, which means that the probability that the subject will flee from a given situation is increased when they are undergoing fear.

Emotion Classification

There has been considerable debate concerning how emotions should be classified. Firstly, are emotions distinctive discrete states or do they vary more smoothly along one or more underlying dimensions? The circumplex model of James Russell (1979) is an example of the latter, placing emotions along bi-polar dimensions of valence and arousal. Another popular option is to divide emotions into basic and complex categories, where some emotions are considered foundational to the existence of others (e.g. Ekman). In this respect complex emotions may be regarded as developments upon basic emotions. Such development may occur due to cultural conditioning or association. Alternatively, analogous to the way primary colors combine, primary emotions could blend together to form the full spectrum of human emotional experience. For example interpersonal anger and disgust could blend to form contempt. The model of Robert Plutchik is a well known example here. Some have also argued for the existence of meta-emotions which are emotions about emotions. In general discussion centres around which emotions or dimensions should be considered foundational. Combined views are also available.

Another important means of distinguishing emotions concerns their occurrence in time. Some emotions occur over a period of seconds (e.g. surprise) where others can last years (e.g. love). The latter could be regarded as a long term tendency to have an emotion regarding a certain object rather than an emotion proper (though this is disputed). A distinction is then made between emotion episodes and emotional dispositions. Dispositions are also comparable to character traits, where someone may be said to be generally disposed to experience certain emotions, though about different objects. For example an irritable person is generally disposed to feel irritation more easily or quickly than others.

Finally some theorists (e.g. Klaus Scherer, 2005) place emotions within a more general category of 'affective states'. Where affective states can also include emotion-related phenomena such as pleasure and pain, motivational states (e.g. hunger or curiosity), moods, dispositions and traits.

Theoretical Traditions in Emotion Research

Theories about emotions stretch back at least as far as the Ancient Greek Stoics, as well as Plato and Aristotle. We also see sophisticated theories in the works of philosophers such as René Descartes, Baruch Spinoza and David Hume. More recent theories of emotions tend to be informed by advances in empirical research. Often theories are not mutually exclusive and many researchers incorporate multiple perspectives in their work.

Somatic Theories of Emotion

Somatic theories of emotion claim that bodily responses rather than judgements are essential to emotions. The first modern version of such theories comes from William James in the 1880s. The theory lost favour in the 20th Century, but has regained popularity more recently thanks largely to theorists such as Antonio Damasio, Joseph LeDoux and Robert Zajonc who are able to appeal to neurological evidence.

The James-Lange Theory

William James in the article 'What is an Emotion?' (Mind, 9, 1884: 188-205) argued that emotional experience is largely due to the experience of bodily changes. These changes might be visceral, postural, or facially expressive. Danish psychologist Carl Lange also proposed a similar theory at around the same time and thus the resulting position is known as the James-Lange theory. This theory and its derivates state that a changed situation leads to a changed bodily state. As James says 'the perception of bodily changes as they occur IS the emotion.' James further claims that 'we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble, and not that we cry, strike, or tremble, because we are sorry, angry, or fearful, as the case may be.'

This theory is supported by experiments in which by manipulating the bodily state, a desired emotion is induced. Such experiments also have therapeutic implications (e.g. in laughter therapy, dance therapy).

The James-Lange theory is often misunderstood because it seems counter-intuitive. Most people believe that emotions give rise to emotion-specific actions: i.e. "I'm crying because I'm sad," or "I ran away because I was scared." The James-Lange theory, conversely, asserts that first we react to a situation (running away and crying happen before the emotion), and then we interpret our actions into an emotional response. In this way, emotions serve to explain and organize our own actions to us.

Cognitive Theories of Emotion

There are a number of theories of emotions that argue that cognitive activity in the form of judgements, evaluations, or thoughts are necessary in order for an emotion to occur. This, it is argued{, is necessary to capture the fact that emotions are about something or have intentionality. Such cognitive activity may be conscious or unconscious and may or may not take the form of conceptual processing. An influential theory here is that of Richard Lazarus (1991). A prominent philosophical exponent is Robert Solomon (e.g. The Passions, Emotions and the Meaning of Life, 1993). The theory proposed by Nico Frijda where appraisal leads to action tendencies is another example.

The Perceptual Theory

A recent hybrid of the somatic and cognitive theories of emotion is the perceptual theory. This theory is neo-Jamesian in arguing that bodily responses are central to emotions, yet it emphasises the meaningfulness of emotions or the idea that emotions are about something, as is recognised by cognitive theories. The novel claim of this theory is that conceptually based cognition is unnecessary for such meaning. Rather the bodily changes themselves perceive the meaningful content of the emotion as a result of being causally triggered by certain situations. In this respect emotions are held to be analogous to faculties such as vision or touch, which provide information about the relation between the subject and the world in various ways. A sophisticated defense of this view is found in philosopher Jesse Prinz's book Gut Reactions (2004) and psychologist James Laird's book Feelings: The Perception of Self (2007). Related views are also found in the work of Peter Goldie and Ronald de Sousa.

The Cannon-Bard Theory

Walter Cannon argued against the dominance of the James-Lange theory regarding the physiological aspects of emotions in the second edition of Bodily Changes in Pain, Hunger, Fear and Rage. Where James argued that emotional behaviour often precedes or defines the emotion, Cannon and Bard argued that the emotion arises first and then stimulates typical behaviour.

The Two Factor Theory

Another cognitive theory is the Singer-Schachter theory. This is based on experiments purportedly showing that subjects can have different emotional reactions despite being placed into the same physiological state with an injection of adrenaline. Subjects were observed to express either anger or amusement depending on whether another person in the situation displayed that emotion. Hence the combination of the appraisal of the situation (cognitive) and whether participants received adrenaline or a placebo together determined the response. This experiment has been criticised in Jesse Prinz (2004) Gut Reactions.

The Component Process Model

A recent version of the cognitive theory comes from Klaus Scherer which regards emotions more broadly as the synchronisation of many different bodily and cognitive components. Emotions are identified with the overall process whereby low level cognitive appraisals, in particular the processing of relevance, trigger bodily reactions, behaviours, feelings,and actions.

Disciplinary approaches to Emotions

Many different disciplines have produced work on the emotions. These include psychology, neuroscience, sociology, psychiatry, anthropology, ethology, archaeology, economics, criminology, law, political science, history, geography, education, philosophy, linguistics and literature.

Evolutionary Biology of Emotions

Perspectives on emotions from evolution theory were initiated in the late 19th century with Charles Darwin's book The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals. Darwin's original thesis was that emotions evolved via natural selection and therefore have cross-culturally universal counterparts. Furthermore animals undergo emotions comparable to our own (see Emotion in animals). Evidence of universality in the human case has been provided by Paul Ekman's seminal research on facial expression. Other research in this area focuses on physical displays of emotion including body language of animals and humans (see Affect display). The increased potential in neuroimaging has also allowed investigation into evolutionarily ancient parts of the brain. Important neurological advances were made from this perspectives in the 1990s by, for example, Joseph LeDoux and Antonio Damasio.

American evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers argues that moral emotions are based on the principal of reciprocal altruism. The notion of group selection is of particular relevance:

  • Sympathy prompts a person to offer the first favour, particularly to someone in need for whom it would go the furthest.
  • Anger protects a person against cheaters who accept a favour without reciprocating, by making him to punish the ingrate or sever the relationship
  • Gratitude impels a beneficiary to reward those who helped him in the past
  • Guilt prompts a cheater in danger of being found out to repair the relationship by redressing the misdeed and advertising that he will behave better in the future.

Sociology of Emotions

We try to regulate our emotions to fit in with the norms of the situation, based on many - sometimes conflicting - demands upon us which originate from various entities studied by sociology on a micro level -- such as social roles and 'feeling rules' the everyday social interactions and situations are shaped by -- and, on a macro level, by social institutions, discourses, ideologies etc. For example, (post-)modern marriage is, on one hand, based on the emotion of love and on the other hand the very emotion is to be worked on and regulated by it.

The sociology of emotions also focuses on general attitude changes in a population. Emotional appeals are commonly found in advertising, health campaigns and political messages. Recent examples include no-smoking health campaigns and political campaign advertising emphasizing the fear of terrorism.

Psychotherapy of Emotions

Depending on the particular school's general emphasis either on cognitive component of emotion, physical energy discharging, or on symbolic movement and facial expression components of emotion, different schools of psychotherapy approach human emotions differently. While, for example, the school of Re-evaluation Counseling propose that distressing emotions are to be relieved by “discharging” them - hence crying, laughing, sweating, shaking, and trembling. Other more cognitively oriented schools approach them via their cognitive components, such as Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy. Yet other approach emotions via symbolic movement and facial expression components (like in contemporary Gestalt therapy).

Computer Science of Emotions

A flurry of recent work in computer science, engineering, psychology and neuroscience is aimed at developing devices that recognize human affect display and modelling emotions generally (Fellous, Armony & LeDoux, 2002).

Notable theorists of emotions

  • Magda Arnold
  • Lisa Feldman Barrett
  • Antonio Damasio
  • Paul Ekman
  • Phoebe Ellsworth
  • Barbara Fredrickson
  • Nico Frijda
  • Peter Goldie
  • William James
  • Carl Lange
  • Richard Lazarus
  • Joseph LeDoux
  • Jesse Prinz
  • Robert Plutchik
  • Klaus Scherer
  • Robert Solomon
  • Ronald de Sousa
  • Robert Zajonc
  • James A. Russell

Closely related terms

  • Affect, a synonym for emotion; in psychology and psychiatry, the term "affect" is used when the emotional experience has been qualified (e.g., intense, labile, or appropriate affect) or quantified (e.g., a high score on a scale that measures positive emotion).
  • Affect display, external display of emotion (e.g., facial expression, body posture, voice quality).
  • Disposition, referring to a durable differentiating characteristic of a person, a tendency to react to certain classes of situations with a certain emotion;
  • Feeling, which usually refers to the subjective, phenomenological aspect of emotion (e.g., the internal experience of anxiety, sadness, love, pride, and so forth);
  • Mood, which refers to an emotional state of duration intermediate between an emotion and a disposition (e.g., depressed, euphoric, neutral, or irritable mood).
  • Motivation, a state which generates actions. Similar to desire.
  • Valence, The distinction of emotions into positive or negative categories.
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