Theories of Emotion

Why do we feel bad when we fail a test? Why does a mother instantly feels love for her child? Why do our parents scold us? Why do we say sorry? To answer all these whys, there must be a broad category of ideas defining different aspects of it. However, what must they be?

Evolutionary Theories

The historical context in which emotions first appeared is the main emphasis of the evolutionary approach. A common goal is to use natural selection that took place in the distant past to illustrate why emotions exist in humans today. Simply put, evolution is "change across generational time." Natural selection, randomness, gene flow, or a trait's genetic association with another trait are all possible causes of phenotypic change. If a trait results from natural selection, it is an adaptation. Furthermore, a characteristic is only the outcome of natural selection when "its prevalence is because it provided a larger fitness," where fitness is defined as reproductive success. We must be aware of the selection conditions to recognize an adaptation when we see it in a trait. However, the historical data to prove that a new characteristic replaced a prior one because it improved fitness is frequently lacking. This is particularly true of psychological characteristics due to the lack of fossil evidence. Therefore, proving that a feeling is an adaptation involves some challenging issues.

Social and Cultural Approach

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That emotions are socially determined is the basis of the second major theory of emotion. In other words, people learn or acquire emotions via experience and result from societies and cultures. Almost everyone who supports this idea concedes that emotions are somewhat a product of nature. However, the main contention of such theories is that because of how much social impact there is, and it is best to view emotions from this angle.

Motivations for the Social Approach

Numerous anthropological investigations have discovered differences between the terms used to describe emotions in various languages. Several emotion words do not immediately or nearly correspond to English sentiment words. These data support the idea that people in various cultures have and encounter various emotions because people experience the emotions for which they have names. Most often, emotions are triggered by other individuals and group relationships in social situations and during interpersonal interactions. Thus, emotions are often best described as interactions between people rather than just one person's reaction to a certain stimulus.

Emotions are Transitory Social Roles: Averill

Many theories have been created from the social perspective, but James Averill's has been very influential and will be discussed in this section. "An emotion is a transitory social function (a socially created syndrome)," says Averill, "that involves a person's assessment of the circumstance and that is understood as a fervor rather than as an action." Social expectations and standards create these transient social roles and syndromes, controlling an individual's emotions through these mechanisms.

Averill uses the idea of a syndrome to explain how each emotion, such as fear, wrath, or humiliation, encompasses several different parts. A syndrome is a grouping of all acceptable emotional reactions to a specific emotion, all of which are not essential or required for such emotion syndrome but all of which may, under certain circumstances, constitute an emotional response. Additionally, it comprises assumptions about the characteristics of the evoking stimuli and possibly some natural (i.e., non-social) components. Principles of organization tie each of these elements for an individual together, and these rules allow the different components to be coherently interpreted as one specific emotion. Grief, for instance, is a condition. Everyone familiar with this syndrome may occasionally experience the grief reactions listed below: shock, sobbing, refusing to sob (i.e., maintaining a rigid upper lip), refusing to eat, ignoring primary roles, and so on. The loss of a beloved one, the loss of a priceless item, a mishap at work, bad weather, and other situations that the person believes should cause grief are also included in this syndrome.

Cognitive Theories

According to cognitive theories, the initial stages of the emotional process involve the manipulation of information, and as a result, they should be viewed as cognitive processes. Two observations illustrate the cognitive position's motive. First, different people will react to the same incident with conflicting emotions, or the same person may behave differently to the same stimuli at various times. For instance, one individual may be delighted to lose their job, while a co-worker may react negatively to the same news. Alternatively, a person might have been thrilled to lose her work as a young woman but years later find it terrifying.

Ira Roseman and Craig Smith, psychologists, note that "theories that argue that sensory events directly induce emotional response are difficult to explain given theories that say that person and temporal variation in reaction to an event." Second, the same emotion can be triggered by various situations that do not seem connected. Although none of these occurrences have physical characteristics, they can all produce the same reaction. According to cognitive theories, the evoked emotion depends on how the person assesses the stimuli. Before the emotion-inducing incident is encountered, every person has beliefs, aspirations, personal inclinations, and ambitions. An individual examines the incident in consideration of these variables. For instance, a person will experience various emotions based on whether or not getting laid off is congruent with her current goals.

Cognitive Appraisal Theories

The cognitive theories that psychologists have developed are called cognitive appraisal theories. The cognitive appraisal theories highlight the idea that how a person judges or assesses the input impacts the feeling, much like the judgment theories do. The cognitive appraisal theories, however, do not depend on the assets of folk psychology, in contrast to the judgment theories (beliefs, judgments, and so forth). The various sorts of assessments implicated in the emotion process are also more thoroughly examined by cognitive appraisal theories.

Roseman's idea, an early contribution, will provide a useful starting point because it is in some ways clearer than more modern models of cognitive assessment. Roseman, Antoniou, and Jose [1996], Roseman [2001], Lazarus [1991], and Scherer [1993, 2001] all present comparable models. All the theories of cognitive assessment share the same fundamental theoretical foundation. The key variations relate to the precise appraisals used in this approach. Five assessment components in Roseman's paradigm can result in 14 distinct feelings. Motivational state (appetitive, aversive), situational state (motive-consistent, motive-inconsistent), likelihood (certain, uncertain, unknown), power (strong, weak), and agency are the assessment components and the various values that each component can take (self-caused, other-caused, circumstance-caused).

The fundamental tenet is that these five dimensions are used to evaluate stimuli as they are encountered. One of the available values is assigned to each evaluation component, and when combined, these values decide which emotional reaction will be produced.

Non-Cognitive Theories

Non-cognitive theories support the idea that emotions do not include making judgments or assessments. Therefore, the early stages of the emotional process are at the center of the difference between cognitive and non-cognitive viewpoints. The source of anxiety is between the stimulation assessment and the resulting emotional response. According to the non-cognitive perspective, the observation of a pertinent stimulus is followed immediately by an emotional response. The early stage of the emotion process is therefore believed to be reflex-like rather than including any evaluation or judgment about the stimuli.


This article has covered several significant ideas, addressed many of the characteristics that emotions are thought to possess, and defined the fundamental techniques for explaining emotions. Given that none of these ideas are directly competing with one another, one provisional inference that may now be reached is that it is doubtful that any one hypothesis will win out anytime soon. Researchers in anthropology, neuroscience, cognitive and social psychology, and ethology have amassed a large amount of data during the past forty years. Theorizing emotions has become an intriguing challenge because of this empirical research. The reasoning for all the empirical data available is still challenging for the emotion theorist.

Updated on: 21-Nov-2022


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