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4 Theories of Emotion From Cognitive Psychology

Dr. Thomas Swan has a PhD in psychology from the University of Otago. His work explores theories of emotion, memory, and belief.

Facial expressions change as emotions are felt. There are also behavioral, chemical, and cognitive changes.

Facial expressions change as emotions are felt. There are also behavioral, chemical, and cognitive changes.

The Elements of Emotion

The main purpose of emotion is to encourage adaptive behavior (i.e., behavior that helps us to survive) in situations that are relevant to our survival or well-being.

For example, pleasant emotions such as happiness, love, and pride accompany and reinforce behavior that it is worth repeating. Unpleasant emotions such as fear, anger, and guilt teach us to avoid the situations that cause them.

In other words, emotions serve as automated shortcuts for avoiding danger and promoting well-being. However, emotions can misfire when triggered by modern cultural creations and other stimuli that have not influenced human evolution. For example, some drugs can be both harmful and pleasurable.

How Do Emotions Work?

Emotional experiences usually involve the following processes, although the order is sometimes disputed:

  1. The senses must detect a stimulus (e.g., a person, object, or event) that the brain associates with an emotion. Our repertoire of emotion-causing stimuli includes evolved preferences (e.g., a fear of snakes), acquired affinities and aversions (e.g., a fear of wasps after being stung in childhood), and conscious goals and motivations (e.g., anger in a traffic jam). Sometimes, one's current emotional or expressive state can serve as the stimulus for another emotion.
  2. There is an appraisal of the stimulus. This means that questions are automatically addressed, such as "does this help or prevent me from achieving my goals?" and "can I cope with this?" Negative answers to these questions lead to the production of unpleasant emotions.
  3. An eruptive physiological response occurs. Chemicals such as dopamine or adrenalin are released to either reinforce current behavior or to prepare the body for preventative action. For example, fear prepares the body to run away by releasing epinephrine, opening sweat glands, and increasing the heart rate.
  4. One's facial and bodily expressions change to tell other people how to behave. For example, a look of anger tells others to stand clear. Other behavioral changes might include pushing out one's chest (anger) or slouching (shame).
  5. Cognitive capacities are altered from rest-state levels. For example, anxiety directs attention toward threatening stimuli and focuses the mind on negative memories.
  6. Finally, we engage in adaptive behavior such as comforting a loved one, fighting an enemy, or running away. The aforementioned cognitive, expressive, and physiological changes prepare us for undertaking this behavior.

There are three types of emotion-like phenomena. As we have seen, emotions are largely automatic, transient, and stimulus-focused states. Moods are evaluative, prolonged, and unfocused states that are saturated with the signals of a particular emotion. For example, an irritable mood might include a high incidence of anger signals, while a depressive mood may contain several anxiety signals. Lastly, there are "affective personality traits" such as hostility or trait anxiety, which describe a proneness for experiencing an emotion.

Emotions prepare the body for action, such as escape from a vicious predator!

Emotions prepare the body for action, such as escape from a vicious predator!

Current Theories of Emotion

For many centuries, psychologists have sought to understand where our emotions come from. Currently, there are four major theories of emotion that receive wide support in academic circles. The theories differ in whether they favor a social, evolutionary, dimensional, or cognitive explanation.

1. Ekman's Basic Emotions

Paul Ekman is a psychologist whose research supports us having six basic emotions: happiness, sadness, fear, anger, disgust, and surprise. Ekman found that cultures from all over the world recognize and display these "basic emotions" via their facial expressions (see video above). Ekman concluded that emotions evolved as innate, universal, discrete states that do not require any form of cultural learning or social construction.

Ekman's theory is supported by the introduction to this article, which shows that emotions have a clear evolutionary purpose. For example, emotions can facilitate reproduction (love), reciprocate harm (anger) or kindness (gratitude), or help us to mend damaged relationships (guilt, shame). They can also motivate conformity with social norms (contempt) or bolster one’s reputation as a conformer (moral outrage).

Despite this support, the work of Jesse Prinz (PDF) suggests that most of the emotions just described are not universal. For example, anger appears to have no direct synonym in Malaysian and Inuit cultures. Rather than anger, Malaysians describe a violent frenzy “amok” or a sullen brooding “marah.” Indeed, anger is very risky in small communities because it can potentially lead to ostracism (and likely, death).

Another problem for Ekman's theory is that most emotions do not result in unique physiological changes. For example, anger and fear each coincide with an increased heart rate. This suggests that emotions readily overlap and intermingle and are not discrete states.

2. Social Constructivism

Many anthropologists contend that emotions are socially constructed by the cultures in which we live, and that we gradually train ourselves to experience relevant emotions in order to conform and succeed in our environment. For example, imitation or trial and error might allow someone to learn that becoming angry defuses some certain situations but not others.

Social constructivists (for a deeper look at the theory, see Jesse Prinz's paper above) therefore see Ekman's basic emotions as common responses to situations that occur in most cultures, which is only why they "appear" as if they have universally evolved.

There are several problems with the constructivist theory. For example, given that most emotions involve a physiological response, how does one train their body to release chemicals or speed up the heart? How do we learn cognitive biases that alter attention and memory? Additionally, emotions appear very early in development, narrowing the window in which we supposedly learn these adaptive skills.

Do social constructivists (often anthropologists) have a parochial focus on conscious behaviors and expressions while neglecting many of the psychological aspects of the "emotional experience"? In their defense, basic emotions (e.g., fear of snakes) may be augmented by cultural learning during development (e.g., some snakes are safe). Indeed, without this cultural recalibration of our basic emotional triggers, we could never adapt to new or changing environments.

Inuit people generally do not risk appraising any situation as warranting anger.

Inuit people generally do not risk appraising any situation as warranting anger.

3. Emotional Dimension Theory

Some theorists contend that all emotions only differ in terms of a few basic measures that they call dimensions. Typically, these dimensions are valence (positive or negative, i.e., pleasant or unpleasant), arousal (high or low), and motivation (approach or avoid). For example, fear would be characterized by negativity, high arousal, and avoidance. Anger would be the same as fear, but with a motivation to approach (perhaps, but see below).

One of the many problems with this simplistic theory is the arbitrary and generalized choice of dimensions. There are at least eleven different measures of arousal for the autonomic nervous system and no way to rank their importance to an "arousal dimension."

Furthermore, unpleasant emotions generally cause us to avoid things, meaning that there is substantial overlap between the valence and motivation dimensions. Anger may be one exception, however, even though anger can cause a confrontation (approach), the purpose is still to force a quick resolution and to avoid the stimulus in future. People usually don't want to be in situations that make them angry.

The theory also neglects many facets of the emotional experience. A dimension is needed to account for cognitive effects on attention and memory. Other dimensions might also consider whether an emotion is often experienced collectively (e.g., happiness or sadness) or is otherwise socially relevant (e.g., shame or contempt). Indeed, some emotions are associated with bodily expressions that serve to communicate feelings to others. In other words, proponents of dimension theory may continue to find new dimensions until their theory becomes redundant or resembles one of the other theories.

4. Cognitive Appraisal Theory

The most accommodating and best supported theory may be the cognitive appraisal theory. As described above, appraisal is already widely accepted as an important part of the emotional experience, but it can also explain why certain emotions appear in some cultures and not others.

The originator of the theory, Richard S. Lazarus, argued that emotions are elicited by intuitive and automatic evaluations of significant stimuli within our environment. The first step, or "primary appraisal," is to evaluate the relevance of the stimulus to one’s well-being and goals. Secondary appraisal concerns one’s ability to respond or cope with the stimulus. Negative emotions result from goal-inhibitory stimuli and/or low coping potential.

Numerous appraisals can be made around the themes of goal-relevance and coping, and the specific profile of confirmed appraisals determines the emotion felt. Subtle differences in appraisal profiles might explain the different varieties of each emotion (e.g., anger, irritation, frustration, and rage), allowing for a rich variety of closely related emotions with many intermediaries and routes of transition.

Indeed, we continually "reappraise" situations as they change, casting emotion as a highly transitory and mutable experience. For example, reappraisal may concern one’s initial reaction to a situation (e.g., “am I over-reacting?”), producing a feedback effect that might enhance, curtail, or eliminate the emotion. Interestingly, moods may be fragmentary emotions in which the appraisal process is incomplete, leading to emotion-like feelings that endure until completion.

Cognitive appraisal theory benefits from being compatible with all of the above theories. Indeed, it is reasonable to suggest that basic emotions constitute common appraisal profiles that accompany commonly encountered classes of stimuli. And, although different cultures might appraise the same event differently, leading to different emotions (i.e., social constructivism), the same appraisal profile should always lead to the same emotion, regardless of culture (i.e., "basic" evolutionary constraints). Certain appraisal profiles may be rare or absent in some cultures, meaning that the corresponding emotion will also be rare or absent.

An Appraisal of Stress

Different Cultures Produce Different Answers to the Same Questions

The emotional experience includes a sequential array of biological processes. While emotions are clearly a product of natural selection, psychologists and anthropologists often question how much of the emotional experience is determined by it. Four theories of emotion have been proposed in an effort to end the debate.

Of the four, cognitive appraisal theory may be the most elegant and accommodating. The theory claims that we evaluate a stimulus by determining its relevance to our survival, goals, and coping potential. These questions of relevance, and the emotions that result from particular sets of answers, appear to be ingrained in us by evolution.

However, this does not give us universal "basic" emotions because different cultures will produce different answers to the same questions. This provides humanity with a way of adapting our emotions to new environments and explains the small level of cultural variance in how emotions manifest around the world.

© 2013 Thomas Swan


Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on December 02, 2014:

Thanks PsychGeek. I agree, it seems our understanding of emotion is getting left behind. Emotion needs to be understood and incorporated into cognitive theories better by psychologists. Your hub on a similar subject was also well written and informative, thank you.

PsychGeek from UK on December 02, 2014:

Hi Thomas. I really do think emotion is one of the most interesting aspects of psychology and one of the areas we understand the least due to its complexity. I really liked this article, well written, interesting and informative. Thank you for sharing!

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on October 14, 2013:

Thanks apeksha and skellie for the nice comments! I'm glad this helped with the studies. There's quite a lot of interesting info on psychopaths in the literature on moral emotions, and I have a few theories of my own too.. though it's not in my immediate plans to write about.

Skellie from Adelaide on October 12, 2013:

Hi Thomas. I love this article as I am currently studying Criminal Psychology. I learnt a lot, Thanks

Apeksha Waychal from India. on October 12, 2013:

good writing. need to think.

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on October 11, 2013:

Thanks Colleen. Much appreciated!

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on October 11, 2013:

Thanks for commenting Beezkneez. I think we've only scratched the surface of how emotions affect our own behavior and beliefs, let alone the behavior of those around us. Psychology has focused on `cold cognitions' in recent decades, while largely ignoring the ways in which emotions can generate those cognitions.

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on October 11, 2013:

Cheers Mark Johann! Yea, facial expressions are quite an effective means of non-verbal communication. Though they're only worth controlling if you don't want to share your emotions... such as during a poker game!

Colleen Swan from County Durham on October 10, 2013:

An excellent thought provoking article; articulate and well presented. I question myself.

BEEZKNEEZ on October 10, 2013:

It really is amazing just how much our emotions positively or negatively affect others.

Mark Johann from New Zealand on October 10, 2013:

Now, I learn that I should control my face so as not to change the behavior of the people around me. Good work for this hub!