What are the Emotions? its definition, nature & importance


Definition of Emotion

  • The Latin root word mot, meaning “to move,”
  • Emotion can be defined as the “feeling” aspect of consciousness.
  • Buck defined, ‘Emotion is the process by which the motivational potential is realized or “read out” when activated by challenging stimuli.’
  • For example- Joy, Excitement, Tenderness, Sadness, Anger, Fear & Love, etc

Approaches to Emotions

We can understand emotion in two ways

  1. Type approach -According to this approach, emotions differ qualitatively from each other.
  2. Dimensional approach – According to this approach, emotions differ quantitatively. All emotions can be placed on a continuum between weak and intense, and between pleasant and unpleasant.

Nature of Emotions 

Emotions are characterized by three elements:

  1. Physical arousal- created by the sympathetic nervous system
  2. Behavior –to reveal the feeling to the outside world
  3. Cognitive – An inner awareness of the feeling.

1.  Physical Arousal or Physiology of Emotions 

The heart rate, blood pressure, and skin temperature differ with different emotions.

Sadness, anger, and fear are associated with greater increases in heart rate than is disgust; anger
is more often associated with vascular measures, such as higher diastolic blood pressure, as compared to fear (Larsen et al., 2008)

The amygdala is associated with emotions such as fear and pleasure in both humans and animals.

2. Behavior of Emotion 

Emotional Expression- There are facial expressions, body movements, and actions that indicate to others how a person feels.

Charles Darwin (1898) theorized that emotions are a product of evolution and, therefore, universal—all human beings, irrespective  their culture, would show the same facial expression because the facial muscles evolved to communicate specific information to onlookers.

Ekman and Friesen (1971) found that people of different cultures in the world can consistently recognize at least seven facial expressions: anger, fear, disgust, happiness, surprise, sadness, and contempt .

Display rules that can vary from culture to culture  are learned ways of controlling displays of emotion in social settings.

3. Subjective Experience or “cognitive element,

Labeling emotions – the labeling process is a matter of retrieving memories of previous similar
experiences, perceiving the context of the emotion, and coming up with a solution—a label.

Kitayama & Markus, (1994). Found out cultural differences in labeling emotions: like  the Japanese students, the positive state was more associated with friendly or socially engaged feelings. But The students from the USA associated it with socially disengaged, such as pride.


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 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:
Emotion II 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 the 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.

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.
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.

To check your understanding of the topic , take this short test! Click here for MCQ test- Emotions


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