2004-11-19: Understanding Emotion

Understanding Emotion (1996)

by Keith Oatley (1939-) and Jennifer M. Jenkins (?)

I don’t recall how this book was recommended to me, but it was in connection with my interest in cognitive science. The book is a college psychology textbook, obtained through interlibrary loan.

Chapter 1 is a survey of historical approaches to understanding emotion, from Aristotle, Darwin, and others. I found it only slightly interesting, and nearly gave up on the book.

Chapter 2 describes some cultural differences in emotional expression, including historical Western and contemporary non-Western notions. The authors mention Kant’s 1784 expression “Dare to reason, have the courage to use your own minds.” as part of a movement to distrust emotion, favoring rationality. At about the same time, in reaction to enlightenment ideas, romanticism arose as “an affirmation of emotions and their implications in personal life, in politics, in literature, in philosophy”. The tension between rationality and emotion is obviously still with us, even though it is a false dichotomy. The authors note the Japanese emotion amae, which is comfort in another person’s acceptance; clearly there is no single English word for this, although we can understand the phrase. Even where an emotion is clearly the same, its experience or expression can be modified culturally. For instance, Japanese control certain emotions more than Americans do (e.g., fear), and Americans control others more than Japanese (e.g., anger and disgust). Emotions are also connected to other aspects of a culture. Jealousy is connected with sexual infidelity in Western culture, but not among the Todas of India, where sexual intercourse is not private to marriage; instead the attachment to a first-born son arouses jealousy.

Chapter 3 discusses evolution and emotion, and emotion in non-humans. They deal with three kinds of inherited patterns involving emotions: expressions (small discrete actions; more extensive species-characteristic programs for action (e.g., nest-building) that we might call instincts; and biases towards one set of emotions or another. Although much of the 20C was lost to Behaviorist dogma, the idea survived that social behavior is inexplicable without interpretation of emotional states. Some emotions have an aspect rooted in biological survival, such as fear (of predators, or of separation). Others (more “complex”) are concerned with the self in relation to other people in social interactions, such as self-esteem, envy, or Schadenfreude (pleasure in another’s misfortune). Particularly human emotions are based on gratitude and social anxiety (e.g., shame, guilt, embarrassment). The authors say that “the best way of thinking about complex emotions is in terms of presenting the self to others and of being able to imagine what those others might think and feel towards us.” Then shame is a most human emotion, opposing social confidence; in comparing ourselves to others, and others’ opinions of ourselves, we have the possibility of respect or shame.

Chapter 4 asks: “What is an emotion?” And the authors hazard a plausible (not definitive) definition:

1. An emotion is usually caused by a person consciously or unconsciously evaluating some event as relevant to a concern (a goal) that is important; the emotion is felt as positive when a concern is advanced and negative when a concern is impeded.

2. The core of an emotion is readiness to act and the prompting of plans; an emotion gives priority for one or a few kinds of action to which it gives a sense of urgency – so it can interrupt, or compete with, alternative mental processes or actions. Different types of readiness create different outline relationships with others.

3. An emotion is usually experienced as a distinctive type of mental state, sometimes accompanied or followed by bodily changes, expressions, actions.

They note the difficulty of a general definition, compared with the ease of making examples. (One estimate has about 600 words for emotions in English.) By comparison, there is no simple universally accepted definition of a sentence; nonetheless, linguists study them.

Three separate systems are postulated: cognitive-verbal, bodily-physiological and behavioral-expressive. The first is related to conscious emotional states that can be thought about, recalled and related to others; emotions involving this system are related to conscious goals and plans; these states last minutes to hours or (when rehearsed) longer. Bodily changes and facial expressions last only seconds, and are often unnoticed; they can be conditioned by expectations, as when a pilot anticipates emergencies that might occur during a difficult landing, and reacts bodily. Facial expressions are involved in social interactions, allowing others to interpret one’s emotional state; one does not usually smile unless there is someone to smile at.

Emotions are intimately related to planning, and plans are implemented according to the emotions driving them. They allow us to decide future courses of action without extensive cost-benefit calculation, on time scales short enough to be effective: to satisfice.

The authors place emotions within a scale of affect, based on their duration. Thus expressions and autonomic changes occur on a scale of seconds; self-reported emotions on a scale of minutes to hours; moods from hours to months; emotional disorders from weeks to years; and personality traits from years to a lifetime. There are also other distinctions, such as having intentionality (being about something).

They contrast two theories (or classes of theories) in a table, with aspects of emotions (references removed). The authors favor the right-hand column.

Componential theories

Theories of basic emotions

Underlying idea Emotions based on reflex-like components Emotions derive from genetically derived species-characteristic programs
Appraisal Based on features Based on goal-relevance
Significance evaluation Emotion concepts, including self-talk, are culturally variable Unfolding emotion episodes follow basic patterns
Action readiness Culturally variable Derived from evolutionarily based programs of readiness
Expression Expressions vary with social context and may not indicate emotions Facial expressions are fixed human universals and correspond to basic emotions
Physiological changes Low correlation with other aspects of emotion Coherence between expression, physiological, and experiential aspects

Chapters 5, 6, 7, 8 and 11 are about brain mechanisms, development, and pathology; I care less about these than ordinary functional issues.

Chapter 9 is about cognition. One of the differences between 19C and 20C ideas about emotion concern function. For 19C thinkers emotions were not purposeful. The authors cite Herbert Simon’s 1967 article Motivational and emotional controls of cognition as influential in the early days of cognitive science. They also quote him: “The proper study of mankind is design.” One of the design principles is that emotions set priorities among the many motivations or goals that might be active within a mind at any given time. Emotion affects what we attend to. Emotions can create interruptions of attention, or prevent interruptions from disrupting attention.

The authors spend 250 pages on preparatory material before presenting anything like a list of emotions. The list is in the following table (p. 256), apparently from a 1995 paper by Oatley with Johnson-Laird.

Emotion (mode)

Eliciting event or object of emotion

Actions to which transition occurs

Emotions that can occasionally be free-floating

Happiness Subgoals being achieved Continue with plan, modifying it if necessary; cooperate; show affection
Sadness Failure of major plan or loss of active goal Do nothing; search for new plan; seek help
Anger Active plan frustrated Try harder; aggress
Fear Self-preservation goal threatened or goal conflict Stop current plan; attend vigilantly to environment; freeze and/or escape

Emotions that always have an object

Attachment love Caregiver Keep contact; talk
Caregiving love Offspring Nurture; help; support
Sexual love Sexual partner Engage in courtship; sexual activity
Disgust Contamination Reject substance; withdraw
Contempt Outgroup person Treat without consideration

I have a lot of objections to this presentation, but it is a start. They then give more detailed description of these 9 emotions, with experimental illustrations. The first four can (rarely, they say) occur without reference to a specific object, even in normal people. I would classify the free-floating variants as moods rather than emotions. I agree that these four (as emotions with referents) are basic. The next five feel arbitrary to me, incomplete, and therefore odd. I suspect I would develop a different list, based on different kinds of eliciting events and transitions; however, I think that attachment/caregiver love are important aspects of a single emotion that would be prominent in my own list. In any case, this list is an advance over a one-dimensional formulation, such as positive-negative or pleasant-unpleasant.

They describe the effects of moods and emotions on cognitive functioning, identifying three kinds of effects: on attention, on memory, and on thinking. They also make this somewhat inconsistent claim:

We can think of moods and emotions as having two kinds of effect on the individual. One that we have just discussed is immediate: the core of an emotion is a change in readiness, making available a repertoire of actions that have previously been useful in that circumstance. But emotions usually last for a while, and they sometimes extend into moods. As well as effects in changing readiness, emotions prompt the search for possible plans; by changing cognitive organization they help guide this search.

It seems to me they have failed to make a clear distinction between the nature and effects of moods and emotions, and here they are treating them interchangeably.

Regarding attention, they quote William James: “My experience is what I agree to attend to.” They add: “It is also what we attend to even when we do not consciously agree to it.” There might be some truth in this, though it isn’t clear with whom James is agreeing to attend. They all seem to accept the ‘Cartesian theater’ concept that Dennett derides. They assert that fear and anxiety narrow the attention to the thing feared. This seems rather obvious, but they belabor some experiments that support the notion. Mostly the rest of this chapter doesn’t provide much insight.

Chapter 10 is about emotions in social relationships. First they discuss attachment love and sexuality. A curious passage: “Jung has written a moving article about the psychological repercussions of withdrawing the fantasies on which being in love is based, and of the changing roles that occur as the life span is traversed.” Aside from the odd way of expressing it, this sentence piqued my curiosity. I have obtained the article and will report on it. They also discuss aggression-related material on anger, fear, and contempt. They also discuss the effects of angry episodes on adjustment of relationships, in marriages and in larger groups. The insight they offer is that “in Western society anger, like falling love, is a temporary social role: the role of aggressor enacted by the one who has been wronged.” This seems a bit glib, and leaves a lot unsaid. Regarding social structure, they discuss the idea that all societies are based on one of three ethical codes:

In much of the West the code is of autonomy and individual rights. Its emotion is anger at moral trespass, resulting in social readjustment as individuals seek to establish their rights against any who infringe them. Its social enactment is the law suit. Not far beneath this, barely concealed, is the morality of the dominance hierarchy, where individuals acquire and defend position and resources, while others tolerate the inequities that result.  A quite different kind of society is based on an ethics of divinity, on the idea of the self as a spiritual entity that has to be protected against contamination, from food and other pollutants. In such societies … the emotion at the center is disgust. Yet other kinds of societies are based on an ethics of duty, and for these … contempt is the emotion – or rather one of the twin emotions contempt and honor – that are at the center, as actions of the self as well as of other people are appraised and commented upon in terms of what is proper and what is improper.

There is food for thought in this, though I hardly think honor is an emotion. Certainly people for whom one of these is the basis of a world-view will have trouble communicating with others with a different basic view. They summarize the chapter:

Love and anger, related to affection and power, are twin emotional poles of human social life. Love can perhaps best be thought of as having several aspects; one is the ordinary happiness of human relating based on warmth and affection; others are attachment, caregiving, and erotic love. In evolutionary terms, all of these are essential to the cooperation between people in pairs, and among people in groups, on which the human adaptation depends. The emotions of conflict within a group are anger and fear. … Anger … is typically an emotion that occurs between people within a community… By contrast with anger, the emotions of contempt are those of rejection of someone or some group from society, and they amount to treating others as nonpeople.

Chapter 12 discusses psychotherapy (not interesting), consciousness and narrative. Regarding consciousness and emotion: “We human beings are born not just into the world, but into society. Each society includes traditions of skills and technology. It also includes individual people, to whom we become attached in friendship and other relations. And in every society, in every community, in every family, a history forms, with its characters, its traditions of custom and understanding about what we people are up to with each other. In such traditions, emotions and our understandings of them are the pivotal points.

They say of emotions and art that a consensus has emerged (in the West) that art is the expression of emotion by the artist, in various media. They quote Wordsworth from the beginning of the romantic era (1802): “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotions recollected in tranquility: the emotion is contemplated till by a species of reaction the tranquility disappears, and the emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.” This seems a remarkable insight. I don’t know if it’s true, but it has certainly been influential.

There is a lot of interesting material in this book, but I was also interested in what is not here. There is apparently no broad consensus on a set of basic moods and emotions, emotions with conscious cognitive content, or the interactions among various affective states and so-called rational thought. The manner in which emotions promote the development of plans or set priorities is vague. These issues are also addressed by Minksy in his new book The Emotion Machine, which I have seen in early draft. It is clear that he is also not ready to make definitive detailed statements on these issues.

There is a lot to think about.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email