emotion, term commonly and loosely used to denote individual, subjective feelings which dictate moods. In psychology, emotion is considered a response to stimuli that involves characteristic physiological changes—such as increase in pulse rate, rise in body temperature, greater or less activity of certain glands, change in rate of breathing—and tends in itself to motivate the individual toward further activity. Early psychological studies of emotion tried to determine whether a certain emotion arose before the action, simultaneously with it, or as a response to automatic physiological processes. In the 1960s, the Schachter-Singer theory pointed out that cognitive processes, not just physiological reactions, played a significant role in determining emotions. Robert Plutchik developed (1980) a theory showing eight primary human emotions: joy, acceptance, fear, submission, sadness, disgust, anger, and anticipation, and argued that all human emotions can be derived from these. Psychologists Sylvan Tomkins (1963) and Paul Ekman (1982) have contended that "basic" emotions can be quantified because all humans employ the same facial muscles when expressing a particular emotion. Studies done by Ekman suggest that muscular feedback from a facial expression characteristic of a certain emotion results in the experience of that emotion. Since emotions are abstract and subjective, however, they remain difficult to quantify: some theories point out that non-Western cultural groups experience emotions quite distinct from those generally seen as "basic" in the West.

An emotion is a mental and physiological state associated with a wide variety of feelings, thoughts, and behaviours. It is a prime determinant of the sense of subjective well-being and appears to play a central role in many human activities. As a result of this generality, the subject has been explored in many, if not all of the human sciences and art forms. There is much controversy concerning how emotions are defined and classified.

Etymology and definitions

The English word 'emotion' is derived from the French émotion and émouvoir. This is based on the Latin emovere, where e- (variant of ex-) means 'out' and movere means 'move'. The related term "motivation" is also derived from movere.

Researchers distinguish feeling and emotion, where feeling refers to the subjective experience of the emotion. Some believe that emotions can occur unconsciously, and hence that emotion is a more general phenomenon than its subjective feeling. Feelings may also more narrowly refer to the experience of bodily changes. A second distinction focuses on the difference between the emotion and the cause of the emotion. For example do we say that thoughts about a loved one cause the emotion of love or that these thoughts are part of the emotion? One way to resolve this issue is to see whether the emotion can occur independently of these thoughts. Thus, thoughts about a particular person or situation could not be part of the emotion of love, since one can experience the same emotion about many other things.

Yet could one experience love without some thought or other of a loved person or object? If not, then we may stipulate that thoughts of a loved object are part of the emotion. Some theorists argue that at least some emotions can be caused without any thoughts or indeed 'cognitive activity' at all. They point to very immediate reactions (e.g. LeDoux 1996), as well as the conjectured emotions of infants and animals as justification here. Debate on this point is ongoing but represents a major distinction between what are called 'cognitive' theories of emotions and 'non-cognitive' theories of emotions, where non-cognitive theories regard some other feature of emotions, such as bodily responses to be essential.

A related distinction is between the emotion and the results of the emotion, principally behaviours and emotional expressions. People often behave in certain ways as a direct result of their emotional state, such as crying, fighting or fleeing. Yet again, if one can have the emotion without the corresponding behaviour then we may consider the behaviour not to be essential to the emotion. However some theorists such as Nico Frijda who hold a functionalist approach to emotions point to the idea that emotions have evolved for a particular function, such as to keep the subject safe. If the behaviours associated with an emotion are the determining factor for the very existence of that emotion then goal-directed behaviour should be regarded as essential to the emotion. Yet since we recognise that the behaviour need not necessarily occur, we can stipulate that emotions involve what are called 'action tendencies'. So for instance, fear involves the tendency to flee, which means that the probability that the subject will flee from a given situation is increased when he is undergoing fear.


There has been considerable debate concerning how emotions should be classified. Firstly, are emotions distinctive discrete states or do they vary more smoothly along one or more underlying dimensions? The circumplex model of James Russell (1979) is an example of the latter, placing emotions along bi-polar dimensions of valence and arousal. Another popular option is to divide emotions into basic and complex categories, where some emotions are considered foundational to the existence of others (e.g. Paul Ekman). In this respect complex emotions may be regarded as developments upon basic emotions. Such development may occur due to cultural conditioning or association. Alternatively, analogous to the way primary colors combine, primary emotions could blend together to form the full spectrum of human emotional experience. For example interpersonal anger and disgust could blend to form contempt.

The model of Robert Plutchik is a well known example here. Some have also argued for the existence of meta-emotions which are emotions about emotions. In general discussion centres around which emotions or dimensions should be considered foundational. Combined views are also available.

Another important means of distinguishing emotions concerns their occurrence in time. Some emotions occur over a period of seconds (e.g. surprise) where others can last years (e.g. love). The latter could be regarded as a long term tendency to have an emotion regarding a certain object rather than an emotion proper (though this is disputed). A distinction is then made between emotion episodes and emotional dispositions. Dispositions are also comparable to character traits, where someone may be said to be generally disposed to experience certain emotions, though about different objects. For example an irritable person is generally disposed to feel irritation more easily or quickly than others. Finally some theorists (e.g. Klaus Scherer, 2005) place emotions within a more general category of 'affective states'. Where affective states can also include emotion-related phenomena such as pleasure and pain, motivational states (e.g. hunger or curiosity), moods, dispositions and traits.

Theoretical traditions

Theories about emotions stretch back at least as far as the Ancient Greek Stoics, as well as Plato and Aristotle. We also see sophisticated theories in the works of philosophers such as René Descartes, Baruch Spinoza and David Hume. More recent theories of emotions tend to be informed by advances in empirical research. Often theories are not mutually exclusive and many researchers incorporate multiple perspectives in their work.

Somatic theories

Somatic theories of emotion claim that bodily responses rather than judgements are essential to emotions. The first modern version of such theories comes from William James in the 1880s. The theory lost favour in the 20th Century, but has regained popularity more recently thanks largely to theorists such as António Damásio, Joseph E. LeDoux and Robert Zajonc who are able to appeal to neurological evidence.

James-Lange theory

William James in the article 'What is an Emotion?' (Mind, 9, 1884: 188-205) argued that emotional experience is largely due to the experience of bodily changes. These changes might be visceral, postural, or facially expressive. Danish psychologist Carl Lange also proposed a similar theory at around the same time and thus the resulting position is known as the James-Lange theory. This theory and its derivates state that a changed situation leads to a changed bodily state. As James says 'the perception of bodily changes as they occur IS the emotion.' James further claims that 'we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble, and not that we cry, strike, or tremble, because we are sorry, angry, or fearful, as the case may be.'

This theory is supported by experiments in which by manipulating the bodily state, a desired emotion is induced. Such experiments also have therapeutic implications (e.g. in laughter therapy, dance therapy). The James-Lange theory is often misunderstood because it seems counter-intuitive. Most people believe that emotions give rise to emotion-specific actions: i.e. "I'm crying because I'm sad," or "I ran away because I was scared." The James-Lange theory, conversely, asserts that first we react to a situation (running away and crying happen before the emotion), and then we interpret our actions into an emotional response. In this way, emotions serve to explain and organize our own actions to us.

Cognitive theories

There are a number of theories of emotions that argue that cognitive activity in the form of judgements, evaluations, or thoughts are necessary in order for an emotion to occur. This, it is argued, is necessary to capture the fact that emotions are about something or have intentionality. Such cognitive activity may be conscious or unconscious and may or may not take the form of conceptual processing. An influential theory here is that of Richard Lazarus (1991). A prominent philosophical exponent is Robert C. Solomon (e.g. The Passions, Emotions and the Meaning of Life, 1993). The theory proposed by Nico Frijda where appraisal leads to action tendencies is another example.

Perceptual theory

A recent hybrid of the somatic and cognitive theories of emotion is the perceptual theory. This theory is neo-Jamesian in arguing that bodily responses are central to emotions, yet it emphasises the meaningfulness of emotions or the idea that emotions are about something, as is recognised by cognitive theories. The novel claim of this theory is that conceptually based cognition is unnecessary for such meaning. Rather the bodily changes themselves perceive the meaningful content of the emotion as a result of being causally triggered by certain situations. In this respect emotions are held to be analogous to faculties such as vision or touch, which provide information about the relation between the subject and the world in various ways. A sophisticated defense of this view is found in philosopher Jesse Prinz's book Gut Reactions (2004) and psychologist James Laird's book Feelings: The Perception of Self (2007). Related views are also found in the work of Peter Goldie and Ronald de Sousa.

Affective Events Theory

The Affective Events Theory is a communication-based theory developed by Howard M. Weiss and Russell Cropanzano (1996), that looks at the causes, structures, and consequences of emotional experience (especially in work contexts.) This theory suggests that emotions are influenced and caused by events which in turn influence attitudes and behaviors. This theoretical frame also emphasizes time in that human beings experience what they call emotion episodes - a “series of emotional states extended over time and organized around an underlying theme” (Weiss & Beal, 2005, p. 6). This theory has been utilized by numerous researchers to better understand emotion from a communicative lens, and was reviewed further by Howard M. Weiss and Daniel J. Beal in their article, Reflections on Affective Events Theory published in Research on Emotion in Organizations in 2005.

Cannon-Bard theory

Walter Bradford Cannon argued against the dominance of the James-Lange theory regarding the physiological aspects of emotions in the second edition of Bodily Changes in Pain, Hunger, Fear and Rage. Where James argued that emotional behaviour often precedes or defines the emotion, Cannon and Bard argued that the emotion arises first and then stimulates typical behaviour.

Two factor theory

Another cognitive theory is the Singer-Schachter theory. This is based on experiments purportedly showing that subjects can have different emotional reactions despite being placed into the same physiological state with an injection of adrenaline. Subjects were observed to express either anger or amusement depending on whether another person in the situation displayed that emotion. Hence the combination of the appraisal of the situation (cognitive) and whether participants received adrenaline or a placebo together determined the response. This experiment has been criticised in Jesse Prinz (2004) Gut Reactions.

Component process model

A recent version of the cognitive theory comes from Klaus Scherer which regards emotions more broadly as the synchronisation of many different bodily and cognitive components. Emotions are identified with the overall process whereby low level cognitive appraisals, in particular the processing of relevance, trigger bodily reactions, behaviours, feelings,and actions.

Disciplinary approaches

Many different disciplines have produced work on the emotions. Human sciences study the role of emotions in mental processes, disorders, and neural mechanisms. In psychiatry, emotions are examined as part of the discipline's study and treatment of mental disorders in humans. Psychology examines emotions from a scientific perspective by treating them as mental processes and behavior and they explore the underlying physiological and neurological processes. In neuroscience subfields such as affective neuroscience, scientists study the neural mechanisms of emotion by combining neuroscience with the psychological study of personality, emotion, and mood. In linguistics, the expression of emotion may change to the meaning of sounds. In education, the role of emotions in relation to learning are examined.

Social sciences often examine emotion for the role that it plays in human culture and social interactions. In sociology, emotions are examined for the role they play in human society, social patterns and interactions, and culture. In anthropology, the study of humanity, scholars use ethnography to undertake contextual anlyses and cross-cultural comparisons of a range of human activities; some anthropology studies examine the role of emotions in human activities. Archaeology is a sub-field of anthropology which studies human cultures through the recovery, documentation, analysis, and interpretation of material remains and environmental data, in order to document and explain human cultures.

In economics, the social science that studies the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services, emotions are analyzed in some sub-fields of microeconomics, in order to assess the role of emotions on purchase decision-making and risk perception. In criminology, a social science approach to the study of crime, scholars often draw on behavioral sciences, sociology, and psychology; emotions are examined in criminology issues such as anomie theory and studies of "toughness", aggressive behavior, and hooliganism. In law, which underpins civil obedience, politics, economics and society, evidence about people's emotions is often raised in tort law claims for compensation and in criminal law prosecutions against alleged lawbreakers (as evidence of the defendent's state of mind during trials, sentencing, and parole hearings). In political science, emotions are examined in a number of subfields, such as the analysis of voter decision-making.

In philosophy, emotions are studied in subfields such as ethics, the philosophy of art (e.g., sensory-emotional values, and matters of taste and sentiment), and the philosophy of music. In history, scholars examine documents and other sources to interpret and analyze past activities; speculation on the emotional state of the authors of historical documents is one of the tools of interpretation. In literature and filmmaking, the expression of emotion is the cornerstone of genres such as drama, melodrama, and romance. In communication studies, scholars study the role that emotion plays in the dissemination of ideas and messages.

Emotion is also studied in non-human animals in ethology, a branch of zoology which focuses on the scientific study of animal behavior. Ethology is a combination of laboratory and field science, with strong ties to ecology and evolution. Ethologists often study one type of behavior (e.g. aggression) in a number of unrelated animals.

Evolutionary biology

Perspectives on emotions from evolution theory were initiated in the late 19th century with Charles Darwin's book The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals. Darwin's original thesis was that emotions evolved via natural selection and therefore have cross-culturally universal counterparts. Furthermore animals undergo emotions comparable to our own (see emotion in animals). Evidence of universality in the human case has been provided by Paul Ekman's seminal research on facial expression. Other research in this area focuses on physical displays of emotion including body language of animals and humans (see affect display). The increased potential in neuroimaging has also allowed investigation into evolutionarily ancient parts of the brain. Important neurological advances were made from this perspectives in the 1990s by, for example, Joseph E. LeDoux and António Damásio.

American evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers argues that moral emotions are based on the principal of reciprocal altruism. The notion of group selection is of particular relevance. This theory posits tha different emotions have different reciprochal effects. Sympathy prompts a person to offer the first favor, particularly to someone in need for whom the help would go the furthest. Anger protects a person against cheaters who accept a favor without reciprocating, by making him want to punish the ingrate or sever the relationship. Gratitude impels a beneficiary to reward those who helped him in the past. Finally, guilt prompts a cheater who is in danger of being found out, by making them want to repair the relationship by redressing the misdeed. As well, guilty feelings encourage a cheater who has been caught to advertise or promise that he will behave better in the future.


We try to regulate our emotions to fit in with the norms of the situation, based on many - sometimes conflicting - demands upon us which originate from various entities studied by sociology on a micro level -- such as social roles and 'feeling rules' the everyday social interactions and situations are shaped by -- and, on a macro level, by social institutions, discourses, ideologies etc. For example, (post-)modern marriage is, on one hand, based on the emotion of love and on the other hand the very emotion is to be worked on and regulated by it. The sociology of emotions also focuses on general attitude changes in a population. Emotional appeals are commonly found in advertising, health campaigns and political messages. Recent examples include no-smoking health campaigns and political campaign advertising emphasizing the fear of terrorism.


Depending on the particular school's general emphasis either on cognitive component of emotion, physical energy discharging, or on symbolic movement and facial expression components of emotion, different schools of psychotherapy approach human emotions differently. While, for example, the school of Re-evaluation Counseling propose that distressing emotions are to be relieved by “discharging” them - hence crying, laughing, sweating, shaking, and trembling. Other more cognitively oriented schools approach them via their cognitive components, such as rational emotive behavior therapy. Yet other approach emotions via symbolic movement and facial expression components (like in contemporary gestalt therapy).

Computer science

In the 2000s, in research in computer science, engineering, psychology and neuroscience has been aimed at developing devices that recognize human affect display and model emotions (Fellous, Armony & LeDoux, 2002). In computer science, affective computing is a branch of the study and development of artificial intelligence that deals with the design of systems and devices that can recognize, interpret, and process human emotions. It is an interdisciplinary field spanning computer sciences, psychology, and cognitive science. While the origins of the field may be traced as far back as to early philosophical enquiries into emotion, the more modern branch of computer science originated with Rosalind Picard's 1995 paper on affective computing. Detecting emotional information begins with passive sensors which capture data about the user's physical state or behavior without interpreting the input. The data gathered is analogous to the cues humans use to perceive emotions in others. Another area within affective computing is the design of computational devices proposed to exhibit either innate emotional capabilities or that are capable of convincingly simulating emotions. Emotional speech processing recognizes the user's emotional state by analyzing speech patterns. The detection and processing of facial expression or body gestures is achieved through detectors and sensors.

Notable theorists

In the late nineteenth century, the most influentual theorists were William James (1842 – 1910) and Carl Lange (1834 - 1900). James was an American psychologist and philosopher who wrote about educational psychology, psychology of religious experience/mysticism, and the philosophy of pragmatism. Lange was a Danish physician and psychologist. Working independently, they developed the James-Lange theory, a hypothesis on the origin and nature of emotions. The theory states that within human beings, as a response to experiences in the world, the autonomic nervous system creates physiological events such as muscular tension, a rise in heart rate, perspiration, and dryness of the mouth. Emotions, then, are feelings which come about as a result of these physiological changes, rather than being their cause.

In the twentieth century, some of the most influential theorists on emotion who have now passed away were psychologists from the US. They include Magda B. Arnold (1903-2002), an American psychologist who developed the appraisal theory of emotions; Richard Lazarus (1922-2002), an American psychologist who specialized in emotion and stress, especially in relation to cognition; Robert Plutchik (1928-2006), an American psychologist who developed a psychoevolutionary theory of emotion. In addition, an American philosopher, Robert C. Solomon (1942 – 2007), contributed to the theories on the philosophy of emotions with books such as What Is An Emotion?: Classic and Contemporary Readings (Oxford, 2003).

Influential theorists who are still active include psychologists, neurologists, and philosophers from Europe and North America, including:

  • Lisa Feldman Barrett - Social psychologist specializing in affective science and human emotion
  • António Damásio (1944- ) - Portuguese behavioral neurologist and neuroscientist who works in the US
  • Paul Ekman (1934- ) - Psychologist specializing in study of emotions and their relation to facial expressions
  • Barbara Fredrickson - Social psychologist who specializes in emotions and positive psychology.
  • Nico Frijda (1927- ) - Dutch psychologist who specializes in human emotions, especially facial expressions
  • Peter Goldie - British philosopher who specializes in ethics, aesthetics, emotion, mood and character
  • Joseph E. LeDoux (1949- ) - American neuroscientist who studies the biological underpinnings of memory and emotion, especially the mechanisms of fear

  • Jesse Prinz - American philosopher who specializes in emotion, moral psychology, aesthetics and consciousness
  • Klaus Scherer (1943- ) - Swiss psychologist and director of the Swiss Center for Affective Sciences in Geneva; he specializes in the psychology of emotion
  • Ronald de Sousa (1940- ) - English-Canadian philosopher who specializes in the philosophy of emotions, philosophy of mind and philosophy of biology.
  • Robert Zajonc (1923- ) - Polish-American social psychologist who specializes in social and cognitive processes such as social facilitation

See also



  • Arbib, M. & Fellous, J-M (editors). (2005) Who Needs Emotions?: The Brain Meets the Robot. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Cornelius, R. (1996). The science of emotion. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
  • DeLancey, C. (2002/2004). Passionate Engines: What Emotions Reveal about Mind and Artificial Intelligence, Oxford University Press.
  • Freitas-Magalhães, A. (2007).The Psychology of Emotions: The Allure of Human Face. Oporto: University Fernando Pessoa Press.
  • Ekman, P. (1999). " Basic Emotions". In: T. Dalgleish and M. Power (Eds.). Handbook of Cognition and Emotion. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Sussex, UK:.
  • Frijda, N. H. (1986). The Emotions. Maison des Sciences de l'Homme and Cambridge University Press.
  • Jaeger, C. & Bartsch, A. (2006), "Meta-emotions" Grazer Philosophische Studien, 73, 179–204.
  • Lazarus, R. (1991). Emotion and Adaptation. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • LeDoux, J. E. (1986). The neurobiology of emotion. Chap. 15 in J E. LeDoux & W. Hirst (Eds.) Mind and Brain: dialogues in cognitive neuroscience. New York: Cambridge.
  • Mellers, B. & McGraw, A. P. (2001). Anticipated emotions as guides to choice. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 10(6), 210–214.
  • Moore, S. C. & Oaksford, M. (2002) Emotional Cognition: From Brain to Behaviour. Amsterdam: John Benjamin’s Publishing Company.
  • Plutchik, R. (1980). A general psychoevolutionary theory of emotion. In R. Plutchik & H. Kellerman (Eds.), Emotion: Theory, research, and experience: Vol. 1. Theories of emotion (pp. 3–33). New York: Academic.
  • Scherer, K. (2005). What are emotions and how can they be measured? Social Science Information Vol. 44, No. 4: 695-729.
  • Solomon, R. (1993). The Passions: Emotions and the Meaning of Life. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.

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