According to the book “Discovering Psychology” by Don Hockenbury and Sandra E. Hockenbury, an emotion is a complex psychological state that involves three distinct components: a subjective experience, a physiological response, and a behavioral or expressive response.
In addition to trying to define what emotions are, researchers have also tried to identify and classify the different types of emotions. The descriptions and insights have changed over time:
a. In 1972, psychologist Paul Eckman suggested that there are six basic emotions that are universal throughout human cultures: fear, disgust, anger, surprise, happiness, and sadness.
b. In the 1980s, Robert Plutchik introduced another emotion classification system known as the “wheel of emotions.” This model demonstrated how different emotions can be combined or mixed together, much the way an artist mixes primary colors to create other colors.
c. In 1999, Eckman expanded his list to include a number of other basic emotions, including embarrassment, excitement, contempt, shame, pride, satisfaction, and amusement.
Plutchik proposed eight primary emotional dimensions: happiness vs. sadness, anger vs. fear, trust vs. disgust, and surprise vs. anticipation. These emotions can then be combined to create others (such as happiness + anticipation = excitement).
Key Elements of Emotions
In order to better understand what emotions are, let’s focus on their three key elements, known as the subjective experience, the physiological response, and the behavioral response.
The Subjective Experience
While experts believe that there are a number of basic universal emotions that are experienced by people all over the world regardless of background or culture, researchers also believe that experiencing emotion can be highly subjective. Consider anger, for example. Is all anger the same? Your own experience might range from mild annoyance to blinding rage. While we have broad labels for emotions such as “angry,” “sad,” or “happy,” your own experience of these emotions may be much more multi-dimensional, hence subjective. We also don’t always experience pure forms of each emotion. Mixed emotions over different events or situations in our lives are common. When faced with starting a new job, you might feel both excited and nervous. Getting married or having a child might be marked by a wide variety of emotions ranging from joy to anxiety. These emotions might occur simultaneously, or you might feel them one after another.
The Physiological Response
If you’ve ever felt your stomach lurch from anxiety or your heart palpate with fear, then you realize that emotions also cause strong physiological reactions. (Or, as in the Cannon-Bard theory of emotion, we feel emotions and experience physiological reactions simultaneously.) Many of the physiological responses you experience during an emotion, such as sweaty palms or a racing heartbeat, are regulated by the sympathetic nervous system, a branch of the autonomic nervous system.
The autonomic nervous system controls involuntary body responses, such as blood flow and digestion. The sympathetic nervous system is charged with controlling the body’s fight-or-flight reactions. When facing a threat, these responses automatically prepare your body to flee from danger or face the threat head-on. While early studies of the physiology of emotion tended to focus on these autonomic responses, more recent research has targeted the brain’s role in emotions. Brain scans have shown that the amygdala, part of the limbic system, plays an important role in emotion and fear in particular.
The amygdala itself is a tiny, almond-shaped structure that has been linked to motivational states such as hunger and thirst as well as memory and emotion. Researchers have used brain imaging to show that when people are shown threatening images, the amygdala becomes activated. Damage to the amygdala has also been shown to impair the fear response.
The Behavioral Response
The final component is perhaps one that you are most familiar with—the actual expression of emotion. We spend a significant amount of time interpreting the emotional expressions of the people around us. Our ability to accurately understand these expressions is tied to what psychologists call emotional intelligence, and these expressions play a major part in our overall body language.
Research suggests that many expressions are universal, such as a smile to indicate happiness or a frown to indicate sadness. Sociocultural norms also play a role in how we express and interpret emotions. In Japan, for example, people tend to mask displays of fear or disgust when an authority figure is present. Similarly, Western cultures like the United States are more likely to express negative emotions both alone and in the presence of others, while eastern cultures like Japan are more likely to do so while alone.
Emotions vs. Moods
In everyday language, people often use the terms “emotions” and “moods” interchangeably, but psychologists actually make distinctions between the two. How do they differ? An emotion is normally quite short-lived, but intense. Emotions are also likely to have a definite and identifiable cause.
For example, after disagreeing with a friend over politics, you might feel angry for a short period of time. A mood, on the other hand, is usually much milder than an emotion, but longer-lasting. In many cases, it can be difficult to identify the specific cause of a mood. For example, you might find yourself feeling gloomy for several days without any clear, identifiable reason.