We all have them, and yet most of us can't explain them. Do people really know why they
have them, when they have them, how to control them, etc.? Like so many other aspects of
our psychological makeup, emotions are comprised of several components. We will discuss
emotions in terms of the cognitive, physiological, and behavioral components.
I. Characteristics of Emotion
An emotion is defined in terms of four components:
Cognitive Appraisal: You interpret some stimulus in terms of your well-being.
Physiological Arousal: Changes in heart rate or breathing, etc.
Expressive Reactions: Gestures and facial expressions – smiling or crying.
Conscious Experiences: Feelings and thoughts – happiness or fear.
- Example: Being attacked by a shark would probably invoke some pretty serious
emotions. You would first interpret the shark’s attack as being a threat to your well-
being. Your heart would pound, your adrenaline would start pumping and you would
probably begin to swim to escape the shark. All the while, you would probably
experience the feeling of fear or terror.
A. Cognitive Level (this is the label or name associated with the emotion)
1) One key aspect of emotions, according to Woodworth & Sehlesberg, is
that we have perceptions of them that usually ranges from: pleasantness-
unpleasantness & weak-strong (this is the level of activation).
- So, we perceive our emotions as having some level of pleasantness
and strength. For example, if your boyfriend or girlfriend breaks up
with you, you experience some type of emotion, like sadness. Then,
you experience this emotion along the pleasantness and strength
dimensions - if you loved this person, you may experience sadness
that is very unpleasant and intense (strength).
1. Usually, research on emotions involve a person's subjective
report or experience of an experience. Aside from all of the
normal problems associated with self-report data, there are a
few others that occur with self report measures of emotions:
a) There are over 400 words in the English
language that refer to emotions. So how do
we know exactly what is meant (how do we
operationalize) when someone says, for
example, they feel "sad"? What does that
mean compared to all the other words?
b) People can't turn emotions on and off so
control over these for study is very difficult.
c) As we know, emotions involve some type
of personal evaluations that normally ranges
from pleasant-unpleasant. However, we may
have experiences that involve both. For
example - getting a promotion = more
money, but also more responsibility and more
time away from others activities. So there are
both pleasant and unpleasant emotions
associated with this one experience.
B. Physiological Level
Emotions are accompanied by physiological arousal, usually at an autonomic level
- For example - Have you ever had the experience of being in a car when it spins out
of control on an icy road? Almost instantly upon the car spinning off track, you
experience an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, your pupils dilate, etc.
This occurs, at some level, with all emotions. The systems involved with this activity
1) Central Nervous System (CNS): limbic system and cortex
2) Peripheral Nervous System (PNS): somatic and autonomic, sympathetic
But, very often physiological changes are too small to notice. In these cases, we rely on:
1) Galvanic Skin Response (GSR) - Measures fluctuations in electrical
conductivity of the skin that occur when sweat glands increase activity.
2) Polygraph - "lie detector" - used to measure the subtle variations in muscle
tension, heart rate, etc., associated with emotion that occur very subtly.
C. Behavioral Level: Nonverbal Expression
Very often organisms communicate without words. They may rely on smiling, frowning,
clenching their fists, turning their backs, etc. Thus, we may communicate emotions
nonverbally; through body language.
One of the most influential and important researchers in the field of emotion, is Ekman.
Here are a couple of examples from Ekman's work:
- Ekman showed photos to people and asked them to identify what emotion
was being expressed in those photos. He found that people from different
cultures could recognize common facial features (people from different
cultures all identified, for example, smiling as a sign of happiness).
- He found 7 basic emotions most often identified from photos of facial
expressions: happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, disgust, and contempt.
- He also indicated that the use of facial expressions to communicate seems
to be innate - people who have been blind from birth make many similar
II. Theories of Emotion
A. James-Lange Theory of Emotion
The James-Lange Theory states that our brains interpret specific physiological changes as
feelings or emotions and that there is a different physiological pattern underlying each
emotion. Your brain analyzes each different pattern of physiological responses and interprets
each pattern as a different emotion.
A common sense idea sequence about emotion according to these theorists would be:
1. Environmental influence (some event) ---> 2. Physiological change following brain
interpretation of event---> 3. Physiological change produces psychological experience
(emotion) ---> 4. May or may not be accompanied by an observable response (scream).
- In other words, James and Lange would say, "I feel afraid because I tremble". If a
person sees a bear while walking along in the woods, James and Lange would suggest
that the person would tremble and then realize that, because they are trembling, they
Criticisms of the James-Lange Theory
a) Different emotions are not necessarily associated with different patterns of
physiological responses. Anger, fear, and sadness share similar physiological patterns
b) People whose spinal cords have been severed at the neck are deprived of most of
the feedback from their physiological responses, yet they can experience strong
emotions. This theory would suggest that they would experience little or no emotion.
c) Some emotions, such as feeling guilty or jealous, may require a considerable
amount of interpretation or appraisal of the situation. The sequence involved in
feeling a complex emotion like these points to the influence of cognitive factors.
B. The Facial Feedback Theory
A very different explanation for what causes emotions involves the activation of facial
muscles that are used in smiling, frowning, or raising your eyebrows. This idea was
originated from the work of Charles Darwin.
The theory states that the sensations or feedback from the movement of your facial
muscles and skin are interpreted by your brain as different emotions.
1. As you perceive different situations, you automatically make different facial
expressions. Different movements of muscles and skin cause different facial
expressions whose feedback is sent to the brain.
2. In turn, your brain interprets the feedback as different emotions.
Criticism of FFT
a) Individuals who are completely paralyzed can still experience emotion – obviously
without facial feedback.
b) Researchers question whether it is the facial expressions alone that possess the
causal relationship. Facial feedback may influence a mood or the intensity of the
emotion, but not cause it.
C. The Cannon-Bard Theory
Background: Again two people had the same perspective at roughly the same time
(although Cannon was considered to be the more influential one). This theory made use of
information about physiological structures not available to James and Lange. This theory
suggested that the physiological response and the subjective experience of emotion happen
- Example: Heart pounding and fear occur at the same time – one does not cause the
Cannon's critique (1929) of James-Lange Theory - He indicated that some of the problems
with the James-Lange theory were:
a) Visceral changes are often too slow to be a source of emotions, which
erupt very quickly. For example, when something bad happens to you, do
you always cry before you feel sad? Or can you feel sad before crying?
b) Physiological arousal may occur without the experience of an emotion:
- For example: exercise --> increased heart rate --> no emotional significance
Emotion occurs when the thalamus sends signals to BOTH the cortex (which produces
conscious experience of emotion) and autonomic nervous system (visceral arousal) at the
Criticism: BUT - as we already know, the thalamus is not the only player involved in
emotion. The limbic system, hypothalamus and others are all involved. So, this leads us to
the Cognitive view.
D. Cognitive View: Schachter and Singer Two Factor Theory
Schachter and Singer maintain that we don't automatically know when we are
happy, angry, or jealous. Instead, we label our emotions by considering situational
cues. We feel some emotion. To really understand what emotion we are having at
that particular time, we use the cues in the environment at the time to help us
determine the current emotion. This labeling process depends on two factors:
a) Some element in the situation must trigger a general,
nonspecific arousal marked by increased heart rate, tightening
of the stomach, and rapid breathing.
b) People search the situation/environment for cues that tell
them what has caused the emotion.
The infamous Schachter-Singer study of emotion:
1) Schachter and Singer told men who volunteered they were studying a
vitamin supplement called Suproxin. The men were asked if they were willing
to take the drug, and those who consented were injected with epinephrine or
a placebo. Epinephrine, which is also called adrenaline, is released by our
hormonal system whenever we face a stressful situation, and generally
increases blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration. Thus the men who
received the epinephrine were more physiologically aroused than those who
received the inert placebo.
2) Schachter and Singer manipulated subjects' interpretations of their physical
sensations. They told some of the epinephrine-injected subjects that even
though the drug wasn't harmful, side effects were quite common: they might
feel flushed, their hands might shake, and their hearts might pound. The
other subjects, in contrast, were given no information at all about the effects
of the drug. Schachter and Singer reasoned that once the epinephrine kicked
in, their subjects would begin to search for the cause of their arousal. People
who had been told that the drug would arouse them should have assumed
that the drug was causing their hands to shake and their heart to pound. But
if they weren't warned about the drug's effects, then they would be more
likely to interpret their arousal as an emotion.
3) What kind of emotion would these uninformed subjects experience?
Schachter and Singer believed that their reaction would depend on the
available situational cues. They therefore manipulated this variable as well.
They arranged for their subjects to wait for the Suproxin's effects in a small
room with another person. This individual was one of Schachter and Singer's
accomplices, and he was trained to behave in either a euphoric or angry
fashion. The euphoric confederate clowned around during the 20 minutes,
doodling on scratch paper, playing a game of "basketball" with wadded up
balls of paper, making and flying a paper airplane, building a tower out of file
folders, and playing with a Hula Hoop. The angry confederate, in contrast,
became increasingly agitated during the 20 minutes. The subjects were asked
to complete questionnaires that contained very personal questions. The
accomplice, after loudly criticizing questions that requested information
about childhood diseases, father's income, and family members' bathing
habits and psychiatric adjustment, flew into a rage at the question "How
many times each week do you have sexual intercourse?"
4) Schachter and Singer observed and coded the actions taken by each
subject, and also asked them to describe their emotion state. As they had
predicted, the physiologically aroused subjects who hadn't been told about
the drug's side-effects responded with emotions that matched the
confederate's actions. If they were aroused and hadn't been expecting the
arousal, then they felt happy when their fellow subject was happy, but angry
when their fellow subject was angry. Forewarned subjects and unaroused
subjects who received a placebo, however, did not display any pronounced
emotion. Also, the subjects in a special control condition--people who had
been given epinephrine but had been misinformed about its possible effect --
also displayed the emotions enacted by a euphoric confederate.
E. Affective-Primacy Theory
The affective-primacy theory states that, in some situations, you feel an emotion before
you have the time to interpret or appraise the situation.
- Example: Winning the lottery – Holding the winning ticket for a $55 million
jackpot would trigger an emotional experience so quickly that there would be little or
no thinking and appraisal preceding your feeling. That, along with physiological
responses, would come shortly afterwards. .
The main theorist behind this idea is Robert Zajonc, who does not believe that this
happens in all situations. He merely maintains that this affective-primacy phenomenon
occurs in certain types of situations.
III. Functions of Emotions
To appreciate the value and worth of emotions, try living a single day without feeling or
expressing any emotions. It would be one of the worst days of your life because emotions
have three important functions.
1. Send social signals: Our emotions communicate personal feelings and provide
social signals which may elicit a variety of responses from those around you.
- Example: Smiling elicits friendly feelings, while crying elicits sympathy and
2. Adapt and survive: According to Darwin, our earliest ancestors evolved the
ability to smile, cry, laugh and display other emotional expressions because they
helped human beings to adapt and survive. We inherited the physiology and neural
structure necessary to experience those emotions.
3. Arouse and motivate: Performance on a task is an interaction between the level
of physiological arousal and the difficulty of the task. For difficult tasks, low arousal
results in better performance; for most tasks, moderate arousal helps performance;
and for easy tasks, high arousal may facilitate performance.
- Example: When taking an exam, we would predict that a person with high
test anxiety (arousal) would do more poorly that someone with comparable
ability but low arousal. Research indicates that highly aroused students scored
poorer on more difficult tasks.
IV. Expressing and Experiencing Emotion
A. Nonverbal Indicators of Emotion
All of us communicate nonverbally as well as verbally. For example, if irritated, we may
tense our bodies, press our lips together and turn away. With a gaze, an averted glance, or a
stare we can communicate intimacy, submission or dominance.
- We read fear and anger mostly from the eyes, happiness from the mouth.
- Introverts are better emotion detectors than extraverts, although extraverts are
easier to read. Also, women are better than men at reading emotions.
Although some gestures are culturally determined, facial expressions, such as those of
happiness and fear, are common the world over. The physiological symptoms of emotion
also cross cultures. These are called universal facial expressions.
- Cultures differ, however, in how, and how much, they express emotions. For
example, in communal cultures that value interdependence, intense displays of
potentially disruptive emotions are infrequent.
B. Measuring Emotion
Polygraph measures several physiological indicators of emotion – for example, changes
in breathing, pulse rate, blood pressure and perspiration.
- Using the Polygraph as a Lie Detector - Procedure
Control Question : Up to age 18, did you ever physically harm anyone?
Relevant Question : Did the deceased threaten to harm you in any way?
If Relevant > Control --> Lie
- Errors in Lie Detection: A Classic Experiment
50 Innocent, 50 Guilty
o 1/3 of innocent declared guilty (false alarms)
o 1/4 of guilty declared innocent (misses)
Is 70% accuracy good enough?
o Assume 5% of 1000 employees actually guilty
test all employees
285 will be wrongly accused
What about 95% accuracy?
o Assume 1 in 1000 employees actually guilty
test all employees (including 999 innocents)
50 wrongly declared guilty
1 of 51 testing positive are guilty (2%)
C. Experiencing Emotion
Anger Phenomenon: The catharsis hypothesis maintains that “releasing” aggressive
energy through action or fantasy reduces anger. Although “blowing off steam” may
temporarily calm an angry person, it may also amplify underlying hostility and it may
- Angry outbursts may be reinforcing and therefore habit forming. In contrast, anger
expressed as a nonaccusing statement of feeling can benefit relationships by leading
to reconciliation rather than retaliation.
Happiness Phenomenon: A good mood boosts people’s perceptions o fthe world and their
willingness to help others (the feel-good, do-good phenomenon).
- The moods triggered by good or bad events, however, seldom last more than that
day. Even seemingly significant good events, such as a substantial raise in income,
seem not to increase happiness for long.
- After decades of focusing on negative emotions, researchers are becoming
increasingly interested in subjective well-being, assessed as either feelings of
happiness or as a sense of satisfaction with life.
The adaptation level phenomenon describes our tendency to judge various stimuli
relative to what we have previously experienced. If our income or social prestige increases,
we may feel initial pleasure. However, we then adapt to this new level of achievement, come
to see it as normal, and require something better to give us another surge of happiness.
- The adaptation level phenomenon explains emotional ups and downs in the long
run. According to the opponent-process theory of emotion, our emotions also
balance in the short run. That is, every emotion triggers an opposite emotion.
Relative deprivation is the perception that one is worse off relative to those with whom
one compares oneself. As people climb the ladder of success, they mostly compare
themselves with those who are at or above their current level. This explains why increases in
income may do little to increase happiness.
- High self-esteem, close friendships or a satisfying marriage, and meaningful
religious faith are among the predictors of happiness. Age, gender, educational level
and parenthood are among the factors unrelated to happiness.