Subjective Experience of Emotion

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An emotion is a complex phenomenon involving a physiological component (e.g., autonomic nervous system responses, brain activity), thoughts, often a behavioral or action component, and the subjective experience, which is called an emotional feeling.

There are several prominent theories regarding the origin of the subjective experience component of an emotion and how it is related to other emotion components. In the classic James-Lange theory (Lange & James, 1922/1962), first discussed in the late 1800s, a quick cognitive judgment, physiological response, and behavior all occur before emotional feeling:

  • the individual notices a stimulus (e.g., a bear running toward him) and makes a quick judgment of “good” or “bad”
  • a physiological response occurs (e.g., his heart races, he perspires, and so forth), often
  • accompanied by a behavioral response (e.g., he runs away)
  • then the emotional feeling occurs last.

An alternative view is the Cannon-Bard theory (Cannon, 1915/1929); an event occurs (a bear runs toward an individual), and the aspects of emotion—cognitive appraisal or assessment, action (behavior and physiology), and emotional feeling—occur simultaneously and practically independently of one another.

A number of modern emotion theorists agree at least with the appraisal-first-then-feeling aspect of the James-Lange theory (e.g., Lazarus, 2001), although not necessarily with other aspects of the theory.

Evidence does exist that people form quick “good” or “bad” judgments prior to experiencing emotional feelings. For instance, in one experiment, people who were presented with a fearful face responded with slight sweating and trembling, even if the photo was presented so briefly that people reported that they did not see the photo at all (Vuilleumier, Armony, Driver, & Dolan, 2001).

In another study, researchers recorded brain activity with an electroencephalogram (EEG) while participants looked at photographs of happy, angry, or neutral faces. Seeing an angry face was associated with a strong EEG reaction 200 to 300 milliseconds after the presentation of the photograph, whereas seeing a happy or neutral face did not produce that response(Schupp et al., 2004).

However, as Kalat and Shiota (2007) point out, cognition can certainly occur after an emotional feeling. For instance, sometimes people have sudden angry outburst, perhaps yelling at a person in an impulsive manner. In this case, the person may not know exactly why he yelled and may have to come up with a reason (perhaps a rationalization) later. For example, maybe he yelled at the person because the person is always self-centered (and was reminded of that in the moment).

In sum, Kalat and Shiota suggest that the basic identification of good or bad usually occurs very quickly, usually followed by an emotional feeling, but in some situations the emotional feeling may come first.

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