What Is Emotion?

Emotions are generally thought of as strong mental states, usually involving excitement or high energy, that give rise to feelings and passions.

In simple words, emotions refer to such states as happiness, depression, anxiety, and milder ‘moods’ such as feelings of pleasure and displeasure, different degrees of excitement or drowsiness, and the arousal and satisfaction of hunger, sex, and other drives. Although the emotion system itself is located within the person, it is stimulated by changes in environmental circumstances.

Emotions involve conscious and nonconscious processes that combine to form the experience of an emotion. To understand emotions, scientists examine self-reports about how people experience emotion and assess neurological and physiological arousal, facial displays, vocalizations (e.g., speech), and gestures in circumstances in which people experience emotion.

According to social psychologists, there are three components in each case of emotion:

  1. a physiological state,
  2. a subjective experience, and
  3. a pattern of nonverbal signals—in face, voice, and other areas.

Emotion includes feelings of agreement, anger, certainty, control, disagreement, disgust, disliking, embarrassment, fear, happiness, hate, interest, liking, love, sadness, shame, surprise, and uncertainty, as expressed nonverbally apart from words.

Emotion typically signals one’s internal states, which is communicated to others through facial expressionsOpens in new window, vocalizationsOpens in new window, and gesturesOpens in new window, thereby signaling whether one is likely to draw closer to or create greater distance from others. Emotion thereby may dictate personal behavior as well as socially regulate others. Thus, although the architecture of the emotion system may be personal, the function is tethered to the social world, including relationships.

Functions of Emotions

Emotions play an important role in relationships and are central to personal and relational health. Some of its functions are outlined below.

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James-Lange Theory of Emotion

One of the most influential theories of emotion is the James-Lange theory of emotionOpens in new window that was developed independently by William JamesOpens in new window and Carl LangeOpens in new window. Basically, the James-Lange theory of emotion postulates that emotions are made up of bodily changes (e.g., arousal) and a mental event or feeling.

This view in itself was not new. However, prevailing views of emotion at the time argued that an emotion-causing event was perceived, a feeling arose from that perception, and bodily expression of that feeling then followed.

In other words, the mental state involved in emotion was determined directly by the event; physiological aspects were secondary. But James and Lange disagreed.

In his Principles of Psychology (1890), James argued that the mental state or feeling, which was the emotion proper, followed from bodily changes. In essence, he was reversing the sequence generally believed to be true. According to James, an event was perceived, physiological changes occurred as a result of this event, and the feelings that one had as a result of physiological change was the emotion.

Emotion, then, was a mental feeling-state that followed directly from bodily changes. Different events were thought to cause different bodily changes and thus different emotions.

Sad events caused bodily changes that led to sorrow, while frightening events led to a different type of bodily change that gave rise to fear. Most people believed that laughter was the result of being happy and crying was attributable to sadness. James and Lange argued the converse: laughter gave rise to happiness, crying gave rise to sadness, and trembling gave rise to fear.

Early depictions of emotion focused on their high-energy quality: Emotions were physical stirrings or excited mental states. Subsequently, the physical energy involved in emotion was seen as being controlled by the brain.

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