Emotions are an essential part of people’s lives and yet their essence can be difficult to define. James Gross and Lisa Barrett examine several different perspectives which lead to very different definitions of emotions in a paper titled ‘Emotion Generation and Emotion Regulation: One of Two Depends on Your Point of View’ freely available here.
This is a quite tricky paper to get to grips with because it reviews a large number of models, a number of which are very complex and which are grouped into a few categories. In the introduction the authors argue that there are some fundamental differences in perspective on emotions resulting in several distinct definitions. This in turn has an impact on how emotions are investigated. These perspectives are characterised as follows
1. Emotions are biological phenomenon that are regulated
2. Emotions result from cognitive appraisal
3. Emotions are psychological constructs
4. Emotions are social constructs
Table 1 is quite helpful as it gives a detailed overview of these different models. I find it difficult to reject the 1st model as it seems fairly intuitive. Some of the emotions we experience are so quick that we don’t have time to think about them. They can also seem very real to us and have measurable effects on our bodies. The startle response is a good example. Within a second, you can move from a relaxed state to being startled by a loud noise that gets the heart racing before you’ve recovered. When I think of such experiences it is difficult for me to see how they can be a social construct. To me, the biological reality of emotions must be acknowledged at least for some of the emotions. From an evolutionary perspective this makes a lot of sense as we share mechanisms that allow us to survive in difficult circumstances. The fight or flight response is observed not just in people but in a large number of other species. However there are more complex emotions – awe for instance – which have more reflective associations.
That emotions result from a cognitive appraisal seems to me to be a manifestation of the James-Lange Theory which starts with the premise that there is a psychological experience and a physiological association. The emotions are embedded in the body and mind and the relationship between the two is integral to the emotion. Already we can see that the broad categories above might be too simplistic and that a mixture of the models may be more consistent with reality. However the authors have pointed out that the above categories really exist along a continuum and so a certain degree of flexibility is afforded. The cognitive appraisal model involves the attachment of a meaning label to the emotional experience.If emotions are psychological constructs, the authors argue that the emotion can result from the integration of diferent ‘mental states’. Thus for example the basic emotional experiences may combine with perceptual experiences to form an emotion. This model is appealing as it recognises the dynamic nature of the mind as well as the parallel experiences that form the stream of consciousness to which at any point we may assign a label.
Finally the social construction of emotions is for me the most intriguing and difficult to grapple with. If I understand this correctly we have an internal experience that is influenced by our surrounding culture. If we expect that an emotion has certain associations then we may be more likely to focus on those associations. Perhaps this is analogous to the placebo response in which a pharmacologically inactive compound has a physiological effect on the body which is consistent with the cultural associations of that compound in the form of a pill. As we live in a world of meaning and there are many mechanisms by which this meaning can be translated into physiological effects, this model doesn’t seem too far-fetched. Indeed on closer inspection it mirrors the complexity of our interactions with the world. If we imagine certain cultural icons we may experience associated emotions that result from our relationship with those icons.The authors then go onto constrast how emotions might be generated and regulated within those models. The exploration that results helps to accentuate the differences between the models and highlight some of the difficulties that follow.This paper offers a useful starting point for consideration of emotions and provides the reader with a number of different perspectives that characterise the complexity of this subject.
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