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Definition: emotions from Greenwood Dictionary of Education

Our emotions are what we use to select what interests us about our qualitative experiences. Emotions are intentional feelings, as opposed to physical sensations such as hunger or pain. The term “affect” can also be used to describe emotions. Philosophers have tended to focus on emotions in terms of the “feel,” as behaviors, as concepts, and as evaluative judgments. Each of these approaches tends to reinforce the mind/body split Western philosophy has historically embraced. Feminists describe emotions as collaborative constructions greatly influenced by our contexts as historically situated, uniquely embodied, social beings, in contrast to more traditional conceptions of emotions as private, individualistic, natural, and universal. (bt-b)

Summary Article: Emotions from The Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology and Behavioral Science

Over the last 10 years, the field of psychology has witnessed an increased interest in emotional processes. This interest has been fueled by considerable advances in (1) understanding and investigating structural components of emotion (e.g., neurobiology); (2) functional roles of emotions in development, cognition, memory, and attention; and (3) the relevance of these processes to health outcomes such as psychopathology and the promotion and treatment of mental health.

Structure of Emotions

Unlike many other processes that are the focus of psychological inquiry, such as cognitions, memory, or attention, emotions are not confined to the brain. Rather, emotional processes are localized throughout our bodies, phenomena we capture when we say that we feel “butterflies in our stomach” or express a need to “catch our breath.” Indeed, emotional responses are the result of the orchestrated activity of several components: biological (peripheral physiology and central neurobiology), behavioral (motoric behaviors and facial expressions), and subjective experience (feelings and appraisals); thus we consider emotions to have a multisystemic structure. For example, when we are confronted with a perceived threat, biological indices may involve the sympathetic nervous system preparing the automatic “fight or flight” response, our muscles preparing for this response, and our minds helping us assign linguistic meaning to our experience. However, the exact nature of the relationship between these domains is not yet well understood.

Given the multisystemic nature of emotions, it is possible for these components to often lack convergence in their responses. This potential for lack of convergence has theoretical and methodological implications. Different emotion theorists have argued for different definitions of emotions based on how these components of emotion have converged. The James-Lange theory of emotion focuses on subjective awareness of physiological responses to emotion-eliciting stimuli. In this way, we experience emotion by interpreting physiological responses, so we feel afraid because we startle; it is the perception of our increased heart rate and muscle tension that constitute the startle response that leads to the subjective experience of fear. Strong evidence for this theory comes from studies that have tested the facial feedback hypothesis, which states that making a facial expression actually influences the emotional experience. By placing awareness of the physiological states as central to the experience of emotion, the James-Lange theory makes the experience of emotion dependent on the awareness of physiological states.

Criticism of the James-Lange theory comes from the Cannon-Bard theory, which postulates that the viscera are relatively insensitive structures and that visceral changes are too slow to be the source of emotional feeling. This theory poses that emotion-eliciting stimuli simultaneously trigger both physiological responses and the subjective experience of emotion. Thus, it rejects the notion of awareness of physiological states as the determinant of the emotional experience.

Another view on the relationship between physiological awareness and emotional experience comes from the two-factor theory of emotion developed by Schacter and Singer. These theorists proposed that emotional experience is dependent not only on the awareness of physiological arousal, but also on the label that is adjudicated to that arousal. In a series of classic experiments, they administered norepinephrine to participants in order to produce arousal and modified the context in which the experiment took place. In line with expectations, they were able to show that the same type of experimentally induced arousal took the form of different emotions depending on the appraisals that individuals made in response to the contextual factors to which they were exposed.

Function of Emotions

In addition to structure, emotions have been defined based on their function. Functionalist views are largely based on the evolutionary approach and suggest that if emotions have evolved over time and across species, they must provide organisms with advantages to adapt to their environment. Specifically, these theories state that emotions are comprised of an innate process of motivation that protects us from noxious stimuli and directs us towards appetitive stimuli. In this way, emotions play a role in facilitating adaptation to complex environments.

Functional conceptualizations of emotions establish that emotions provide useful information about the environment (i.e., have an “aboutness” to them) and prepare organisms for action (i.e., action tendencies). Thus emotions are integrally tied to the way we interact with the world around us, and as such, to our thoughts, decisions, motivations, actions, and communication, among others. They are critical to the decision-making process, as they signal adaptive and maladaptive decisions to individuals before they are consciously aware of them (Bechara, Damasio, Tranel, & Damasio, (1997)). Emotions are also linked to motivational processes, as they relate to approach and avoidance tendencies. More specifically, emotions are considered to be central to the behavioral approach system (BAS), which is hypothesized to increase goal-motivated behaviors in response to the environment, and the behavioral inhibition system (BIS), which is hypothesized to increase behaviors of avoidance and inhibition (Gray, (2000)). Finally, emotions are integrally involved in social interaction, providing not only informational value, but also interpersonal value by facilitating rapid communication among individuals (e.g., facial expressions).

Integrative Perspectives

Recent investigators, such as LeDoux ((1996)), have emphasized the importance of both structural and functional aspects of emotions. LeDoux has developed a model of emotional processing that posits the existence of two structural systems for emotion processing, namely a “low” and “high” route, that serve different functions. In the low route, sensory information goes through the thalamus and directly reaches the amygdala, bypassing cortical centers. In this way, this pathway allows for a quick detection of environmental cues and the production of fast and automatic responses. In contrast, in the higher route, sensory information passes through the thalamus and reaches the neocortex, where it is contextualized and meaning is assigned. This high pathway allows for a more thorough evaluation of the emotional information, which results in more flexibility in the orchestration of responses. These two routes are, therefore, complementary and are necessary for responses to different contexts. This theory synthesizes different views on the relationship between physiological arousal and subjective experience.

Emotion Dysfunction

Functionalist views of emotions do not maintain that emotions are always adaptive; rather they are useful to the organism insomuch as they provide flexibility to respond to the demands of the environment. For example, when intense fear prevents an organism from reacting to the environment and severely endangers it, the emotion is no longer adaptive. Thus, emotions need to be properly channeled, or regulated, to be advantageous to the organism. Emotion regulation is “the process by which individuals influence which emotions they have, when they have them, and how they experience and express them” (Gross, (1998), p. 275). Emotions not properly regulated can result in emotional experiences or expressions that are either too strong or weak for the situation at hand. This inability to respond effectively to one’s emotions according to situational constraints has been termed emotion dysregulation.

Emotion dysregulation has been placed at the core of many psychological disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder, unipolar and bipolar depression, borderline personality disorder, and substance abuse disorders, among others. The growth in the interest of emotions in psychology has influenced the development of models of psychopathology that not only incorporate emotion dysregulation as the core of disorders, but also as a target for treatment and prevention. This is the case with “third wave” acceptance- and mindfulness-based behavioral therapies, which have placed an emphasis on emotional processes, by advocating awareness and acceptance of emotional states rather than avoidance, distraction, or reappraisal.

In addition to treatment implications, emotions have elucidated prevention efforts and underscored their importance. Central to these prevention efforts has been the construct of emotional intelligence, which involves a set of emotion-related skills, including perceptual processing of emotions, facilitating thought process through emotions, understanding of emotions, and reflective regulation of emotions (Mayer, Salovey, & Caruso, (2004)). The concept of emotion intelligence has reached massive audiences through the publication of highly popular books. Additionally, it has become the focus of school-based interventions, with researchers and educators interested in exploring the relationship between emotional intelligence and academic achievement and social functioning in children and adolescents.

In summary, despite a large body of research produced as a result of increased interest in emotions, many questions still remain unsolved. Of particular interest to both emotion theorists and clinical psychologists is the relationship between the structure and function of emotions. A better understanding of this relationship has the promise of influencing the development of models of emotion that can be used for the prevention and treatment of clinical disorders.

See also

Emotion Regulation; Emotional Development; Emotional Intelligence.

  • Bechara, A., Damasio, H., Tranel, D., & Damasio, A. (1997). Deciding advantageously before knowing the advantageous strategy. Science, 275, 1293-1295. .
  • Gray, J. A., & McNaughton, N. (2000). The neuropsychology of anxiety: An enquiry into the functions of the septo-hippocampal system (2nd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Gross, J. J. (1998). The emerging field of emotion regulation: An integrative review. Review of General Psychology, 2, 271-299.
  • LeDoux, J. (1996). The emotional brain: The mysterious underpinnings of emotional life. New York: Touchstone Press.
  • Mayer, J. D., Salovey, P., & Caruso, D. R. (2004). Emotional intelligence: Theory, findings, and implications. Psychological Inquiry, 15, 197-215.
  • Suggested Readings
  • Cornelius, R. (1996). The science of emotion: Research and tradition in the psychology of emotion. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  • Ekman, P., & Davidson, R. J. (1994). The nature of emotion. New York: Oxford.
    Yale University
    Copyright © 2010 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved.

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