Approaches to the study of motivation and emotion


 Approaches to the study of motivation and emotion

Definition of Emotion

Emotion is the process by which the motivational potential is realized or “read out” when activated by challenging stimuli. – Buck

  • Type’ approach to EmotionsAccording to this approach, emotions differ qualitatively from each other.
  • Dimensional approach to EmotionAccording to this approach, emotions differ quantitatively. All emotions can be placed on a continuum between weak and intense, and between pleasant and unpleasant.


The Relationship between Motivation & Emotion –

“The Readout Hypothesis”

Motivational states strive to maintain the internal conditions necessary for life. For this purpose, they must appropriately influence systems that are designed to maintain these systems. These systems include the adaptive systems (homeostatic systems), the expressive systems, and the cognitive systems.

Emotion is the process that influences these systems.

In short, emotion is the ‘readout’ of the motivational state. It provides a moment-to-moment report about the motivational states to the appropriate systems responsible for the reaction.

There are three types of readouts-

  • Emotion I:   It is the most fundamental readout that takes place between the motivational states and the adaptive-homeostatic systems. Emotion I takes place through the peripheral bodily responses of the immune, endocrine, and sympathetic nervous systems. It can be measured by responses reflecting homeostasis and adaptation like the autonomic nervous system responses, measures of immune system functioning, and hormonal activity.
  • Emotion II:It is the external display of the motivational systems. It takes place through responses that others can identify and use – facial expressions, postures, odors, color changes, etc. Important: These expressive behaviors must be spontaneous.
  •    Emotion III:- It is the direct subjective experience of the state of the motivational systems. It can be measured only with the help of self-reports of emotional experiences.

Display Rules

The processes of excitation and inhibition control the spontaneous expression of emotions (Emotion II). This process is involuntary and is controlled by brain structures.

Contradictory to this, display rules alter spontaneous expressions in ways that (to some extent) are voluntary and intentional.

Whereas inhibition can only attenuate the expression of emotions, display rules can alter them in many complex ways, depending upon what is suitable for that situation.


According to Ekman and Friesen, display rules have three types of influences –

  1. They can help ‘qualify’ an emotion by adding a further comment on the experienced emotion.
  2. They can help ‘modulate’ an emotion, thus increasing or decreasing its intensity as compared to what is actually felt.
  3. They can help ‘falsify’ the expression by hiding what we are actually feeling, or by replacing it with another simulated emotional expression.


Display rules are learned. The pattern of these rules are formed due to the culture prevalent around the individual.

It is display rules that help us to identify cultural differences in the expression of emotions.


“The Readout Hypothesis”

The Process:

1.) The process begins with an internal or external stimulus that is challenging and has motivational-emotional implications.

2.) This stimulus passes through a filter that represents the unique characteristics and learning experiences of the individual. The filter determines the strength of impact of the incoming affective stimulus for that particular individual in that particular situation.

3.) The impact of the emotional stimulus is registered on two levels – emotional and cognitive.

  1. a) On the emotional level, Emotion I, Emotion II, and Emotion III are activated.

And feedback is received from the adaptive-homeostatic systems and the expressive behaviors.

  1. b) On the cognitive level, there is cognitive-physiological interaction.

In this process, the individual ‘labels’ the emotional stimulus on the basis of the past experience, the subjective emotional experience, and the present situation.

4.) Once the appraisal of the stimulus is done, the individual gets prepared to cope with the challenge.

All three readouts may not exist in all motivational states, i.e. different motivational states have different combinations of readouts.

This is because different motivational states serve different purposes for that organism.

e.g. Hunger is related to adaptive-homeostatic processes and elicits only physiological arousal and subjective experience.

Fear and anger elicit all three readouts.


Approaches  to the Study of Motivation & Emotion

  • Physiological:

Focuses on the physiological basis of motivation and emotion. The functioning of brain structures, endocrine system, etc. in relation to the biological-based motivation-emotion systems are studied.

  • Ethological:

Ethology is the science of studying animals in their natural environment.

In this approach findings from animal studies and evolutionary studies are used to understand motivational-emotional processes in human beings.

  • Cognitive:

Cognitive theorists  emphasize that human beings are rational and aware of their motivation. According to them, the study of  conscious processes that control motivation and emotion is more important.

  • Socio-Cultural:

In this approach, theorists study the influence of social and cultural factors on the experience and expression of motivation and emotion.

They study how cultures are similar to and different from each other with respect to motivation and emotion.

  • Developmental-Interactionistic:

In this approach, the combined influence of biological and environmental factors on motivational-emotional systems is studied.

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