Monday, September 26, 2011

Emotions: The Great Captains of Our Lives

Van Gogh (source)
"Let's not forget that the little emotions are the great captains of our lives and we obey them without realizing it." -- Vincent Van Gogh

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."

Given that emotions hold such a profound influence on us, one would think that (a) there would be a ton of psychological research devoted to the study of emotions, and (b) emotion research would already have generated the clear truth about the nature of emotion experience. Actually, while (a) is quite true [there is even a journal called "Emotion"], (b) is surprisingly false. The reason: Emotion researchers disagree about what an emotion is, and where emotion research should go in the future.

Darwin, father of discrete emotion theory (source)
Two perspectives currently guide emotion research. In the first perspective--with its origins in Charles
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)
The second perspective--which originates in the introspective works of Wilhelm Wundt-- suggests that specific emotion experiences (anger, disgust, compassion, etc...) boil down to core ingredients. In this core affect theory, core ingredients such as valence and arousal level, combine in unique ways to make up larger emotion experiences. For example, the experience of anger actually boils down to experiences of high arousal and intense unpleasantness (Amie wrote about an example of core affect theory in an earlier post).

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


  1. It's so tempting to make comments like 'emotions run high in emotion research' but I will not. :)

    I am always suspicious of dichotomies. When both perspectives have obvious value, it seems more rational to research both and look for the meeting ground rather than waste time and energy (not to mention precious research funding!) arguing. Nature vs nurture. Particle vs. wave. Until we have all the answers, or at least enough answers, we can't prove either.
    Collaboration and open minds are good things.

  2. Thanks for your comment Margaret, and I couldn't agree more. I also think that most new emotion researchers tend to avoid this debate entirely. Instead, we like to study emotion phenomena as they exist, whether that means studying anger, or studying the underlying components of it. Both I think are worthwhile research ventures and no one "damages the field" by going in one direction or the other. Thanks again for reading!

  3. I am going to echo Margaret and go with the safe and sound answer of "they're a little bit of both" as well. In addition, I do not think the two approaches are that dichotomous: they are both firmly rooted in the body as a product of evolution. Wundt particularly used the body and its processes as a starting point. As an area that brings these both approaches together is embodied emotion, and I think we are going to see even more interesting future research coming from that direction.

    Great van Gogh quote, by the way, and excellent writing as usual.

  4. Thanks for the comment Ilmo! Indeed the only way that the perspectives really differ -- in my view anyway -- is in the belief that discrete emotions are themselves the finest detail of analysis, or if they can be broken down into more fundamental parts. Clearly, whether or not you care about this distinction will determine where you focus your research, but won't effect whether or not people actually experience states that they can call fear, anxiety, sadness, etc...

  5. Although previously I agreed with many of basic emotions theory arguments, recent debates between proponents of core affect (Barrett) and classics of basic emotions (Izard, Panskepp) has made me change my point of view. It seems that the core affect theories has their points, and that most of the evidences in favor of basic emotions are currently disqualified.

    Yet it should be noted that the core affect theory is fully compatible with "discrete feelings" through the notions of cognitive appraisal and the like, so the problem, in my opinion, is not "what we feel", but what are the psychological and functional primitives of emotions.

  6. Thanks Audrey! When it comes down to the argument of physiological specificity, there has been difficulty replicating some of the early discrete emotion work, that's true (although disgust may be an exception). However, Panksepp, Izard, and Ekman would probably not concede this point.

    I would argue though, that there is plenty to study about what we feel beyond simply what the "functional primitives" of emotion are. The universal expression work on pride is a good example.

  7. Well,honestly I saw your blog when I was searching for Vincent Van Gogh's quotes but after I saw the post I couldn't stop reading!!!I'm not into this subject but I enjoyed this informative post.Thank you Michael :)