|Van Gogh (source)|
Humans are understandably enthralled with emotion. We see emotions as a core aspect of our daily lives and relationships with others. Our emotions can shift our behavior, lead us to reinterpret our social environment, and sometimes cause us physical discomfort. Specific emotional states--like happiness, for instance--have even become lifetime goals. Emotions, as Van Gogh suggests, are indeed the "great captains of our lives."
|Darwin, father of discrete emotion theory (source)|
Darwin's early work-- emotions are defined as discrete entities. This perspective suggests that emotions are evolutionary adaptations to social and survival related threats. Thus, different emotions (such as sadness, fear, anger, surprise, etc...) are characterized by reliable nonverbal patterns (facial expressions), physiological signatures, and are elicited by a particular type of construal of the social environment (called an appraisal). For example, we might feel anger (rather than some other negative emotion) when we experience a negative event that we construe as personally controllable. This experience of anger will lead to a unique facial display, and theoretically, a physiological response that is unique to experiences of anger.
|Wundt, father of core affect theory (source)|
Although it might not seem like it, theorists who champion these two perspectives--discrete emotion and core affect-- have been at each others' throats for years about who is right or wrong in their characterization of emotion. Some have even (unfairly) suggested that the other perspective has hampered emotion research. Others have simply suggested that the other theory is incorrect: For instance, discrete emotion researchers argue that core affect dimensions of valence and arousal can't account for the sheer complexity of emotion experience (that is, if I said I was "feeling low in arousal and high in unpleasantness," what emotion would you say I'm experiencing? Shame? Embarrassment? Fear?). In contrast, core affect researchers balk at the notion that discrete emotions have unique physiological signals (early evidence that specific emotions show differentiated physiological signatures have been largely discredited over the years).
We could spend a lot of time stacking up the evidence in favor of a discrete perspective or a core affect perspective, and I am interested in what you--the reader-- feels about each perspective. Instead, I'd like to simply point out that each perspective provides unique opportunities for future research. In their own way, each theory ensures that in the next decade we will learn a great deal about emotion.
Thinking about emotion in discrete ways provides a number of avenues of future research. As I wrote in a previous post, thinking of emotions as discrete entities allows one to search for reliable signaling patterns of emotion (such as in the voice, face, or through touch) that ultimately will help us understand social interactions more completely. As well, a discrete perspective can begin to integrate influences of culture on specific emotions. For instance, cultural histories might make certain emotion expressions more prevalent (pride) in some cultures (e.g., the US) where differentiating the self from others is more normative versus other cultures (e.g., Japan) where blending in is normative. A number of studies by David Matsumoto of the University of San Francisco have weighed in on this question, finding that some aspects of pride expressions are actually universal. Discrete emotion perspectives can help us understand when culture shapes emotion, and when emotions are universal.
|A blind judo practitioner shows a universal pride display in victory (source)|
In contrast, thinking about core affect has similarly promising avenues of future research. For example, understanding how a specific emotion boils down to core ingredients--for example, fear seems to be elicited by situations characterized by high uncertainty--will allow us to better characterize where emotions originate, and predict the contexts in which emotions are elicited. As well, thinking about emotions through a core affect perspective allows us to examine individual differences in associations between subjective experiences of emotion and physiological responses--something that the discrete emotion perspective does not yet allow for. In the truest sense of emotion experience, it is likely that some people feel a much stronger physiological reaction to a fear-inducing stimuli, than others.
I feel so fortunate to be a part of the rich tradition of emotion research and I'm excited to see what new things we learn about emotion over the next decade. So, which theory makes more sense to you? Are emotions discrete entities or do they boil down to core ingredients? Let us know in the comments!
Keltner, D., & Haidt, J. (1999). Social Functions of Emotions at Four Levels of Analysis Cognition & Emotion, 13 (5), 505-521 DOI: 10.1080/026999399379168
Barrett LF, & Bliss-Moreau E (2009). Affect as a Psychological Primitive. Advances in experimental social psychology, 41, 167-218 PMID: 20552040
Tracy, J., & Matsumoto, D. (2008). The spontaneous expression of pride and shame: Evidence for biologically innate nonverbal displays Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105 (33), 11655-11660 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0802686105