Introduction (Psychology and Mental Health)
Over the centuries, philosophers, psychologists, and other scholars have debated the nature of emotions, offering a wide range of perspectives and theories. This debate addresses many issues, including basic questions such as why people have emotions and what their function is. Advances in neuroscience have led scientists to attempt to determine the parts of the brain involved in experiencing emotions. Child developmental psychologists address how young children understand others’ emotions, and cognitive psychologists examine how emotion affects memory. Anthropologists and social psychologists investigate whether there are cultural differences in how people experience emotions.
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Reasons for Emotions (Psychology and Mental Health)
According to the English naturalist Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution, one reason people have emotions is because of natural selection. Emotions exist because they enhance the chance of surviving and reproducing. For example, when a deer senses another animal, it reacts with fear and freezes. This reduces its chance of being attacked because animals usually attack in response to motion. When a person freezes in response to a car whizzing by, the fear response may act to save the person’s life. More generally, Dutch psychologist Nico Fridja suggests that emotions are a response to situations to which people need to do something. For example, a negative emotion suggests that something is wrong in the immediate situation and that the person must act to change the situation.
Expressions of emotions also play an important role in communicating information to others. Most people learn to read the expressions of others, infer their emotions, and monitor their behavior as a result. For example, if a person is arguing with someone who begins to raise his or her upper eyelids and show an open, “square” mouth revealing teeth (signs of aggression), then it may be time to end the argument. Nonhuman animals also communicate with emotional expressions, as documented by Darwin. For example, American psychologist Robert Plutchik described a common expression of a cat who has encountered an animal such as a threatening dog....
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Defining Emotions (Psychology and Mental Health)
By trying to understand the differences between emotions and similar concepts such as moods, sensations, temperament, and surprise, researchers can obtain a better understanding of emotions. For example, American psychologist Jeff Larsen and his colleagues suggest that moods tend to be enduring and diffuse, whereas emotions tend to be short-lived and directed at particular objects or situations. English clinical psychologists Mick Power and Tim Dagleish also suggest that moods influence emotions. For instance, a father in a happy mood might not become angry toward his child for dropping her ice-cream cone. However, if the father was in an angry mood, he might become angry.
Temperament is more enduring than either emotions or moods, as it is a personality characteristic or trait of a person. Therefore, an angry type of person may become easily upset in many situations in which a happy person would not become upset.
Researchers have argued that surprise is not an emotion. For example, American psychologists Andrew Ortony and Terence Turner note that emotions are characterized by valenced states (positive or negative feelings). However, they point out that surprise is not defined by a valenced state: A person can be surprised about winning a huge prize (a positive feeling), or surprised about the failure of his or her brand-new car to start in the morning (a negative feeling), or be surprised by some highly improbable...
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Basic Emotions (Psychology and Mental Health)
Many theories of emotions assume that a small set of basic or fundamental emotions exist. Ortony and Turner suggest a number of reasons why this might be true. Some emotions appear to exist in all cultures and in some nonhuman animals. They also seem universally recognizable by characteristic facial expressions. There might also be a set of basic emotions with biological functions that are particularly important to the survival of the individual and of the species. Finally, some researchers believe that there may be many emotions. If there is a small set of basic emotions, then researchers may be able to understand the larger set of emotions by using the basic emotions as building blocks for constructing nonbasic emotions.
As evidence for the existence of basic emotions, Power and Dagleish cite American psychologist Paul Ekman, who noted that every proponent of the existence of basic emotions who has conducted investigations has obtained evidence for six basic emotions: happiness, surprise, fear, sadness, anger, and disgust (though Ortony and others argue that surprise is not an emotion). They also note that Ekman and his colleagues have shown that different cultures label emotions in the same way.
The claim that there are basic emotions is still a controversial and complicated issue. American psychologist Gerald Clore and Ortony argue that contrary to traditional views, emotions do not have clear boundaries or...
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Similarities and Differences Among Cultures (Psychology and Mental Health)
Scholars are divided on whether emotions are universal or whether they differ across cultures. Defenders of the universalist approach claim that emotions are the product of human evolution and are part of humans’ biological hardware (for example, Ekman and Plutchik). Therefore, cultures have similar experiences and expressions of certain basic emotions. Ekman found his six basic emotions—happiness, sadness, anger, fear, disgust, and surprise—to be universal. In contrast, the cultural relativist approach suggests that experience and expressions of emotions vary considerably and may even be socially constructed. Defenders of this view argue that all emotions are the product of a person’s culture. Social values and cultural beliefs can affect how people express their emotions. Therefore, people in different cultures may have different emotional experiences and reactions to similar social situations.
Researchers have examined how cultural values and beliefs influence emotions. The influential Dutch writer Geert Hofstede developed a set of four dimensions that characterize cultures. The dimension of individualism reflects the extent to which a culture is individualistic or collectivistic. An individualistic culture tends to socialize its members to think of themselves as individuals and to give priority to their personal goals (for example, the culture of the United States). A collectivistic...
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Theories of How Emotions Are Experienced (Psychology and Mental Health)
Many theories of emotions have been proposed. Almost all the theories in the last few centuries have been influenced by the work of philosophers such as Aristotle, Baruch Spinoza, and William Lyons. Some of the theories have been particularly influential in the study of emotion. The James-Lange theory of emotion was independently developed by two nineteenth century scholars, William James and Carl Lange. It states that as a response to experiences in a particular situation, the autonomic nervous system produces physiological changes such as muscle tension, increase in heart rate, perspiration, and dryness of the mouth. Emotions are feelings that come about as the result of these physiological changes. For example, a person who starts crying infers that he or she is sad because of the crying, and not the other way around. To most people this view of emotions is counterintuitive and goes against common sense.
The James-Lange theory was challenged in the 1920’s by the physiologists Walter Bradford Cannon and Philip Bard. The Cannon-Bard theory of emotion suggested that emotions cause physiological change (a view that is opposite of the James-Lange theory). For example, if a person sees a strange man outside the window late at night, that person might experience the emotion of fear, which causes physiological changes such as trembling and sweating.
Perhaps the most important theory of emotions is...
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Sources for Further Study (Psychology and Mental Health)
Ekman, Paul, and Wallace V. Friesen. Unmasking the Face: A Guide to Recognizing Emotions from Facial Cues. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1975. Argues for the universality of some basic emotions and describes how to identify them by watching facial expressions.
Lewis, Michael, Jeanette M. Haviland-Jones, and Lisa Feldman Barrett, eds. Handbook of Emotions. 3d ed. New York: Guilford Press, 2008. For those readers who wish a very broad understanding of emotions, this book contains forty-nine short chapters on many diverse aspects of emotion, written by leaders in the field of emotion research.
Ortony, Andrew, Gerald L. Clore, and Allan Collins. The Cognitive Structure of Emotions. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988. A good discussion of the authors’ cognitive appraisal theory.
Plutchik, Robert. Emotions and Life: Perspectives from Psychology, Biology, and Evolution. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2003. Compares humans and animals in their expressions of emotions and looks at biological, psychological, and evolutionary bases of emotions.
Power, Mick J., and Tim Dalgleish. Cognition and Emotion: From Order to Disorder. Hove, East Sussex, England: Psychology Press, 2008. Takes a cognitive approach to emotions. Unlike many other books, it provides a philosophical and historical perspective on emotion and also...
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