Theories of Emotion in Psychology: Quick Guide

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June 5, 2019

Table of Contents

Emotion represents a complex of affective states that implies conscious or unconscious experiences which lead to psychological responses that either inhibit or facilitate the motivation of behaviour.

Emotions exert an incredibly powerful force on human behavior. Strong emotions can cause you to take actions you might not normally perform or to avoid situations you enjoy. Why exactly do we have emotions? What causes us to have these feelings? Researchers, philosophers, and psychologists have proposed different theories to explain the how and why behind human emotions.

What are emotions?

In psychology, emotion is often defined as a complex state of feeling that results in physical and psychological changes that influence thought and behaviour.

Emotionality is associated with a range of psychological phenomena, including temperament, personality, mood, and motivation. According to author David G. Meyers (buy his books from Amazon), human emotion involves “…physiological arousal, expressive behaviors, and conscious experience.”

The great majority of psychologists accept the existence of four defining characteristics of emotions:

  • stimulus events that determine the response
  • a positive or negative conscious affective tonality of the experience
  • certain physiological manifestations produced by the vegetative nervous system and endocrine glands
  • a behaviour that generally accompanies the feelings.

Basic Emotions & other Affective States

A 2009 review of theories of emotion written by D. L. Robinson, Brain function, mental experience and personality identifies and contrasts fundamental emotions according to three key criteria for mental experiences that: 

  1. have a strongly motivating subjective quality like pleasure or pain;
  2. are a response to some event or object that is either real or imagined;
  3. motivate particular kinds of behaviour.

The combination of these attributes distinguishes emotions from sensations, feelings and moods. 

Another feature that tells apart these affective states is the period of time over which they manifest, ranging from whole years to merely minutes, along with the attribute of the intensity with which they are felt.

Kind of emotionPositive emotionsNegative emotions
Related to object propertiesInterest, curiosity, enthusiasmIndifference, habituation, boredom
Attraction, desire, admirationAversion, disgust, revulsion
Surprise, amusementAlarm, panic
Future appraisalHope, excitementFear, anxiety, dread
Event-relatedGratitude, thankfulnessAnger, rage
Joy, elation, triumph, jubilationSorrow, grief
PatienceFrustration, restlessness
ContentmentDiscontentment, disappointment
Self-appraisalHumility, modestyPride, arrogance
SocialCharityAvarice, greed, miserliness, envy, jealousy

Major Theories

The major theories of emotion can be grouped into three main categories: physiological, neurological, and cognitive.

Physiological theories suggest that responses within the body are responsible for feelings.

Neurological theories propose that activity within the brain leads to affective responses.

Finally, cognitive theories argue that thoughts and other mental activity play an essential role in forming emotions.

Across time, there have been many psychologists that postulated different theories regarding emotions and their role in the human society. Some believed that emotions have an evolutionary role in the survival of our specie, others focused on the cognitive and experimental aspects of the effects our emotions seem to ignite in our systems. Nevertheless, all agreed on the crucial importance they have in our understanding and our relations with each other and with the surrounding world.

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