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4 Theories of Emotion from Cognitive Psychology

Updated on September 1, 2015
Thomas Swan profile image

Dr. Thomas Swan studied cognition and culture at Queen's University Belfast. His work explores theories of emotion, attention, and memory.

Facial expressions change as emotions are felt. There are other behavioral, chemical, and cognitive changes.
Facial expressions change as emotions are felt. There are other behavioral, chemical, and cognitive changes. | Source

The Elements of Emotion

The purpose of emotion is to encourage adaptive behavior in situations that are relevant to our survival or well-being. For example, pleasant emotions such as happiness and love accompany behavior that it is worth repeating. Unpleasant emotions such as fear and guilt teach us to avoid the situations that cause them. Thus, emotions serve as automated shortcuts for avoiding danger and promoting well-being. However, emotions can misfire when triggered by modern cultural creations. For example, some drugs can be both harmful and pleasurable.

Emotions prepare the body for action; such as escape from a vicious predator!
Emotions prepare the body for action; such as escape from a vicious predator! | Source

Emotional experiences usually involve the following processes, though the order is sometimes disputed:

  1. The senses must detect a stimulus that the brain deems to be worthy of producing an emotion. Our repertoire of emotion-causing stimuli includes evolved preferences (e.g. fear of snakes); acquired affinities and aversions (e.g. fear of wasps after being stung in childhood); and conscious goals and motivations (e.g. anger in a traffic jam). Sometimes, one's current emotional or expressive state can serve as the stimulus for another emotion.
  2. There is an appraisal of the stimulus. This means that questions are asked such as "does this help or prevent me from achieving my goals?" and "can I cope with this?". Negative answers to these questions will lead to the production of unpleasant emotions.
  3. An eruptive physiological response occurs. Chemicals such as dopamine and adrenalin are released to reinforce current behavior, or to prepare the body for preventative action. Fear prepares the body to run away by releasing epinephrine, opening sweat glands, and increasing heart rate.
  4. One's facial expression will change to tell other people how to behave. A look of anger tells others to stand clear. Other behavioral changes occur such as pushing out one's chest (anger), or slouching (shame).
  5. Cognitive capacities are altered from rest-state levels. For example, anxiety directs attention towards threatening stimuli and focuses the mind on negative memories.
  6. Finally, we engage in adaptive behavior such as comforting a loved one, fighting an enemy, or running away. The aforementioned cognitive, expressive, and physiological changes prepare us for undertaking this behavior.

There are three types of emotion-like phenomena. As we have seen, emotions are evaluative, transient, and stimulus-focused states. Moods are evaluative, prolonged, and unfocused states that are saturated with the signals of a particular emotion. An irritable mood may consist of a high incidence of anger signals, and a depressive mood may contain a number of anxiety signals. Lastly, there are `affective personality traits', such as hostility or trait anxiety, which describe a proneness for experiencing an emotion.

Theories of Emotion

For many centuries, psychologists have sought to understand where our emotions come from. Currently, there are four major theories of emotion that receive wide support in academic circles. The theories differ in whether they favor a social, evolutionary, dimensional, or cognitive explanation.

1. Ekman's Basic Emotions

Psychologist, Paul Ekman, claims we have six basic emotions; namely happiness, sadness, fear, anger, disgust, and surprise. Ekman's research showed that cultures from all over the world recognize and display these basic emotions via their facial expressions (see video). Ekman used his data to claim that emotions evolved as universal discrete states that do not require any form of cultural learning or social construction.

As we have seen, emotions have a clear evolutionary purpose. They can facilitate reproduction (love), reciprocate harm (anger) and kindness (gratitude), or help us to mend damaged relationships (guilt, shame). They can also motivate conformity with social norms (contempt) or promote one’s reputation as a conformer (moral outrage/righteousness).

This adaptive function appears to be compelling evidence for Ekman's theory. However, Jesse Prinz (PDF) claims that most of the emotions just described are not universal. Even anger (a basic emotion) appears to have no direct synonym in Malaysian and Inuit cultures. Rather than anger, Malaysians describe a violent frenzy “amok” or a sullen brooding “marah”. Indeed, anger is very risky in small communities because it can potentially lead to ostracism (and likely, death).

Furthermore, most emotions do not result in unique physiological changes. For example, anger and fear each coincide with an increased heart rate. This suggests that emotions readily overlap and intermingle, and are not discrete states.

2. Social Constructivism

Many sociologists and anthropologists contend that emotions are socially constructed by the cultures in which we live, and that we gradually train ourselves to experience relevant emotions in order to conform and succeed in our environment. For example, emulation or trial and error could allow someone to learn that becoming angry defuses certain situations. Social constructionists see Ekman's basic emotions as common responses to situations that occur in most cultures; and this is why they `appear' as if they've universally evolved.

However, there are a number of problems with the theory. Given that most emotions involve a physiological response, how does one train their body to release chemicals or speed up the heart? How do we learn cognitive biases that alter attention and memory? Additionally, emotions appear very early in development, narrowing the window in which we supposedly learn these adaptive skills.

One could easily conclude that social constructionists have a parochial focus on conscious behavior, while neglecting many other facets of the emotional experience. However, even though there is clearly an evolutionary repertoire of cues for triggering emotional reactions (e.g. snakes trigger fear), it is equally likely that cultural learning adds to this repertoire during development (some snakes are safe). Without this cultural recalibration of emotional triggers, we could never adapt to new or changing environments.

3. Emotional Dimension Theory

Some theorists claim emotions differ in terms of a few basic measures that they call dimensions. Typically, these dimensions are valence (positive/negative), arousal, and approach-avoidance. For example, fear would be loosely characterized by negativity, high arousal, and avoidance.

One of the many problems with this simplistic theory is the arbitrary and generalized choice of dimensions. There are at least eleven different, emotion-dependent, measures of arousal for the autonomic nervous system; and no sound way of ranking the importance of the different measures to construct an `arousal dimension'. Additionally, as unpleasant emotions generally cause us to avoid things, negativity and avoidance appear to be the same dimension. For example, even though anger can sometimes prompt a confrontation, the purpose is to force a quick resolution with the ultimate goal of avoiding the stimulus in future.

The theory also neglects many facets of the emotional experience. Dimensions are needed for cognitive effects on attention and memory, and also for social relevance. Indeed, some emotions (e.g. pride and embarrassment) are associated with bodily expressions that serve to communicate feelings to a group, whereas other emotions (e.g. fear and disgust) are associated with facial expressions for communication between individuals. Thus, proponents of dimension theory may continue to find new dimensions until their theory becomes redundant, or resembles one of the other theories.

An Appraisal of Stress

4. Cognitive Appraisal Theory

The most accommodating and best supported theory is probably cognitive appraisal. As seen earlier, appraisal is already accepted as an important part of the emotional experience, but it can also explain why certain emotions appear in some cultures and not others.

The originator of the theory, Richard S. Lazarus, argued that emotions are elicited by intuitive and automatic evaluations of significant stimuli within our environment. The first step, or `primary appraisal', is to evaluate the relevance of a stimulus for one’s well-being and goals. Secondary appraisal concerns one’s ability to respond or cope with the stimulus. Negative emotions result from goal-inhibitory stimuli, and/or low coping potential.

Numerous appraisals can be made around the themes of goal-relevance and coping, and the specific profile of confirmed appraisals determines the emotion felt. Subtle differences in appraisal profiles can explain the different varieties of each emotion, e.g. anger, irritation, frustration and rage. This allows for an extensive range of closely related emotions with many intermediaries and routes of transition.

Indeed, we continually `reappraise' situations as they change, casting emotion as a highly mutable or transitory experience. For example, reappraisal may concern one’s initial reaction to the situation (e.g. “am I over-reacting?”), leading to a feedback effect that can enhance, curtail or eliminate the emotion. Interestingly, moods may be fragmentary emotions in which the appraisal process is incomplete; leading to emotion-like feelings that endure until completion.

Cognitive appraisal theory benefits from being compatible with all of the above theories. Indeed, it is reasonable to suggest that basic emotions constitute common appraisal profiles that accompany commonly encountered classes of stimuli. Different cultures should appraise the same event differently, leading to different emotions, but the same appraisal profile should lead to the same emotion, regardless of culture. Certain appraisal profiles may be rare or absent in some cultures, meaning the corresponding emotion will also be rare or absent.

Inuit people rarely risk appraising a situation as warranting anger.
Inuit people rarely risk appraising a situation as warranting anger. | Source


Emotions constitute a sequential array of biological processes. While they are clearly an outcome of natural selection, psychologists often question how much of the emotional experience is determined by it. Four theories of emotion were proposed in an effort to end the debate. Of the four, cognitive appraisal theory is seen as the most elegant and accommodating. The theory claims that we evaluate a stimulus by determining its relevance to our survival, goals, and coping potential. These questions of relevance, and the emotions that result from particular sets of answers, appear to be ingrained in us by evolution. However, this doesn't give us universal `basic' emotions because different cultures will produce different answers to the same questions. This provides humanity with a way of adapting our emotions to new environments, and explains the small level of cultural variance in how emotions manifest around the world.

© 2013 Thomas Swan


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    • Thomas Swan profile imageAUTHOR

      Thomas Swan 

      5 years ago from New Zealand

      Thanks PsychGeek. I agree, it seems our understanding of emotion is getting left behind. Emotion needs to be understood and incorporated into cognitive theories better by psychologists. Your hub on a similar subject was also well written and informative, thank you.

    • PsychGeek profile image

      Fiona Guy 

      5 years ago from UK

      Hi Thomas. I really do think emotion is one of the most interesting aspects of psychology and one of the areas we understand the least due to its complexity. I really liked this article, well written, interesting and informative. Thank you for sharing!

    • Thomas Swan profile imageAUTHOR

      Thomas Swan 

      6 years ago from New Zealand

      Thanks apeksha and skellie for the nice comments! I'm glad this helped with the studies. There's quite a lot of interesting info on psychopaths in the literature on moral emotions, and I have a few theories of my own too.. though it's not in my immediate plans to write about.

    • skellie profile image


      6 years ago from Adelaide

      Hi Thomas. I love this article as I am currently studying Criminal Psychology. I learnt a lot, Thanks

    • apeksha profile image


      6 years ago from India.

      good writing. need to think.

    • Thomas Swan profile imageAUTHOR

      Thomas Swan 

      6 years ago from New Zealand

      Thanks Colleen. Much appreciated!

    • Thomas Swan profile imageAUTHOR

      Thomas Swan 

      6 years ago from New Zealand

      Thanks for commenting Beezkneez. I think we've only scratched the surface of how emotions affect our own behavior and beliefs, let alone the behavior of those around us. Psychology has focused on `cold cognitions' in recent decades, while largely ignoring the ways in which emotions can generate those cognitions.

    • Thomas Swan profile imageAUTHOR

      Thomas Swan 

      6 years ago from New Zealand

      Cheers Mark Johann! Yea, facial expressions are quite an effective means of non-verbal communication. Though they're only worth controlling if you don't want to share your emotions... such as during a poker game!

    • Colleen Swan profile image

      Colleen Swan 

      6 years ago from County Durham

      An excellent thought provoking article; articulate and well presented. I question myself.

    • BEEZKNEEZ profile image


      6 years ago

      It really is amazing just how much our emotions positively or negatively affect others.

    • Mark Johann profile image

      Mark Johann 

      6 years ago from New Zealand

      Now, I learn that I should control my face so as not to change the behavior of the people around me. Good work for this hub!


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