Emotions are a partially controlled process

Emotions are a partially controlled process

Emotions are complex subjective experiences accompanied by cognitive, behavioral, expressive and physiological changes. They are intense but generally short-lived. They perform an adaptive function in that they predispose the individual to an immediate response to a solicitation from the environment.

Contents hide 1 Emotions depend on the assessments we make on reality 2 Peripheral theory of emotions by James and Lange 3 Central theory of emotions by Cannon 4 Arousal theory 5 Cognitive-activational theory by Schachter and Singer 5.1 The Schachter experiment 6 The Ekman’s evolutionary theory and primary emotions 6.1 Ekman and Friesen’s experiment 6.2 Primary emotions: tools and methods of investigation

Emotions depend on the assessments we make on reality

Emotion, therefore, presupposes a cognitive evaluation , a monitoring of the action, a regulation of the relationship between the individual and the environment, thus configuring itself as an integrated and partially controlled process .

Specifically, therefore, emotion has multiple components, each of which interacts with the others and is functional to a goal:

  • the cognitive component , through which the organism evaluates the stimuli.
  • The physiological component , which corresponds to the activation of the central, peripheral and endocrine nervous system.
  • The motivational component , in that the same emotions predispose the individual to act for the achievement of his own ends.
  • The expressive motor component , with which the organism expresses its emotions with the movement of the face and body.
  • The subjective component , related to the reading that the individual makes of his emotional experience.

Historically, different theories of emotions have followed one another, let’s analyze them together.

Peripheral theory of emotions of James and Lange

According to the peripheral theory of emotions of James and Lange (1884) the emotional sensations that the individual experiences are consequent to the physiological modifications. In practice, the emotional experience is consequent to the perception that the event causes on the peripheral nervous system. The name of the theory derives from the fact that it focuses on the peripheral nervous system rather than the central one.

For example: an individual is afraid because he runs away, we are happy because we laugh.
Perception of the event → Physiological modification → Emotional sensation

Central theory of Cannon’s emotions

According to Cannon’s central theory of emotions (1927), the brain is the center from which all emotions start. Cannon, through experiments on cats, discovers that the emotional response arises from the stimulation of some deep areas of the brain, namely the nuclei of the hypothalamus. In other words, the emotional sensation is initiated by a command that starts from the Central Nervous System which, while activating the consequent mental representation or emotional perception, also triggers a physiological response.

It is therefore central in nature and not secondary to the expressive-motor component.
Perception of the event → Activation of the hypothalamus → Emotional sensation and physiological response

Arousal theory

According to an EEG electroencephalogram detection, it has been seen that an emotion corresponds to a state of physiological activation, i.e. an increased bioelectric activity both at the level of the CNS and at the level of the SNP. The theory of arousal activation is based on this observation. According to this theory, a physiological state of excitement is always present in the organism, which is lower when we sleep and higher in a state of vigilance; the transition from a low level of activation to a state of alertness is called arousal, and corresponds to an emotional state.

In practice, emotion is nothing but the result of a physiological activation of the organism in front of a certain stimulus. So for Duffy the emotion is nothing but a “strong arousal”.
Perception of the event → Physiological arousal → Strong Arousal or Emotion (Duffy).

One of the theories that has deepened emotions through experiments and making tools to measure them is  cognitive-activational theory .

Cognitive-activational theory of Schachter and Singer

The cognitive-activational theory of Schachter and Singer, also called ” theory of the two factors “, introduces, unlike the previous ones, a psychological dimension in the study of emotions, and in particular connects emotions and thought . According to this theory, in fact, emotion is generated by two components: the physiological component, that is, the widespread activation of the organism and the psychological component, that is, the perception and interpretation of this state as a function of the event.

So the cognitive processes involved are two: the first has to do with assessing the situation , while the second establishes a link between the latter and physiological activation. The emotional sensation , therefore, is the consequence of the labeling or cognitive interpretation that the individual gives of his arousal in reference to the experience .

While in everyday situations this process is implicit and the individual experiences only the emotional sensation, in specific situations instead the perception of the physiological activation and the attribution of meaning to it are more aware (such as in taking drugs).

Schachter’s experiment

Schachter (1962) demonstrated and validated his theory through an experiment. After administering epinephrine to a sample of subjects, that is, a substance that increases blood pressure, heart rate and respiratory rate, he divided the sample into three groups:

  • The first group gave the correct explanation, namely that the excitatory state was due to the administration of the substance.
  • To the second group he gave an erroneous explanation.
  • He gave no explanation to the third group.

Subsequently, the subjects were conducted in different environments to compile self-assessment forms in the presence of an accomplice of the experimenter : in one environment he had a very euphoric attitude, while in the other an authoritarian, aggressive and frustrating attitude.

From this experiment Schachter noted that subjects who had not received explanations were influenced by the context to evaluate their physiological activation state:

  • Those who had not received or received inadequate information tended to take on the mood of the accomplice ( he complained in the situation that produced a state of anger and behaved frivolously in that euphoric ).
  • The informed subjects, who knew how to explain their physiological activation state, tended to imitate the accomplice to a lesser extent.

Therefore, physiological activation alone is not enough to experience an emotion, but the action of the thought of collecting clues from the context is also necessary to label the physiological experience and attribute a meaning to it . Subsequent studies, however, have only partially demonstrated these results, as it has been seen that the unexplained, or uninterpreted, arousal is not emotionally neutral however, but induces negative emotional responses such as anxiety and fear.

Ekman’s psychoevolutionist theory and primary emotions

According to the psychoevolutionist current, emotions are specific mechanisms of the autonomic nervous system and perform important adaptive functions. Already Darwin showed how emotions have a genetic basis. Ekman (1972) took up this theory and expanded it: referring to the innatist theses of facial expressions, according to which the individual emotions would be configured in categories regulated by precise neural programs of activation and expression, Ekman theorized the existence of some primary emotions or base .

Such emotions are fear, joy, sadness, anger, disgust and surprise . In addition, he theorized the existence of some mixed or complex emotions, deriving from the mixture of basic emotions, which have a slower appearance and derive from learning.

Ekman, specifically, defines emotions according to some empirical criteria:

  • The presence in other primates, which reveals the connection with other evolutionist theories and the universality of facial expressions.
  • Physiological characteristics.
  • The distinct and universal situational antecedents.
  • Consistency between the various aspects of the emotional response.
  • The rapidity of onset.
  • The short duration.
  • Automatic cognitive assessment.
  • The spontaneous occurrence.

Ekman and Friesen’s experiment

Ekman, together with Friesen, conducted an intercultural experiment (1972) which gave more support to his theory. The two examiners submitted six photographs to a sample of 21 subjects, each residing in a different country, to which one of the six primary emotions had to be assigned (joy, sadness, fear, anger, disgust, surprise).

From this experiment it turned out that all 21 subjects had equally associated joy, sadness and disgust, and that for the majority there was agreement also on the other emotions. However, Ekman himself argued that even if there are universal emotions, the way they regulate them assumes cultural conditioning; in particular, there would be different rules of display and inhibition of emotions between different cultures: for example, it showed how the Japanese, compared to the Americans, are less likely to show their negative emotions in public.

Primary emotions: tools and methods of investigation

As for the tools and methods of investigation of emotions, we can refer essentially to two main methods:

Method of the components: it consists in trying to identify in an analytical way the mimic components that contribute to determine a certain expression (for example muscle movements), in order to compare the different facial expressions of the same emotion and identify the mimic movements between emotions similar. Among the analytical methods , the most famous is the FACS (Facial Action Coding System), created by Ekman and Friesen (1978), which divides the face into 44 anatomical units of action.

Method of judgment or recognition : it consists in submitting to the evaluation of some “judges” (independent observers) an emotional expression, in order to obtain its interpretation and recognition and to verify whether the same expression is interpreted in the same way as observers belonging to different cultures.