Ancient mechanisms quickly mobilizing us to deal with important encounters
Emotions are ancient mechanisms that mobilize us to deal quickly
with important interpersonal encounters. They have both a primal aspect and a
motivational aspect. Emotions act as primal beacons,
guiding us along the path of survival.
Many definitions for emotion have been proposed, including:
- A mental state that arises spontaneously rather than through conscious
effort and is often accompanied by physiological changes; a feeling [dictionary.com]
- A mental state that has a strong feeling component. [Gol]
- Complex reactions that engage both our minds and our bodies. These
reactions include: a subjective mental state, such as the feeling of
anger, anxiety, or
love; an impulse to act, such as
fleeing or attacking, whether or not it is expressed overtly; and profound
changes in the body, such as increased heart rate or blood pressure. [laz]
- Emotion is a process, a particular kind of automatic appraisal influenced
by our evolutionary and personal past, in which we sense that something
important to our welfare is occurring, and a set of physiological changes and
emotional behaviors begins to deal with the situation. [Ekm]
- Emotions are valenced reactions to events, agents, or objects, with their
particular nature being determined by the way in which the eliciting situation
is construed. [OCC]
Root: from French émotion, from Old French, esmovoir, to excite from Latin ex + movēre, to move out.
Synonyms include: affect, feelings, gut reaction, heart, humanity,
sensibility, sensitiveness, sentiment, tenderness, vibes, and warmth. This
organized list of words used to express particular
emotions may help you to identify an emotion.
An emotion has the following defining characteristics [Ekm]:
- There is a feeling, a set of sensations that we experience and are often
- An emotional episode can be brief, sometimes lasting only a few seconds,
sometimes much longer. If it lasts for hours then it is a mood and not an
- Emotions activate widespread physiological adjustments. [Ste]
- It is about something that matters to the person. Emotions
- We experience emotions as happening to us, not chosen by us. They are
things that happen to us, not things we will to happen.
- The appraisal process, in which we are constantly scanning our environment
for those things that matter to us, is usually automatic. We are not conscious
of our appraising, except when it is extended over time.
- There is a refractory period that initially filters information and
knowledge stored in memory, giving us access only to what supports the emotion
we are feeling. The refractory period may last only a few seconds, or it may
endure for much longer.
- We become aware of being emotional once the emotion has begun, when the
initial appraisal is complete. Once we become conscious that we are in the
grip of an emotion, we can reappraise the situation.
- There are universal emotional themes that reflect our evolutionary
history, in addition to many culturally learned variations that reflect our
individual experience. In other words, we become emotional about matters that
were relevant to our ancestors as well as ones we have found to matter in our
- The desire to experience or not experience an emotion
motivates much of
- Emotions provide us with the energy
to respond to features of the environment.
- An efficient signal—clear, rapid, and universal—informs others of how the
emotional person is feeling
- Emotions signal a discrepancy between your current state and some standard
- Emotions are triggered by changes.
- People express a full awareness of each other through their emotions [Sen]
There must be a goal at stake for an emotion to be aroused. The more
important the goal the stronger the resulting emotions. Most emotions are
simultaneously accompanied by stress which also results
from progress toward or away from the goal.
The ability to recognize emotions in yourself and others is an essential
social skill. Refer to our web page “Recognizing
Emotions” to learn more about this skill. A subjective
mood map locates each emotion according to the energy
level and good-bad feelings often associated with it.
Emotions are Universal
In the 1960s researcher Paul Ekman set out to determine if facial expressions
and the emotions they conveyed were culturally specific or universal. To his
surprise he found seven basic emotions were the same in all the cultures
studied. These seven emotions are represented by the facial expressions shown
Expression is not the Emotion
Often the obvious outward expression of an emotion, such as a violent anger
display, crying, smirking, or cheering is confused by observers with the actual internally
emotion itself. But we learn early and often not to show all that we feel. Often
we learn to submit quietly to the existing hierarchy to avoid
conflict. These display rules
are often adopted to respect cultural customs, and especially to
acknowledge a particular power hierarchy.
Hierarchies are ubiquitous in a wide variety of social organizations and
cultures. The boss manages the workers, the master rules the slaves and
servants, adults discipline children, teachers instruct students, doctors treat
patients, police detain citizens, religious leaders preach to the faithful,
elders may expect respect, and not long ago, wives obeyed husbands, men out
ranked women, and whites demanded privileges over blacks. In many cultures, and
perhaps less now than in the past, it is often permissible for the higher
ranking person to express anger towards the lower, but it is disrespectful for
the lower ranking person to express anger toward the higher. Reluctance to
submit and comply is described as “having a attitude,” “being uppity,” “being
a wise guy” or “not showing respect.”
The structure of the hierarchy, our perceived position in it, the nature and
extent of the power represented by the hierarchy, the options we consider,
cultural norms, the presence of strangers, our own attitudes regarding obedience, and the depth of our
emotional competency will determine how we respond outwardly to various emotions. The
following table describes the meaning behind the various behaviors we choose,
arranged from the most shallow and superficial at the top to the deepest and most meaningful at
the bottom of the table.
||You may not even be aware of your own emotions, or of any emotional
||You decide to submit and obey the request, even if you feel it is
unfair, or unhelpful. It is better to go along and get along.
||You decide to outwardly display the expected compliance. This may be
an insincere smile, or suppressed anger. It may also take the form of
fawning (sucking up) or patronization. It may be the essential element
||The restraint required to submit, obey, play along, and simulate the
expected outward appearance is stressful. Later, in a safe environment,
you release these tensions. This may be a sigh, a groan, or some more
elaborate and sarcastic caricature, impersonation, or mockery of the
powerful person as you transition from bogus to
||You are in touch with interpersonal relations and your own feelings.
|Understand and respond constructively
||Insight, growth, gratification,
|This emotional competency represents a deep understanding of
emotions in yourself and others. It can result in gratifying,
meaningful, and mutually respectful relationships.
The situation is dealt with through understanding rather than through
conquest, procrastination, denial, or suppression. This is the constructive
approach to identifying, addressing, and resolving
effecting useful change.
- “Emotions are the brain's interpretation of reactions to
changes in the world.” ~ Antonio Damasio
Passion and Reason: Making Sense of Our Emotions,
by Richard S.
Lazarus, Bernice N. Lazarus
Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life, by Paul Ekman
The Cognitive Structure of Emotions, by Andrew Ortony, Gerald L. Clore, Allan Collins
Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama, by Daniel Goleman
Emotional Awareness: Overcoming the Obstacles to Psychological Balance and Compassion,
by the Dalai Lama and Paul Ekman
by Richard Sennett
Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation, by
Edward L. Deci, Richard Flaste
Emotions, T. Dalgleish and M. Power (Eds.).
Handbook of Cognition and Emotion.
Sussex, U.K.: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.,
[Ste]Anger: The Struggle for Emotional Control in America's History,
Carol Zisowitz Stearns and
Peter N. Stearns
Emotional Intelligence: Theory, Findings, and Implications, John D. Mayer,
Peter Salovey, David R. Caruso, Psychological Inquiry, 2004, Vol. 15, No. 3,
The Inner and Outer Meanings of Facial Expressions, by Joseph C. Hager and Paul Ekman
The Nature of Emotions,
Plutchik, R, The American Scientist, Volume 89, Issue 4, 2001
Fear, Sadness, Anger, Joy, Surprise, Disgust, Contempt,
Anger, Envy, Jealousy, Fright, Anxiety, Guilt, Shame, Relief, Hope, Sadness, Depression, Happiness,
Pride, Love, Gratitude, Compassion, Aesthetic Experience,
Joy, Distress, Happy-for, Sorry-for, Resentment, Gloating, Pride, Shame, Admiration, Reproach,
Love, Hate, Hope, Fear, Satisfaction, Relief, Fears-confirmed, Disappointment, Gratification,
Gratitude, Anger, Remorse,
power, dominance, stature, relationships