Motivation and emotion - Cognitive psychology

Psychology: an introduction (Oxford Southern Africa) - Leslie Swartz 2011

Motivation and emotion
Cognitive psychology

Jaak Panksepp & Viv O’Neill


After studying this chapter you should be able to:

•explain the concept of motivation

•explain how homeostasis operates in the motive of hunger

•describe the different types of motive

•explain intrinsic and extrinsic motivation

•describe the opposing mechanisms involved in approach— avoidance conflicts

•explain Maslow’s humanist theory of motivation

•explain game theory

•describe the aspects of emotions

•describe the research on types of emotions

•explain how cognitions are related to emotions

•describe the James-Lange, Cannon-Bard and Schachter-Singer theories of emotion.


Melinda, when thinking about the driving forces in her life, immediately identified things like her desire to do well at university, to please her parents and, in her more unselfish moments, her wish to do ’something useful for her community’. She generally thought about herself as someone who made considered and rational choices about what to do. Melinda also prided herself on the way she tried to stick to her principles about what was right, letting these principles guide her actions.

As Melinda started to learn more about motivation, she initially felt quite reluctant to accept that she could be motivated by such basic needs as hunger or pleasure. It made human beings sound no different from animals. It was also difficult to admit to herself that emotions like fear, anger or love could overrule her more rational self. But as Melinda learned more about homeostasis, she could see how these basic needs were innate and necessary for survival. How could human beings continue to exist if they didn’t eat, drink, procreate, look after their babies and protect themselves?

Melinda was interested to discover that learned motives were also very important to human existence. She realised that her desire to do well academically had been learned while she was still at school. She had also experienced a motive to enjoy new experiences and have fun with exciting activities like rock climbing. Melinda also knew from her own experience how some motives could conflict with others!

Melinda had not really connected motivation with her emotions, though when she thought about it, she realised that she did have strong feelings associated with doing well or having exciting experiences. She found it fascinating to break her feelings down into their parts and to identify the physiological aspects of emotions. It made sense to her that how an experience was labelled had an impact on how an emotion was felt.

Melinda also found it interesting to learn how many theories of emotion had been put forward by scholars going back to the 1800s. She noted how each theory had developed out of critique of previous theories and saw how this process provided a very good example of theory building in psychology.


What makes you do those things you do? What are your goals in life? At university? What satisfies you and makes you happy? These are questions about motivation. They are also questions about emotions because our emotions are inevitably connected to what we are motivated to do and how. The study of motivation aims to describe and explain the basic urges of our bodies, as well as the highest aspirations of our minds. However, it is an area that is difficult to define and study as theorists approach it in diverse ways.

While cognitive psychology has taught us that people receive, integrate, store, access and compare information, it has a hard time explaining how we choose which information to pay attention to, and why we choose certain information to process in our minds. These situations can be explained by looking at motivational urgency, which as suggested above, is affected by our ever-changing emotions.

Motivation is a complex concept with many levels. It is called an umbrella term because it includes many different mind—brain processes rather than one single construct. Briefly, motivation can be described as the processes involved in initiating, sustaining, directing and terminating behaviour. For example, you have just finished studying and now you are hungry. Your hunger initiates your move towards the fridge, where you find nothing exciting to eat. Your ongoing hunger sustains and directs a further search of the cupboards, where you find a packet of biscuits. Eating several biscuits satisfies your hunger and your food-seeking behaviour is terminated.

Motivation has many conscious and unconscious parts. The conscious components are easier to talk about and to study than the unconscious parts. But although we know less about the unconscious parts, we do know that they underlie everything we do and think about. We act and behave in a certain way, using our unconscious side, before we think about what we are doing, using our conscious side (Wegner, 2002).

Different schools of thought regarding motivation have focused on biological aspects like homeostasis and drives, and on psychological aspects like cognition and personality.


Homeostasis and brain mechanisms — hunger

In the past, researchers defined motivations as processes that help us take care of our bodily needs, while emotions were referred to as processes that help us take care of our mental needs and challenges. More recently, there has been a better understanding that this separation is artificial and that motivations and emotions are inextricably linked.

Bodily needs are based on the need for organisms to maintain homeostasis or internal equilibrium. This operates like a thermostat or an air conditioner — you can set it to a certain temperature and the machine will cycle to maintain that temperature. Similarly, the body has certain set levels for its own temperature, blood pressure and so on, and it will create internal tension to push a person to act to help maintain the homeostasis.

In terms of a person’s behaviour, going back to our example above, the state of internal tension (low blood sugar) will push the organism into action (getting food) with the goal of reducing the tension. Incentives also come into play here. Incentives provide a ’pull’ value to a goal. You have bought a beautiful dress for a special date, but it is a bit tight for you; this may provide a stronger incentive to limit your food intake than the advice of your mother to ’lose weight’.

How do these hunger mechanisms work in the body? You might think it is just your stomach feeling empty. A.L. Washburn studied this nearly 100 years ago and said that hunger was no more than one’s stomach contracting (Cannon & Washburn, 2012). However, more recent research has demonstrated the roles of various brain mechanisms. The most important part of the brain for regulating motives like hunger is the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus receives messages about blood sugar level, as well as messages from the stomach and liver (Woods et al., 2000).


Figure 10.1 Cross-section of the brain showing the hypothalamus

Different parts of the hypothalamus control our experience of hunger. The lateral hypothalamus (the side) acts as an ’on switch’. If this part is stimulated, you start eating even if your stomach is full. On the other hand, the ventromedial hypothalamus (the bottom-middle part) acts as an ’off switch’. If this part is damaged in some way, the organism will continue eating to extreme obesity. A number of chemicals in the body affect the action of the hypothalamus, including a chemical in marijuana (dagga) (Di Marzo et al., 2001).

Types of motive

There are several types of motive and these operate in different ways. Motives may be biological, personal and/ or social. The first type involves biological motives and these are based on a person’s survival needs. In the previous section, we discussed hunger, which is an important biological motive; other biological motives include the need for food, sleep, water, sex and so on. The need for sex here is referring to the need to procreate and pass our genes into the next generation. However, most sex acts are not intended for procreation (Holt et al., 2012) and people desire to have sex for a variety of reasons that relate to other motives that include pleasure, intimacy, submission to peer pressure or as a ’duty’ (Holt et al., 2012).

A second type of motive includes stimulus motives. These are personal motives which reflect an individual’s need for stimulation and information. They are seen in our curiosity and activities, and can vary widely from person to person; for example, people may be interested in nature walks or finding out how mechanical things work. Stimulus motives are not absolutely necessary for survival, but they do reflect a very important aspect of human (and animal) behaviour. People with a high need for stimulation are known as sensation seekers (Zuckerman, 2007).

A third type of motive is learned motives. These may be personal or social in nature and include things like motives for achievement, power, affiliation, and so on. As the name suggests, these are not innate, but are learned through processes like reinforcement. The relative strength of learned motives is likely to be affected by one’s cultural context. For example, while in many Western societies, a strong personal motive for individual success and achievement is taught to children, in traditional African societies, a motive for interdependence and cooperation may be more strongly instilled in children.

An important social motive is the need for affiliation. This refers to our needs for human closeness and contact. Hill (1987, in Holt et al., 2012) suggests that people affiliate for four basic reasons: to get positive stimulation, to gain social support, to gain attention and to enable social comparison. Social comparison is important in that it helps us know what is expected of us or how to behave in a specific situation.

Motives may also be extrinsic or intrinsic. Think about why you are studying at university. You may be doing it because you find your course fascinating and you are enjoying stretching yourself, or because you hope to be able to earn a good income someday. You might be studying for both of those reasons. According to Ryan and Deci (2000), you are using intrinsic motivation when you freely choose to do something that you find interesting or enjoyable. Intrinsic motivation leads to ’high-quality learning and creativity’, so it is of special interest to parents and educators (Ryan & Deci, 2000, p. 54).


Figure 10.2 Bungee jumping

Extrinsic motivation occurs when there are external outcomes (Ryan & Deci, 2000). An obvious example is your salary at the end of the month, but things like prizes, rewards and approval can all operate as extrinsic motivations. Ryan and Deci (2000) draw a distinction between extrinsic motivation that the person responds to with disinterest or resistance, and that which the person accepts and perhaps even endorses. This situation occurs when the person can see the ultimate value of their action, even if they are not doing it freely or for enjoyment.

Both extrinsic and intrinsic rewards can ultimately lose their power to reward. For some people, if they receive more and more prizes or monetary rewards, these can lose their value as a motivation. Similarly, the power of intrinsic motivation can be undermined by social or environmental factors. For example, if learners are over-controlled by parents or teachers, they may lose their intrinsic enjoyment of a task and their desire to master it, whereas parents who support autonomy are likely to have children with greater intrinsic motivation (Ryan & Deci, 2000).


The intrinsic—extrinsic division of motivational structures has been one that psychologists have discussed for well over a century, with one pole or the other gaining favour at different times. The following paragraphs briefly summarise the historical path that psychologists have followed in trying to explain human behaviour.

During the early years when psychology was emerging as a scientific discipline, instinct theories of motivation prevailed. Many human instincts, from aggression to shyness, were quickly put forward (McDougall, 1908). However, researchers soon realised that the instincts they were naming could not be defined neuropsychologically, and they also realised how little they explained complex human beings (Beach, 1955). Therefore, in reaction to the instinct theories, researchers started to look for extrinsic and learned causes of behaviour, including motivation. This heralded the behaviouristic era, which said that one could not study internal processes, as one could not directly observe them.

Then, as a reaction against the constraints of behaviourist theories, the cognitive era emerged and focused on human cognition as an explanation for why people behaved the way they did. However, this was followed by some dissatisfaction with a cognitive psychology that did not want to study deeper inner causes of behaviour. This has led to another backlash, called the affect revolution, which brought basic motivational and emotional concepts back to the foreground of psychological thinking.

Motivational conflicts — approach or avoid?

As we discussed earlier in this chapter, motivational forces propel us into action. That action can either be towards something or away from it. The literature has long noted that humans seek to maximise pleasure and avoid pain (Higgins, 2000). Jeffrey Gray (Gable, Reis & Elliot, 2000) showed that these opposite reactions are based on two separate neural systems: the behavioural activation system (BAS) and the behavioural inhibition system (BIS). The BAS responds to signals that offer potential reward (we smell fried chicken or see a good special advertised) and gets us moving towards goals or pleasure that we would like to achieve. The BAS makes us feel hopeful and happy. The BIS, on the other hand, responds to feelings of fear or anticipation of pain and leads us to avoidance or escape behaviour.

There are three different types of conflict:

1.Avoidance—approach conflict. This happens when one option is appealing and the other is not. For example, a good friend invites you to a dinner party, but you have an important test the following day that you should study for (you would much rather spend the evening socialising than in front of your books).

2.Approach—approach conflict. This happens when both options are equally appealing. For example, you are given a choice of chocolate mousse or strawberry cheesecake for dessert and you cannot decide because you like them both.

3.Avoidance—avoidance conflict. This happens when both options are undesirable or painful. For example, you have to study for a test, but you also need to visit the dentist. Neither of these is something you enjoy doing.


It is hard to discuss higher human motivations without considering memory and learning. Indeed, motivation has often disrupted research in memory and learning. Practically every apparent deficit in memory, especially in animal models, could be interpreted as a deficit in motivation. How can we know whether an animal has forgotten something as opposed to having lost the motivation to perform a behaviour?

Organisms will not perform what they have learned if they are not motivated to exhibit what they know. For instance, when learned responses are extinguished, it does not mean that either animals or humans have forgotten previously acquired associations. Often they are no longer motivated to exhibit unrewarding, unrewarded or under-appreciated behaviours, often because of negative emotions.

These processes are also influenced by our personality. For example, people high in neuroticism tend to respond more strongly to stressors in their lives (Gable et al., 2000). The same applies to people who tend to be anxious (Van Eck et al., 1998, in Gable et al., 2000). This research has tended to focus on personality traits that are relevant to negative events; however, people high on agreeableness ’reported more positive moods when they engaged in behaviours consistent with their traits’ (Gable et al., 2000, p. 1136).


•In the past, motivations were related to bodily needs, while emotions were related to mental needs; more recently, it has been acknowledged that this separation is artificial.

•Bodily needs are based on the need for organisms to maintain homeostasis; the body works to maintain set levels for temperature, blood pressure, etc.

•Both ’push’ and ’pull’ (incentives) aspects operate to maintain equilibrium.

•Hunger and other motives are regulated by the hypothalamus; the lateral hypothalamus acts as an ’on switch’, while the ventromedial hypothalamus acts as an ’off switch’.

•Motives may be biological, personal and/or social.

•Biological motives are based on the person’s survival needs; they include the need for food, sleep, water, sex, etc.

•Stimulus motives are personal motives which reflect an individual’s needs for stimulation and information; they vary widely from person to person.

•Learned motives may be personal or social in nature and include motives for achievement, power, affiliation, etc.; the relative strength of these motives is influenced by one’s cultural context.

•Motives may also be extrinsic (with external outcomes) or intrinsic (for their own sake); both motivations may be undermined by social or environmental factors.

•Humans seek to maximise pleasure and avoid pain; these opposite reactions are based on two separate neural systems: (1) the behavioural activation system (BAS), which responds to signals that offer potential reward and gets us moving towards goals or pleasure, and (2) the behavioural inhibition system (BIS), which responds to feelings of fear or anticipation of pain, and leads us to avoidance or escape behaviour.

•There are many everyday examples of when we experience conflicting goals or motivations; these conflicts may be for any combination of approach and avoidance motives.

Motivation based on human needs: a humanist approach

Abraham Maslow (1970) proposed that human motivation rests on a hierarchy of needs (see Chapter 5). He believed that when humans have fulfilled basic needs, they can then go on to fulfil more complex desires. Maslow’s five-tiered model includes:

•physiological (bodily) needs

•safety needs

•love and belongingness needs, and

•self-esteem needs, all of which permit us to try to fulfil our self-actualisation needs (our aspirations to achieve our highest potential).

Maslow thought that these needs had a hereditary component, but he focused more on the higher levels of his model and the gratification that humans derived when fulfilling these higher needs. (See Chapter 5 for more about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.)

Although Maslow’s theory is widely used today, especially in management studies (Dye, Mills & Weatherbee, 2005), it has also been quite extensively critiqued. Early critiques included concerns about the apparent rigid ordering of the levels. Many critiques have argued that the theory is not testable, is ’pseudo-scientific’ and lacking in empirical support (Dye et al., 2005). Yet other criticisms have been that it is a male-dominated Western theory which may have limited application on other contexts (Dye et al., 2005). For example, poverty and other barriers may hinder the achievement of self-actualisation, while people from some cultures may not even wish to achieve it (Dumont, 2010). Maslow himself was aware that culture needed to be considered in the application of his theory (Dye et al., 2005). As Dumont (2010) notes, for many collectivist cultures, placing self-actualisation at the pinnacle of achievement is inappropriate and simply wrong.


Somewhere between several million and several hundred thousand years ago, a huge cortical thinking cap mushroomed in the human brain. In general, evolutionary psychology concentrates on this region and on understanding the roles it plays in human cognitive processes.

During the past few decades, the evolutionary psychology movement has tried to explain certain motivated behaviour. However, because this movement emerged from social psychology (Barkow, Cosmides & Tooby, 1992), it has to some extent been dissociated from the neuroscientific and biological understanding of basic emotions and motivations.

Evolutionary psychology has proposed three specialisations or ’modules’ regarding motivation; these are discussed below. However, the evidence on which these proposals are based could also be used to support a multi-tiered model of the human brain, and therefore the challenges to the logic of these proposals are also discussed.

The proposal of a cheater detection module

This idea emerged from research on how people detect when others are trying to cheat them in some way. The context for this research is that of reciprocal altruism (you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours) in which some people do not reciprocate, i.e. they ’cheat’ (Buller, 2005). That means that they reap the benefits of cooperation without paying the costs (Doebeli & Hauert, 2005). Barkow et al. (1992) proposed that people have a cheater detection module. This was based on experiments that showed that people find it difficult to correctly make certain logical inferences when these are expressed as a bare-bones logical problem. However, when these are re-cast in real-life terms involving people attempting to fool other people, these are easy to solve. These experiments also produced evidence that suggested that people solve problems easily when they have something to lose as opposed to when they have not. This was used to support the proposal that our cognitive apparatus has specialised abilities to identify those people who are attempting to fool us. However, Barkow et al.’s (1992) idea that this is a separate cognitive module has been criticised by Buller (2005), who argued that their results could indicate reasoning according to general logical principles.

The proposal of a mate selection module

Males tend to focus on the desirability of youth and beauty (as markers of reproductive fitness), while females tend to focus on the desirability of having a wealthy mate who is willing to share his riches (as markers of capacity and willingness to invest in rearing a family) (Buss, 1999). It has been proposed that males and females therefore have evolutionarily determined cognitive modules for these choices.

However, in the absence of evidence, it is just as easy to postulate that these behaviours are a result of learned cognitive strategies. For example, as male sexual feelings are rapidly aroused, they tend to focus simply on signs of sexual attractiveness, while females, who become aroused more slowly, may deliberate more over other relevant issues, such as whether the male is interested in a long-term relationship and child-rearing.

The proposal of a kin selection module

Parents are much more likely to exhibit aggressive behaviours (child abuse) toward step-children than towards their own biological offspring (Tooley, Karakis, Stokes & Ozanne-Smith, 2006). This leads to the possibility that people have evolutionarily pre-disposed cognitive mechanisms to reduce harm to their close genetic relatives, but not to those with whom they do not share as much genetic material.

While the basic data on which this argument is premised is substantial, there are obvious alternative explanations. Robust social attachments, as would occur when parents have nurtured a child from birth, produce stronger anti-aggressive neurochemical responses than would be possible for an adult who was joining an established parent—child unit. It is well established that brain chemicals such as opioids and oxytocin are strong inhibitors of aggression, and it is possible that such primitive emotional influences strongly limit the amount of aggression that parents exhibit when caring for their own biological children. A new adult entering an established family structure would not have the same neurochemically based social-bonding safeguards against the aggression that may emerge from irritability.

Interpreting the evidence used in the above three proposals

The above examples highlight some important motivational findings from evolutionary psychology, and the results of these research studies are not in dispute. However, as always in science, these results can have more than one interpretation.

Generally scientists believe that a more simple explanation (one that is parsimonious) is better than a more complex one. Thus, when a variety of relevant emotional findings have been established in lower animals, it is not necessary to seek more complex interpretations for human behaviour, such as the evolution of specialised cognitive modules. This does not mean that the more complex interpretation, such as the emergence of a specialised cognitive module, is necessarily wrong; it means that it is the responsibility of the researchers who advance such ideas to provide an extra measure of evidence that such complex genetically controlled brain mechanisms do exist and that the findings cannot be explained in simpler ways. They have yet to do that.

Game theory

How do people make decisions about their behaviours when they are interacting with others? Are they rational? Do they seek to maximise their own outcomes? Game theory has provided a useful framework for understanding some of these aspects of human motivation. According to Turocy and Von Stengel (2001, p. 4), game theory ’is the formal study of conflict and cooperation’; it has its foundations in mathematics and economics. Game theory has wide application across the behavioural sciences, including psychology, sociology, political science and anthropology (Gintis, 2009). Gintis (2009) warns, however, that game theory does not explain everything about human behaviour, as some game theorists claim.

According to Colman (1995), ’game theory’ is an unfortunate name, which suggests it is about recreation and fun; for Colman (1995), a better name would have been ’the theory of interdependent decision making’. Game theory tries to predict what strategies people will follow to pursue rational decisions that are in their own best interests. Gintis (2009) points out that humans can reason according to their knowledge of the minds of others; thus humans are not merely ’rational’, but make rational decisions within a context of social interaction and understanding.

Colman (1995) provides some useful everyday examples of how game theory may operate. For example, imagine you are walking down the passage in the psychology department and you meet a group of people coming the other way. There is only space for one person to pass. You have three choices: move left, move right or keep going straight on (which obviously risks a collision). But the people coming the other way have the same choices and if they move left and you move right, you will also collide. Note that the outcome of the ’game’ depends on the actions of both parties, whose interests are identical (you both want to keep moving — and avoid a collision).

The prisoner’s dilemma

The ’prisoner’s dilemma’ is a famous metaphor used to study cooperation. The game was framed in this way by Albert Tucker. Imagine that two gang members (S and R) have been arrested, are in custody and are being held apart from each other (with no means of communication). The prosecutors do not have enough evidence to convict the men on the main charge, so they offer each of them a deal. In the deal, each prisoner has the choice between betraying his partner by testifying against him, or cooperating with his partner and keeping silent. This is the deal:

•If S and R each betray the other, they will each serve two years in jail.

•If S betrays R (but R remains silent), S will be freed, but R will serve three years in jail (and vice versa).

•If both S and R remain silent, they will both serve one year in jail (on a lesser charge) (Turocy & Von Stengel, 2001).

The dilemma assumes that there will be no future consequences to each prisoner for their betrayal (e.g. damage to their reputation). Clearly, the most rational choice is to betray the partner (because that maximises the individual’s benefits — in their absence of knowledge of what the other will do); in this instance, betrayal is better than cooperation. In practice, humans seem to make more cooperative choices than pure ’rationality’ would predict. In this specific instance, as we know, betrayal of a fellow gang member may have very real, negative consequences for the betrayer. Given that, the choice of silence may be a better option, even if it potentially costs the prisoner more prison time (if his partner betrays them).

The prisoner’s dilemma has been further studied to see if one can set up conditions to promote cooperation. In these studies, there are several rounds of the game, known as the iterated prisoner’s dilemma (Doebeli & Hauert, 2005). This allows for reciprocal altruism to come into play (see Box 10.3). Thus, across repeated rounds, the player may fear a future negative outcome as retaliation for betrayal or defection in the current round. In this instance, cooperation in the current round may be more beneficial in the longer term (as reciprocal altruism predicts).

One of the most successful strategies is ’tit-for-tat’ (Doebeli & Hauert, 2005). In this strategy, the player cooperates in the first round and then repeats what the opponent does in each successive round. The success of this strategy is ’attributed to the fact that [player 1] never defects first, retaliates when the opponent defects, but forgives when the opponent reverts to cooperation’ (Doebeli & Hauert, 2005, p. 750). Players who adopt this strategy tend to maintain cooperation; however, in a ’noisy world’, the strategy tends to work less well, leading to low-paying retaliation. In this case, it is better to implement a simple rule: win—stay; lose—shift. That means that if your move has a positive outcome, it should be repeated; if it does not, you should shift to the opposite behaviour.


•Abraham Maslow said that human motivation rests on a hierarchy of needs: physiological, safety, love and belongingness, self-esteem and self-actualisation.

•Maslow’s theory is widely used, although it has been quite extensively critiqued: the apparent rigid ordering of the levels; the theory is not testable; it is a male-dominated Western theory and it lacks relevance in many collectivist cultures.

•Game theory provides a useful framework for understanding what strategies people use to make decisions in competitive or conflict situations.

•Humans can reason according to their knowledge of the minds of others.

•One of the typical games used to study these kinds of decision making is the prisoner’s dilemma. Prisoners can choose between betraying a partner (in return for freedom) or keeping silent (for a reduced sentence); if the partner betrays him, he would receive a longer sentence.

•People seem to make more cooperative choices than pure ’rationality’ would predict.

•In the iterated prisoner’s dilemma, the game is played over several rounds, which allows the anticipation of future consequences to affect current behaviour.

•A ’tit-for-tat’ strategy has shown considerable success in maintaining cooperation.

Emotion: the other side of motivation

How do you feel today? Perhaps you are irritated at having to work when it is beautiful day outside. Perhaps you are in love and feel like you are floating on a cloud. Or perhaps you are disappointed at your marks on the test that has just been returned to you. This last example illustrates how closely motivations and emotions are related (Lazarus, 2001, in Holt et al., 2012). When a long-term goal is achieved (or we experience failure), we tend to experience strong emotional responses. This link between motivation and emotion is also seen when we say we are ’moved’ by something (music, a poem or the loss of someone close).

It seems we cannot choose our emotions, although we can choose how we respond to or manage them. Emotions can help us in many ways but they can also hinder us. Feelings like fear increase our chances of survival; they are considered to be adaptive. On the other hand, chronic anxiety may seriously limit a person’s life. Some positive emotions, like interest, caring, and love, are also helpful and adaptive as they help us form relationships and to care for our offspring (Holt et al., 2012).

Emotions are typically considered to have three aspects: they involve some degree of physiological arousal, changes in body posture or facial expression, and subjective feeling states. The physiological aspect includes experiences like sweaty palms and a dry mouth, and these are caused by activity in the sympathetic nervous system (see Chapter 7). Examples of outward signs of emotion could be a smile or a grimace, and shaking hands or tensed muscles. Subjective feeling states are our personal experiences of something (or someone). Emotions usually follow some kind of evaluation or appraisal of events as they relate to our goals and aspirations; they are different from moods, which are longer lived, less intense feeling states.

Types of emotions

Early theorists in emotion research suggested that there is a set of basic emotions which are innate. Ekman (1992) argued for six or seven, while others (e.g. Izard, 1992) suggested there may be as many as 10. More recently, Power and Dalgleish (2008, in Eysenck and Keane, 2010) claimed just five basic emotions common across all cultures (sadness, anger, fear, disgust and happiness). Robert Plutchik (1994) said there are eight primary emotions which vary in intensity. By combining these primary emotions, mixed emotions may be identified. For example, your girlfriend flirts with another man at a party. You love her but you are angry about her behaviour and you fear your relationship may be over. More recent research suggests that each of these emotions is mediated by separate neural structures and patterns of autonomic responses (Colibazzi et al., 2010)


Figure 10.3 Examples of human emotions

The fact that there are wide differences between what the theorists say shows that there is no close agreement on the existence of basic emotions. One problem with emotion research is that it often depends on studying facial expressions; however, the same facial expression can accompany different emotions (Colibazzi et al., 2010). For example, a smile may indicate happiness, but it can also signal anger or discomfort. An alternative view is provided by the dimensional theory of emotion (Colibazzi et al., 2010). This theory sees all emotions as reflecting two basic dimensions:

•Valence (how the emotion feels, positive or negative)

•Arousal (how aroused or relaxed a person feels).

On the basis of these dimensions, a circumplex model can be developed with a pleasant—unpleasant continuum as the horizontal axis and an activation—deactivation continuum as the vertical axis (see Figure 10.4).

In an experimental study with 10 participants, Colibazzi et al. (2010) showed that there seem to be distinct neural networks supporting the valence and arousal aspects of emotions. Some of the neural systems that have been identified include the following:

•Rage system (causing the mammal to become angry if it cannot get access to resources)

•Fear system (causing the mammal to become scared when its bodily well-being is threatened)

•Lust system (causing the mammal to have sexual desires, which are somewhat different in males and females)

•Panic system (causing the mammal to feel distressed when it loses contact with loved ones)

•Play system (causing the mammal to engage in joyful rough-and-tumble behaviour)

•Care system (causing the mammal to lovingly attend to its offspring) (see Box 10.4).


Figure 10.4 A pleasant—unpleasant / activation—deactivation continuum

As suggested earlier, each basic emotional state is manifested through typical action patterns (behaviours), brain characteristics and psychological dimensions. They can also all be provoked by electrically stimulating specific circuits in subcortical regions of the animal brain, which highlights their intrinsic nature.

Modern research, based on evolutionary principles, recognises that the basic emotional states of animals and humans are very similar, but humans can regulate the motivational dictates of these systems with their higher mental processes, while most other animals cannot.

Take anger for example. It is commonly aroused by frustration and the inability to behave freely. If adults do not get what they want, they get angry, but they can adjust their anger in ways that children and animals cannot. In this way, higher cortico-cognitive systems can inhibit, regulate and guide subcortical emotional systems.

The cognitive aspect of emotion

Eysenck and Keane (2010) note that cognitive psychology is still somewhat dominated by the information-processing approach. The underlying computer analogy makes it difficult to think about the links between cognition and emotion, but cognitions (thoughts, memories, beliefs) are a fundamental aspect of almost all emotion. They are part of how we understand and respond to emotions, and mental images can themselves evoke emotions (an image in your mind of your home might make you feel intensely homesick when away).


Certain hormones are released several days before a woman is about to give birth, which prepare the mother to exhibit maternal behaviour. Many women will actively clean the house, repacking cupboards and tidying drawers. Similarly, mother rats begin to build nests and become substantially more eager to interact with baby rats. This heightened maternal desire corresponds to three characteristic hormone changes: oestrogen levels, which have remained modest throughout pregnancy, are rapidly increasing; progesterone levels, which have been high, are dropping drastically; and prolactin is rising to encourage breast tissues to manufacture milk.

If we inject this hormone pattern into virgin female rats, they start displaying the same maternal urges. This is partly because the oxytocin systems of the brain are strengthened. (Conversely, if the brain’s oxytocin systems are blocked at the onset of the first birth, maternal behaviour, at least in rats, is weak and inconsistent.) If all the conditions are right, oxytocin administered right into the brain is quite effective in evoking maternal behaviour in virgin females, but it is certainly not the only necessary ingredient. For instance, administration of prolactin (a hormone which instigates the manufacture of milk within breast tissue, as mentioned above) into the brain also facilitates maternal tendencies. This is because certain brain circuits exist in these brain regions that use prolactin to instigate specific kinds of emotions.

It must be emphasised that well-established maternal behaviour no longer requires oxytocin, even in rats. Once the mother rat has had several days of maternal experience, blocking this neurochemical system no longer impairs the desire to act maternally. This shows that learning has taken place from the activity of an intrinsic brain-operating system, and becomes partly independent of the system that initially started the process. Of course, humans are smart enough to initiate caregiving behaviours completely cognitively and instrumentally, but it is unlikely those behaviours will be accompanied by emotional gratifications of the kind that the ancient caregiving systems of the brain help to create.

Lazarus (1991) suggests that, when we experience a stimulus, the first thing we do is appraise whether it is relevant to us and whether it is good, bad or threatening. How we appraise the stimulus affects how we respond to it. For example, if someone in the supermarket pushes his trolley into your heel, you might appraise the action as intentional and feel anger. On the other hand, if you appraise it as a genuine error, you may be forgiving, even if your heel is very sore. Cognitive appraisals are thus the interpretations we use to attach meaning to sensory stimuli (Holt et al., 2012). Scherer (in Holt et al., 2012) suggests that appraisal enables us to respond appropriately to a stimulus.

Cognitive appraisals sometimes happen so rapidly, they almost seem automatic. Indeed, they are often based on unconscious aspects of our experience and can form the basis for prejudice and discrimination. Faulty appraisals can also be the basis for anxiety and depression. Eysenck and Keane (2010) note that these disorders often co-occur, making it difficult to separate the emotional and cognitive aspects involved in each. However, research has shown that depression is usually associated with past losses, while anxiety relates to future events (Eysenck and Keane, 2010). It is important to study these connections between cognition and emotion because depression, in particular, is associated with certain cognitive biases (see Chapter 24 for more on this).


•Motivations and emotions are closely related.

•We cannot choose our emotions, but we can choose how we respond to them.

•Emotions can help us in many ways, but they can also hinder us.

•Emotions are typically considered to have three aspects: physiological arousal, facial expression/body posture and subjective feeling states.

•Emotions usually follow some kind of evaluation or appraisal of events; they are different from moods, which are longer lived, less intense feeling states.

•Many theorists in emotion research have suggested that there is a set of basic emotions (between five and 10) which are innate; it seems that each of these emotions is mediated by separate neural structures.

•Emotion research is often based on facial expressions, but this can be problematic.

•An alternative view is provided by the dimensional theory of emotion which sees all emotions as reflecting two basic dimensions: valence and arousal.

•Each basic emotional state is manifested through typical action patterns (behaviours), brain characteristics and psychological dimensions.

•Animals and humans have similar basic emotional states; however, humans have the capacity to regulate the motivational dictates of their emotions.

•In an information-processing approach, the links between cognition and emotion may not be obvious; however, they are closely intertwined.

•Stimuli are appraised for quality and threat; this affects how we respond. These cognitive appraisals enable us to respond appropriately to stimuli.

•Cognitive appraisals can happen rapidly; because of this, they can sometimes be faulty.

•Faulty appraisals can also be the basis for anxiety and depression.

Theories of emotion

We have already considered a dimensional theory of emotion. However, there has been a long history of theory development in the study of emotion. Current theories have been strongly influenced by some of the classic theories, all of which have some elements of truth in them. They are discussed further below.

James-Lange theory

In the later part of the 19th century, William James disputed the common sense view of emotion. Common sense suggests that when someone insults us, we feel angry and react. But James suggested that we would feel angry because of the physiological reaction we had to the insult. In the same period, Carl Lange put forward a similar theory and the two have thus given their names to the James-Lange theory of emotion. According to this theory, the physiological experiences we have in response to a stimulus cause us to feel a feeling. Thus, when we are insulted, our hands start shaking, our hearts beat faster and our awareness of these sensations makes up the feeling of anger. It was difficult to gather empirical evidence for this theory at the time due to technological limitations; however, the recent evidence for this theory is mixed (Holt et al., 2012). It does still have some impact in more recent theories such as the somatic theory of emotion (Papanicolaou, 1989, in Holt et al., 2012).

Cannon-Bard theory

Some 30 years after the James-Lange theory, Walter Cannon said that the physiological response to a stimulus is not instant; it may take several seconds for this to be felt. But emotions are usually felt immediately. Cannon and other researchers conducted a number of studies to investigate this relationship between the physiological systems and the perception of emotions. Some of the evidence Cannon gathered showed that there are similar visceral changes, regardless of the intensity of the emotion (Cannon, 1987). Conversely, when a person is given an adrenalin injection, they do not experience more intense emotions. Also, visceral changes are non-specific and insensitive (Cannon, 1987). Thus Cannon (and his colleague, L. L. Bard) argued that the physiological response does not cause the subjective experience of emotion; rather, they happen simultaneously. When an arousing stimulus is experienced, the message is sent to the thalamus which simultaneously sends it on to the internal organs and to the cerebral cortex. This results in simultaneous autonomic arousal, subjective feeling and action (behaviour). The weight of Cannon’s research supports this as a stronger theory of emotion than that of James and Lange.

Schachter-Singer’s cognitive theory

We have already mentioned the cognitive aspects of emotions. Where Stanley Schachter and Jerome Singer’s two-factor theory differs from the previous theories is in the role that they saw for cognitions, although the physiological aspects of James-Lange are still included (Schachter & Singer, 1962). Thus, for the Schachter-Singer approach, ’the intensity of the arousal tells us how strongly we are feeling something’ (Holt et al., 2012, p. 437). However, Schachter and Singer also said that it is not the arousal (alone) that causes the emotion; rather, we label the arousal we are experiencing and then we feel the subjective emotion and act on the basis of that label. As in our example in the supermarket, the pain of the trolley hitting your heel leads to a state of arousal. If you attribute this arousal to a hostile attack by a fellow shopper, you are likely to feel anger and hostility in return. However, it is possible that this is a misattribution. There have been some classic studies on the misattribution of arousal which demonstrate support for the Schachter-Singer theory (see Box 10.5).

The two-factor theory has been criticised for relying too heavily on a general excitation of the physiological systems (rather than specific excitation for distinct emotions). It also focuses on the autonomic nervous system and does not consider the role of the central nervous system. Some of this critique has led to further theories of emotion such as the facial feedback hypothesis (see Box 10.6).


Dutton and Aron (1974) conducted a fascinating study to investigate how people made attributions about their arousal. They used an attractive female interviewer to ask males to complete a questionnaire, including a projective personality test (see Chapter 6). The men were interviewed either on a low stable bridge or on a high suspension bridge. It was found that those men who were interviewed on the high, swaying bridge had more sexual content in their responses. Dutton and Aron (1974) said this was because the men were experiencing autonomic arousal due to the precarious bridge they were on, but they attributed this to sexual attraction to the interviewer. When the men were interviewed by a male, there was no difference in sexual content of responses between the two groups of men.

Theories of emotion — summary

It seems like all of the theories that we’ve discussed have some elements of truth in them. It is correct, as James and Lange argued, that physiological arousal adds to our experience of emotion. Cannon and Bard were also correct that the physiological response and the subjective experience of the emotion happen at the same time. Likewise, the cognitive theorists (Schachter and Lazarus) are correct that how we appraise an emotion has a strong impact on how we experience it (and on what emotion we experience). These theories continue to feature in research on a wide range of topics including virtual environments (see Magnenat-Thalmann, Kim, Egges & Garchery, 2005), social engineering on social networking sites (see Algarni, Xu, Chan, Tian, 2013) and robot engineering (see VirČíková & SinČák, 2012).


The James-Lange theory of emotion argues that we feel emotion as a result of feedback from our physiological experience. The facial feedback hypothesis suggests that the facial muscles are also important in this feedback and that they affect the nature and intensity of what we feel (Holt et al., 2012). The theory has a ’strong’ and a ’weak’ form. In the strong form, it is thought that the facial expression actually causes the emotion, whereas in the weak form, it is suggested that the expression intensifies the emotional reaction (Soussignan, 2004).

Some interesting research has been done on this hypothesis. In one study (Strack et al., 1988, in Soussignan, 2004), participants were told that the study was investigating disability. They were asked to hold a pencil in their teeth or between their lips. In the former situation, the facial muscles are arranged as if the person was smiling, whereas in the latter, the smile muscles are inhibited (Soussignan, 2004). Participants had to rate cartoons while holding the pencils in their mouths and those holding the pencil in their teeth rated the cartoons as funnier than the second group. This provides support for the hypothesis, suggesting that, even if you are feeling unhappy, if you arrange your face in a smile, you may actually begin to feel happier!


•Common sense suggests that when someone insults you, you feel angry and react; James disagreed with this. He suggested that you feel angry because of the physiological reaction you had to the insult; Lange proposed a similar theory. Recent evidence for the James-Lange theory is mixed, but its descendants are still in current use.

•Cannon noted that the physiological response to a stimulus is not instant, but emotions are usually felt immediately.

•Based on their research, Cannon and Bard argued that the physiological response does not cause the subjective experience of emotion; rather, they happen simultaneously.

•Cannon’s research shows that this is a stronger theory of emotion than the James-Lange theory.

•Schachter and Singer argued for a more important role of cognition in emotion, although the physiological aspects of James-Lange are still included.

•Schachter and Singer also said that it is not the arousal (alone) that causes the emotion; rather, we label the arousal we are experiencing and then we feel the subjective emotion and act on the basis of that label.

•We may mislabel the arousal, leading to a misattribution of the arousal.

•This theory has good research support although it has also been criticised for relying too heavily on general physiological arousal and a focus on the autonomic nervous system.

•All of the theories have some elements of truth in them and continue to feature in ongoing research on a wide range of topics.


This chapter has considered the highly complex processes around motivation. Motivation is concerned with the way behaviour is started, sustained, directed and ended. We looked at different types of motivation and noted that some motives are essential for survival, while others seem to reflect parts of us that seem essentially human. We also looked at how motivations may be in conflict with one another. Humans seek to maximise pleasure and avoid pain; these opposing reactions are based on separate neural systems.

It would make no sense to discuss motivation without noting how motives are always accompanied by emotions. The theory building discussed in this chapter provides a rich example of how theory has developed in the history of Western psychological thought. The various theories have dealt with the three basic components of emotions (physiological arousal, changes in body posture or facial expression, and subjective feeling states) in different ways and any contemporary theory of emotion needs to integrate these earlier theories to reach a comprehensive understanding of human emotion.


Imagebehavioural activation system (BAS): a system that promotes action towards potential rewards or satisfaction of needs

Imagebehavioural inhibition system (BIS): a system that inhibits action when faced with stimuli that indicate pain or punishment

Imagebiological motives: motives based on biological needs that are necessary for survival

Imageemotion: according to Smith and Kosslyn (2009, p. 328), an emotion is ’mental and physical processes that include aspects of subjective experience, evaluation and appraisal, motivation, and bodily responses such as arousal and facial expression’

Imageevolutionary psychology: a school of thought that studies the evolutionary foundations of human behaviour, claiming that many of our ways of responding, thinking and feeling are a result of the way our brains were designed during the long course of evolution

Imageextrinsic motivation: motivations that are external to the organism and that have separate outcomes

Imagehomeostasis: maintaining the body’s equilibrium in a steady state

Imagehypothalamus: a small structure at the base of the brain that plays a central role in regulating motivation and emotion

Imageintrinsic motivation: motivations that come from within and are based on personal enjoyment or satisfaction

Imagelearned motives: motives based on learned needs or goals; often social in nature

Imagemotivation: that which initiates or directs behaviour

Imagereciprocal altruism: a term from evolutionary psychology; a person acts in a way that helps another, but incurs a cost for them in anticipation that the other will act in the same way at a future time

Imagestimulus motives: motives which reflect a person’s need for stimulation and information


Multiple choice questions

1.Various bodily systems need to maintain an internal balance known as:





2.You have a psychology test tomorrow and you also need to clean your room. What kind of conflict are you experiencing?





3.Your friend, Thabo, is a real ’adrenalin junkie’. He loves to go skydiving and bungee jumping and takes up whatever other exciting opportunity presents itself. What kind of motivation makes Thabo want to do these activities?





4.The view that our everyday motivations remain linked to ancestral mechanisms that we still share with many other animals of the world is part of which school of thought?

a)cognitive psychology


c)evolutionary psychology


5.Which of the following is not one of the levels of need in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs?

a)stimulus seeking

b)belonging and love



6.In the prisoner’s dilemma, which option is the most ’rational’ choice for the individual prisoner?

a)both prisoners keep silent

b)both prisoners betray their partner

c)one prisoner betrays his partner, the other keeps silent

d)none of the above.

7.Which of the following is not one of the aspects of an emotion?

a)subjective feeling states

b)objective feeling states

c)physiological arousal

d)facial expression or body posture.

8.Which of the following is not one of the five basic emotions identified by Power and Dalgleish (2008)?





9.Which theory of emotion says we become aware of our physiological arousal and then feel the feeling?





10.Which theory of emotion says we become aware of our physiological arousal and feel the feeling simultaneously?





Short-answer questions

1.Explain motivation.

2.Describe the brain mechanisms involved in hunger.

3.Describe the different types of motive.

4.Explain the different aspects of emotions. Illustrate your answer with an example from your own experience.

5.Compare and contrast the following theories of emotion: James-Lange; Cannon-Bard and Schachter-Singer.