Theories and Concepts of Emotion

Emotion Photo courtesy of Medical XpressOpens in new window

In the earliest writings that discussed emotions, emotions tended to be viewed as inconveniences and sources of disturbance and disruption. Individual adherents of two ancient Greek and Roman schools of philosophy, StoicismOpens in new window and EpicureanismOpens in new window, wrote extensively about emotions.

Marcus AureliusOpens in new window, who was the emperor of Rome from AD 161 until 180 and a self-proclaimed Stoic, wrote the following admonition to himself in his diary:

Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness. . . . But for my part I have long perceived the nature of good and its nobility, the nature of evil and its meanness, and also the nature of the culprit, who is my brother (not in the physical sense but as a fellow creature similarly endowed with reason and a share of the divine). . . . Neither can I be angry with my brother or fall foul of him, for he and I were born to work together, like a man’s two hands, feet, or eyelids. (Marcus Aurelius, ca. AD167)

In this passage, Marcus Aurelius was talking himself out of acting on his emotions, angerOpens in new window in particular, in the event that he would meet with interference, ingratitude, and so forth.

He tells himself to instead adopt a philosophical and “rational” attitude, which he saw was a constructive approach to interpersonal relations. He is struggling to be a good person. This passage, brief though it is, conveys Stoicism well.

StoicismOpens in new window was founded in 300BC by the Greek philosopher Zeno and survived into Roman era until about AD300. According to the Stoics, emotions consist of two movements.

The first movement is the immediate feeling and other reactions (e.g., physiological response) that occur when a stimulus or event occurs.

For instance, consider what could have happened if an army general accused Marcus Aurelius of treason in front of other officers. The first movement for Marcus may have been (internal) surprise and anger in response to this insult, accompanied perhaps by some involuntary physiological and expressive responses such as face flushing and a movement of the eyebrows.

The second movement is what one does next about the emotion. Second-movement behaviors occur after thinking and are under one’s control.

Examples of second movements for Marcus might have included a plot to seek revenge, actions signifying deference and appeasement, or perhaps proceeding as he would have proceeded whether or not this event occurred: continuing to lead the Romans in a way that Marcus Aurelius believed best benefited them.

In the Stoic view, choosing a reasoned, unemotional response as the second movement is the only appropriate response.

The Stoics believed that to live the good life and be a good person, we need to free ourselves of nearly all desires such as too much desire for money, power, or sexual gratification.

Prior to second movements, we can consider what is important in life. Money, power, and excessive sexual gratification are not important. Character, rationality, and kindness are important.

The Epicureans, first associated with the Greeks philosopher Epicurus, who lived from 341 to 270BC, held a similar view, believing that people should enjoy simple pleasures, such as good conversation, friendship, food, and wine, but not be indulgent in these pursuits and not follow passion for those things that hold no real value like power and money.

As Oatley (2004) states, “the Epicureans articulated a view—enjoyment of relationship with friends, of things that are real rather than illusory, simple rather than artificially inflated, possible rather than vanishingly unlikely—that is certainly relevant today” (p. 47).

In sum, these ancient Greek and Roman philosophers saw emotions, especially strong ones, as potentially dangerous. They viewed emotions as experiences that needed to be reigned in and controlled.

As Oately (2004) points out, the Stoic idea bears some similarity to BuddhismOpens in new window. BuddhaOpens in new window, living in India in the 6th centuryBC, argued for cultivating a certain attitude that decreases the probability of (in Stoic terms) destructive second movements.

Through meditation and the right attribute, one allows emotions to happen to oneself (it is impossible to prevent this), but one is advised to observe the emotions without necessarily acting on them; one achieves some distance and decides what has value and what does not have value.

Additionally, the Stoic idea of developing virtue in oneself, of becoming a good person, which the Stoics believed we could do because we have a touch of the divine, laid the foundation for the three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Oatley, 2004). As with Stoicism, tenets of these religions include controlling our emotions lest we engage in sinful behavior.

Many centuries after Stoicism and Epicureanism, Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632 – 1677) wrote about emotions. To some extent, Spinoza’s ideas echoed those of the Stoics and Epicureans while also making novel contributions.

In Spinoza’s (1661 – 1675/1955) book The Ethic, particularly in his chapter “On Human Bondage,” he presented his worldview: the universe is God’s expression, and each human being is part of that expression. Spinoza stated that we each tend to have a false view, that we exist as separate entities. This false view bonds us to suffering and discontent.

To be free of bondage, we must realize the part we play in the whole rather than believing that we are prime forces in what happens, trying to coerce situations so that our desires are met, becoming angry and bitter when they are not.

  • If we see the world as it is, we have what Spinoza calls active emotions, which are based in love for the world as it exists and love for others.
  • If we fight against the accurate worldview, we have what Spinoza calls passive emotions, which are based in the belief that our desires should be realized; the resulting emotions tend to be anger, envy, and hatred.

To free ourselves from bondage, we must recognize and accept our emotions. Spinoza’s ideas influenced modern views of emotion, and the particular idea about the need to understand our emotions is the guiding principle behind psychotherapy (Oatley, 2004).

Late I800s: Darwin’s Book Makes a Convincing Case That Emotions Are Functional

A radical shift in the view of emotions occurred with the writings of one of the great thinkers of the 19th century: Charles Darwin. In the late 1800s, after publishing his book on evolution, On the Origin of Species, which was first published in 1859, Darwin published a book that had more influence later than it had initially: The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, first published in 1872.

In this book, Darwin described and illustrated his and others’ observations of emotional expressions in humans and animals, demonstrating some similarities between expressions of humans and expressions of some animals. For example, he described and graphically represented that a threatened dog or cat displays a snarling expression that looks similar to the angry expression of a human.

As another example, he presented drawings of the Cynopithecus niger (a type of monkey) in a “placid” condition, during which it is expressionless. Immediately after being caressed, the monkey appears to be smiling, and its face looks similar to that of a happy person.

Darwin argued that the existence of these similarities demonstrates that emotional expression must have evolved through natural selection in the same way that other characteristics evolved. He further contented that the expressions must serve a function; they enhance survival of the organism.

Additionally, his observations suggest that emotions exist as distinct categories (e.g., happinessOpens in new window, angerOpens in new window, sadnessOpens in new window, fearOpens in new window) because specific facial and other expressions are associated with these specific emotional states.

Darwin’s idea that emotions are functional is now widely held. For instance, world-renowned American neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux (1996) wrote a book in which he describes the brain physiology behind emotions (The Emotional Brain).

As LeDoux states, emotion is a word we made up for different experiences that have some characteristics in common. But actually, LeDoux said, each emotion (fear, anger, sadness, contentment, etc.) is a different type of experience that is associated with the activity of different brain systems.

  • We have a brain and body system for defending ourselves against danger—we use the word fearOpens in new window as a label for this entire reaction and experience.
  • We have a brain and body system for expelling dangerous substances, usually food—we use the word disgustOpens in new window for this.

Each system is developed for a purpose, and each of these systems has some separate brain and body physiology involved (although there is also overlap). The systems do not have a common origin because each system evolved as a result of environmental pressure. Like Darwin, LeDoux discusses the similarities between animals and humans in regard to emotional response and experiences.

Many other leading emotion scholars of our time largely adopt Darwin’s views and certainly agree that emotions evolved through natural selection and that emotions have a function. American psychologists Paul Ekman (2009) and Keith Oatley (2004) state that Darwin’s 1873 book was the beginning of the modern view of emotion. Ekman goes so far to say that this book should be considered the publication that initiated the science of the entire field of psychology.

The James-Lange Theory of Emotion

Contemporaneous with Darwin was another leader in the science of emotion, American psychologist and philosopher William James. James’ most significant contribution was the James-Lange theory of emotion, which was independently developed in the late 19th century by James and by Danish psychologist Carl Lange.

James first discussed his view on the genesis of emotion in an article titled “What Is an Emotion?” published in the journal Mind in 1884. Later in his book, The Principles of Psychology, published in 1890, he explicitly stated his theory of emotion. Around the same time, Lange published similar views and reaffirmed James’s theory.

The James-Lange theory of emotion is based on the principle that emotion is a result of physical reactions to a stimulus; the body reaction to a stimulus precedes the feeling aspect (subjective experience) of the emotion.

Specifically, James and Lange suggested that the perception of a stimulus produces as specific body reaction and that the body reaction causes the emotional feeling. This sequence of emotional experience contradicts the common notion that emotional feeling precedes the bodily reaction to a stimulus.

In his article, James stated that “we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble” (Lange & James, 1922, p. 13).

A major point of this theory is that it does not assume any intervening cognition of emotion that comes after the physiological arousal. The arousal itself is the emotional feeling.

An additional significant aspect of this theory is that different emotions might be associated with different physiological responses, although James and Lange did not specifically address this issue (Russell, 2003).

James and Lange held the idea that physiological activity is necessary for the production of emotional experience. In their view, the emotion-provoking object itself is not strong enough to produce emotional experience. As some researchers have pointed out, some of James’s statements lacked clarity, leading to some confusion about the theory.

For instance, James said that when you see a bear, you first run away then feel fear, rather than feeling fear then running away (as common sense would suggest). But others have said that running away from a bear is not automatic; we would not run away from a bear in a zoo or a bear that we saw sleeping in the woods. As they say, some interpretation, or appraisal, of the situation is necessary to run. For example, Kalat and Shiota (2007) restate and clarify the James-Lange theory as shown in Table X-1.

Table X-1: The James-Lange Theory
Event→ Appraisal of event → (both behavioral and physiological responses)→ Emotional feeling
(threatening bear)→ (this is threatening) → (running and stress reaction → (fear)

The James-Lange theory has had a tremendous impact on the development of emotion theory, for example, by inspiring research on whether differential physiological responses that James and Lange refer or allude to, in particular, the hormonal action of the autonomic nervous system, are too slow to cause the emotional feeling.

Another critique was that one would expect individuals with spinal cord injuries to experience relatively numbed emotions (because nervous system damage would mean a reduced physiological reaction to a stimulus), but research has produced mixed findings, with some results suggesting less intense emotional experience among spinal cord injury patients (e.g., Mack, Birbaumer, Kaps, Badke, & Kaiser, 2005) and other results indicating normal emotional experience (e.g., Cobos, Sanchez, Perez, & Vila, 2004).

The Cannon-Bard Theory

Along with critiquing James’ theory, Walter Cannon produced an emotion theory of his own called the Cannon-Bard theory. He made another important contribution prior to his theory that laid the groundwork for the Cannon-Bard theory.

Cannon is the person responsibele for discovering the fight-or-flight-responseOpens in new window, otherwise known as the stress response.

Cannon’s research led him to conclude that when an animal is strongly aroused, usually due to fear or rage, it produces the fight-or-flight response, a full-body emergency reaction largely controlled by the activity of the sympathetic nervous system (a branch of the autonomic nervous system) and the release of the hormone adrenaline.

This response includes increased heart rate, blood pressure, and perspiration; dilation of pupils; and many other physiological responses. Cannon described his findings in his book Bodily Changes in Pain, Hunger, Fear, and Rage, published in 1915.

In Cannon’s research, animals produced this general and dramatic physiological response to stimuli—the stress response. Therefore the James-Lange theory, which suggested different physiological responses for different emotions, did not make sense to Cannon.

According to the Cannon-Bard theory of emotion (Cannon, 1927), named also for Cannon’s collaborator, Philip Bard, when an individual encounters a stimulus, the different elements of the resulting emotion, the physiological response, the cognition (thought), and the emotional feeling are produced simultaneously.

Like the James-Lange theory, the Cannon-Bard theory is historically important and inspired further research on the relationship between physiology and emotional feeling, and now—the new concept that Cannon introduced—cognition. However, many aspects of the Cannon-Bard theory are not considered valid today, largely because much of the theory is too vague (e.g., Kalat, Shiota, 2007).

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