Theories of Emotion in Psychology: A Quick Guide for Beginners

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June 5, 2019
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Emotions are fascinating phenomena that have captivated the attention of researchers, philosophers, and psychologists alike. These affective states represent a complex interplay of psychological responses that can either inhibit or facilitate the motivation of behavior, whether conscious or unconscious. Emotions can exert an incredible amount of influence on human behavior, dictating our actions and steering us away from situations that we might otherwise enjoy. The reasons behind our feelings are varied and complex, with different theories proposed to explain the causes and mechanisms underlying human emotions. Some theories suggest that emotions develop as a result of our past experiences, while others attribute them to biological factors such as genetics and hormones. Regardless of the theories, one thing remains certain – emotions are a fundamental aspect of the human experience, and understanding how they shape our behavior can have important implications in our everyday lives.

What are emotions?

Emotions, the complex states of feeling that are often discussed in psychology, have a profound impact on both our physical and psychological well-being. They can alter our mood, motivation, and behavior. Psychologists widely associate emotionality with a spectrum of psychological phenomena, including temperament and personality. Author David G. Meyers, known for his distinguished contributions in this field, suggests that emotions are linked with physiological arousal, expressive behaviors, and conscious experience. Emotions manifest differently in different individuals and can have a positive or negative effect on our psyche. Individuals with a heightened sense of emotionality are often prone to stronger emotional responses than those with a less pronounced sense of emotionality. By understanding emotions and building our emotional intelligence, we can develop greater self-awareness and a deeper understanding of how to navigate our emotions and the emotions of others.

As per current scientific understanding, emotions are believed to possess four key characteristics that distinguish them from one another. First and foremost, the response that emotions evoke is determined by the stimulus events; in other words, the way we feel is shaped by our surroundings and external factors. Additionally, emotions exhibit a positive or negative conscious affective tonality, which plays a crucial role in our interpretation of the experience. Moreover, physiological manifestations in the form of bodily changes are often triggered by the activation of our vegetative nervous system and endocrine glands. Finally, there is typically a behavior that is associated with the emotion felt, which serves as an outward expression of the internal emotional state. These characteristics combine to provide a complex and nuanced understanding of emotions that has been widely accepted by psychologists.

Basic Emotions & other Affective States

A 2009 review of theories of emotion, titled “Brain function, mental experience, and personality” authored by D. L. Robinson, looked into the fundamental emotions according to three main criteria of mental experiences. These criteria involve the strongly motivating subjective quality such as the feelings of pleasure or pain triggered in response to some object or event that’s either factual or imaginary. Furthermore, these emotions motivate specific kinds of behavior. The combination of these attributes set apart emotions from other affective states such as sensations, feelings, and moods.

Moreover, these affective states have different features that distinguish them from one another. For instance, the period of time over which they manifest differs significantly, ranging from a few minutes to several years. This time period, combined with the intensity of emotions felt, enables us to differentiate and better understand the emotions experienced within ourselves and others. Overall, understanding and recognizing these emotional states can significantly aid in effectively communicating our needs and improving our well-being.

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

Emotion is a fascinating phenomenon that has puzzled scientists and researchers for centuries. Over time, various theories have been proposed attempting to explain the origin and functions of emotions. These theories can be broadly categorized into three main groups: physiological, neurological, and cognitive.

The physiological theories of emotion suggest that physical responses within the body are accountable for eliciting emotional sensations. These theories propose that changes in body temperature, heart rate, and respiration are fundamental in generating feelings of arousal and excitement.

Neurological theories of emotion suggest that different areas and functions within the brain are responsible for different emotions. This approach postulates that different brain regions produce different emotions through their neural connections and processes.

Finally, cognitive theories suggest that the formation and experience of emotions depend on the interpretation and labeling of physiological and neurological cues through thought processes. According to this view, cognitive appraisal is essential for emotion elicitation and regulation.

In conclusion, each theory of emotion provides unique insights into the complexity of this phenomenon. The physiological, neurological, and cognitive theories demonstrate that emotions are multi-faceted, and their generation involves multiple systems and processes within the body and brain.


Throughout history, there have been countless individuals who have dedicated their lives to understanding the complexities surrounding the topic of emotions and their significance within human society. These brilliant minds have put forth a myriad of theories, each with their own unique perspective. Some of the most influential psychologists have contended that emotions have a fundamental evolutionary role in our species, allowing us to adapt and survive in even the most challenging of circumstances. Others have focused primarily on the cognitive and experimental aspects surrounding the effects that emotions ignite within our physiological and psychological systems. Despite these varying perspectives, all of these leading psychologists have come to a consensus that emotions play an utterly critical role in our understanding of our world and in the development of our relationships with one another.


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