Theories of Emotion
11 Motivation, Emotion, and Personality
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An emotion is a conscious feeling of pleasantness or unpleasantness accompanied by biological activation and expressive behavior; emotion has cognitive, physiological, and behavioral components. Two dimensions of emotion are arousal or intensity and valence or positive/negative quality. The greater the arousal, the more intense the emotion. Fear, anger, happiness, sadness, surprise, and disgust are examples of emotions. Evolutionary psychologists suggest that emotions persist because of their adaptive value. Fear of people and animals displaying angry faces, for example, caused humans to focus attention and energize action to protect themselves in ways that enabled the species to survive. Facial expressions seem to be inborn and universal across all cultures. Many areas in the brain, many neurotransmitter systems, the autonomic nervous system, and the endocrine system are tied to emotions. The amygdala, which is part of the limbic system, influences aggression and fear, and interacts with the hypothalamus, which sets emotional states, such as rage. The limbic system has pathways to and from the cerebral cortex, especially the frontal lobes, which are involved in control and interpretation of emotions. The left hemisphere is more closely associated with positive emotions, and the right with negative emotions. Emotions are inferred from nonverbal expressive behaviors, including body language, vocal qualities, and, most important, facial expressions. Paul Ekman and others found at least six basic facial expressions are universally recognized by people in diverse cultures all over the world. Emotions cause expressions, and expressions can also cause emotions.
Cultures differ in norms for regulating emotional expression; they have different display rules. For example, the Japanese, who value interdependence, promote more restraint in expression of emotions than other more individualistic cultures.
Psychologists agree that emotions associated with feelings (e.g., love, hate, fear) have physiological, behavioral, and cognitive components but disagree as to how the three components interact to produce feelings and actions. No one theory seems sufficient to explain emotion, but each appears to contribute to an explanation.
American psychologist William James, a founder of the school of functionalism, and Danish physiologist Karl Lange proposed that our awareness of our physiological arousal leads to our conscious experience of emotion. According to this theory, external stimuli activate our autonomic nervous systems, producing specific patterns of physiological changes for different emotions that evoke specific emotional experiences. When we see a vicious-looking dog growl at us, our sympathetic nervous system kicks in, we begin to run immediately, and then we become aware that we are afraid. This theory suggests that we can change our feelings by changing our behavior.
The James—Lange theory is consistent with the current facial-feedback hypothesis that suggests that our facial expressions affect our emotional experiences. Smiling seems to induce positive moods, and frowning seems to induce negative moods.
Walter Cannon and Philip Bard disagreed with the James—Lange theory. According to the Cannon—Bard theory, conscious experience of emotion accompanies physiological responses. Cannon and Bard theorized that the thalamus (the processor of all sensory information but smell in the brain) simultaneously sends information to both the limbic system (emotional center) and the frontal lobes (cognitive center) about an event. When we see the vicious growling dog, our bodily arousal and our recognition of the fear we feel occur at the same time.
We now know that although the thalamus does not directly cause emotional responses, it relays sensory information to the amygdala and hypothalamus, which process the information.
According to opponent-process theory, when we experience an emotion, an opposing emotion will counter the first emotion, lessening the experience of that emotion. When we experience the first emotion on repeated occasions, the opposing emotion becomes stronger and the first emotion becomes weaker, leading to an even weaker experience of the first emotion. If we are about to jump out of an airplane for the first time, we tend to feel extreme fear, along with low levels of elation. On subsequent jumps, we experience less fear and more elation.
Schachter—Singer Two-Factor Theory
Cognitive theories argue that our emotional experiences depend on our interpretation of situations. Stanley Schachter and Jerome Singer’s studies suggested that we infer emotion from arousal and then label it according to our cognitive explanation for the arousal. For example, if we feel aroused and someone is yelling at us, we must be angry.
Different people on an amusement park ride experience different emotions. According to Richard Lazarus’s cognitive-appraisal theory, our emotional experience depends on our interpretation of the situation we are in. In primary appraisal, we assess potential consequences of the situation, and in secondary appraisal, we decide what to do. This suggests that we can change our emotions if we learn to interpret the situation differently.
Evolutionary psychologists disagree that emotions depend on our evaluation of a given situation. They note that emotional responses developed before complex thinking in animal evolution. Lower animals fear predators without thinking. Robert Zajonc thinks that we often know how we feel long before we know what we think in a given situation.