In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is emotion.
This may seem like a rather obvious topic; after all, we all have emotions. But there’s actually more than meets the eye, so I thought it would be interesting to look a little closer.
Emotions are linked to bodily sensations and what’s going on in the nervous system. Feelings are a subjective mental experience of emotions, while mood states are longer-lasting than emotions, and aren’t linked to contextual factors in the same way.
There have been many different approaches to understanding what an emotion is that have come from fields like philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience. In Stoicism, for example, emotions are considered false judgments.
Components of emotions
Several components of emotional experiences have been described, although there isn’t a consensus as to whether they’re essential to experiencing an emotion. These components include:
- evaluation of what’s going on in our environment
- physiological reaction (such as increased heart rate)
- phenomenological component (a feeling)
- outward expression of emotion
- a mental/cognitive element
Psychologist Paul Ekman identified six universal emotional states that were associated with facial recognition across multiple cultures. The original six were anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise. Over time, more have been identified, including awe, amusement, embarrassment, and relief.
These universal emotions served an evolutionary purpose, and they’re generated by the more primitive parts of the brain, including the amygdala. They helped our caveman ancestors to stay alive and procreate.
Primary and secondary emotions
Robert Plutchik proposed eight primary emotions that could be combined or modified to form others. He came up with the colour wheel shown below.
Secondary emotions arise from cognitive appraisals of primary emotions, based on things like whether they’re pleasant or unpleasant and mild or intense. These don’t occur as quickly and automatically as primary responses. Different cognitive appraisals can lead to the same sensations being interpreted in very different ways. While it’s pretty hard to rein in primary emotions, cognitive appraisals offer a lot more wiggle room for change.
While facial expressions are a way to communicate an emotion, they also influence emotional states. This is the idea behind the half-smile skill in DBT and the suggested reason why Botox in the frown lines has shown some benefit in depression.
The Atlas of Emotions, which came from a partnership between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Paul Ekman, describes a timeline of emotional responses. It includes
- trigger: this refers to the contextual factors that bring on an emotion, and how we interpret them (this is different from a trauma trigger that prompts re-experiencing)
- experience: this includes both feelings and physical sensations
- response: what we do as a result of the emotion we’ve experienced
Certain responses tend to occur more with certain emotional states. For example, fear may lead people to avoid, withdraw, freeze, or worry, while anger may lead people to yell or argue. Emotional saturation occurs when we’re too caught up in the emotion to be able to respond in a thoughtful way, so instead, responses may be more automatic and instinctive.
What I find particularly interesting is that there’s no one way of understanding what an emotion is. For all that’s known about our worlds, there’s so much that’s unknown.
- Ekmans’ Atlas of Emotions
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2018): Emotions
- Stangor, C., & Walinga, J. (2014). Introduction to Psychology – 1st Canadian Edition. BCcampus.
- Wikipedia: Emotions
There’s more on emotions in the post Identifying Emotions.
The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.
Ashley L. Peterson
BScPharm BSN MPN
Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.