Emotion and Affect Research Paper

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Emotions are central to one’s personal and social life, and they have been an important topic in psychology throughout history. The terms mood and emotion are often used interchangeably to refer to certain aspects of affect. But while there are similarities, mood and emotion are fundamentally different. For example, emotions appear to have a particular cause and are short-lived. They are psychological experiences that involve the interplay of cognitive, physiological, and expressive behavior. In contrast, psychologists define affect as an individual’s externally displayed mood. Typically people feel some level of positive affect and some level of negative affect in their daily life.

Categories and Types of Emotion

Although psychologists and philosophers have discussed emotions for years, debates continue about what constitutes an emotion and how different emotional experiences should be classified. In 1990 Andrew Otrony and Terence Turner summarized a list of the basic emotions that had been compiled by a wide variety of researchers. In general nearly everybody who postulates basic emotions includes anger, happiness, sadness, and fear. In addition there are two main approaches in proposing basic emotions. The biological view suggests that emotions can be understood in terms of their evolutionary origin and significance and that this knowledge can contribute to understanding the function of emotions. The psychological view suggests that there might be some small, basic set of emotions on which all others are built. Basic emotion classification has been useful in explaining how emotions evolve and exist in all cultures.

Another way to classify emotions involves whether they are discrete categories or continuous dimensions. Categorical models focus on a number of discrete emotions (e.g., basic emotions). In contrast, dimensional models typically focus on varying levels of self-reported feelings on a particular dimension varying from positive to negative. Categorical and dimensional models are often discussed separately, but they are not necessarily incompatible. For example, the discrete emotion of happiness corresponds with high activation and pleasantness (positive valence), whereas the discrete emotion of sadness corresponds to low activation and low pleasantness (negative valence). Researchers can employ both models of categorizations, or they can advantage one over the other.

Theories on Emotion and Affect

Historically the James-Lange theory was independently proposed by William James and Carl Lange in the 1880s. Together they argued that emotion is the perception of physiological changes in the body. For example, a person experiences fear because he or she perceives physiological changes, such as an increase in heart rate and breathing, muscle tension, and sweat gland activity. In 1927 Walter Cannon and Philip Bard criticized this theory, suggesting that an individual experiences an emotional event first, after which more information is collected through one’s senses. This additional information is sent through the nervous system to the brain, where a message is sent to the cortex, thereby producing a specific emotion, and to the hypothalamus, which controls the body’s responses, such as crying or laughing.

In 1962 Stanley Schachter and Jerome Singer proposed that there were two factors that determine different emotions: the physical changes in a person’s body in response to an event or stimulus and the interpretation that the person gives to those changes. An important assumption in the Schachter-Singer view is that once an emotional feeling has been produced, that particular feeling can cause specific actions. There has also been considerable theoretical and empirical work attempting to identify specific cognitive dimensions that shape the emotional response. In 1990 Richard Lazarus and Craig Smith described a specific appraisal model detailing the specific cognitive evaluations that are associated with (and hypothesized to be causally antecedent to) the experience of a number of distinct emotions.

Although these and many other emotion theorists have postulated and tested their ideas, there are many aspects of emotion that are still untested and undiscovered. New advances in neuroscience will allow researchers to observe physiological characteristics that are more objective compared to cognitive appraisals. A number of noninvasive techniques have been developed to measure physiological responses, such as heart rate reactivity, skin conductance, and cortisol levels with greater accuracy. Researchers can also study an individual’s response to emotional stimuli and record the individual’s expression of emotion. Concurrent measures of physiological, cognitive, and expressive behaviors of emotion allow researchers to study emotions in a more complete and dynamic way.

Relations to Developmental Outcomes

The experience of emotions has significant psychological and physiological effects. How people interpret their experience motivates and guides their actions and specific behaviors. Emotions convey to others what the individual is feeling, and they may also help regulate social interactions. Several studies have demonstrated that children’s understanding of emotions, awareness of emotional states, and emotion regulation are associated with children’s socio-emotional competence and coping skills. Social competence in turn is associated with positive development in areas such as peer acceptance, school achievement, and emotional well-being. Nancy Eisenberg has suggested that sympathy (concern for others based on the apprehension of another’s state) and empathy (an emotional reaction elicited by and congruent with another’s state) stimulate the development of internalized moral principles reflecting concern for other people’s welfare. Indeed in a 1999 study Eisenberg and colleagues found a relation between sympathy and empathy and prosocial behavior.

Some research indicates that an inability to express and interpret emotions in socially appropriate ways may lead to maladaptive behaviors, such as aggression and social withdrawal. For example, even though anger can serve to regulate interpersonal behavior, it comes to be regulated in an interpersonal context through socialization. The individual has to learn when and how to express anger in culturally acceptable ways. Problems in emotion regulation and the expression of anger are implicated with failures in social interaction (see Lemerise and Dodge 1993), while difficulty in the regulation of anger is further reflected in psychopathology (see Dodge and Garber 1991). Thus the ability to modulate and express emotions is associated with a variety of maladaptive and adaptive developmental outcomes.


  1. Cannon, Walter B. 1927. The James-Lange Theory of Emotion: A Critical Examination and an Alternative Theory. American Journal of Psychology 39: 106–124.
  2. Dodge, Kenneth A., and Judy Garber. 1991. Domains of Emotion Regulation. In The Development of Emotion Regulation and Dysregulation, eds. Judy Garber and Kenneth A. Dodge, 3–11. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  3. Eisenberg, Nancy, Amanda Cumberland, and Tracy L. Spinard. 1998. Parental Socialization of Emotion. Psychological Inquiry 9 (4): 241–273.
  4. Eisenberg, Nancy, I. K. Guthrie, B. C. Murphy, et al. 1999. Consistency and Development of Prosocial Dispositions: A Longitudinal Study. Child Development 70 (6): 1360–1370.
  5. Ekman, Paul. 1999. Basic Emotions. In Handbook of Cognition and Emotion, ed. Tim Dalgleish and Mick J. Power, 45–60. Chichester, U.K.: Wiley.
  6. James, William. 1884. What Is an Emotion? Mind 9: 188–205.
  7. Lazarus, Richard S. 1966. Psychological Stress and the Coping Process. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  8. Lemerise, Elizabeth, and Kenneth A. Dodge. 1993. The Development of Anger and Hostile Interactions. In The Handbook of Emotions, eds. Michael Lewis and Jeannette M. Haviland, 537–544. New York: Guilford.
  9. Ortony, A., and T. J. Turner. 1990. What’s Basic about Basic Emotions? Psychological Review 97 (3): 315–331.
  10. Schachter, Stanley, and Jerome Singer. 1962. Cognitive, Social, and Physiological Determinants of Emotional State. Psychological Review 69: 379–399.
  11. Smith, Craig A., and Richard S. Lazarus. 1990. Emotion and Adaptation. In Handbook of Personality: Theory and Research, ed. Lawrence A. Pervin, 609–637. New York: Guilford.

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