5 Theories of emotion: the surprising and unknown

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We all feel and experience emotions every single day. From anger, confusion and sadness to joy, excitement and curiosity, they are all taking part in constructing us. Although they do not completely define us, how we experience, manage and respond to different emotions represents a huge chunk of who we are as humans. Some of us don’t even realize why we are feeling in a certain way when we are exposed to external stimuli. We may not be aware of it

That is why numerous scientists, psychologists and writers came up with many perspectives and theories on how and why we are affected by our feelings. Of course, we cannot “scan” the emotions in the brain and see exactly what a person is feeling, thinking or dreaming. These theories come as a result of psychological tests and research. The brain is extremely complex and we cannot “repair” or see it as clearly as other organs, like the heart, liver or intestines, for example. With that being said, dear reader, allow me briefly present to you a small part of these theories regarding feelings and emotions!

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A psychological theory of emotion

When we refer to a psychological type, we are addressing feelings as responses to various external or internal stimuli that result in emotion. James-Lange’s theory acts on this very basic statement: there is an external factor that you perceive or experience. That factor leads to a response, a psychological one and how that response affects what you feel. The shortened formula would be: stimulus => reaction/response => feeling.

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For example, let us say you heard a really funny joke and you laugh, thus you are feeling glad. You do not experience this emotion and then respond to the external stimulus. What you feel comes as a result and conclusion based on what the respective response is. It way less complcated than you might think it is.

Basically, you see/experience something, such as an aggressive, barking dog; then your psychological response would be a fast-racing/pounding heart, sweaty arms, even trembling; in the end you feel fear. Why? Because of those responses that you experience! This theory sees the psychological response as the key factor of human feelings. Without it there wouldn’t be any real or authentic feelings. Quite simple, isn’t it?

A cognitive theory of emotion

Although it may seem similar to the psychological type of theory, the cognitive approach revolves around thoughts. For example, the Schachter-Singer theory that after the psychological response, the individual thinks why they had that particular response. It’s more about thinking, instead of a subjective interpretation. You label the emotion based on cognitive results and you easily connect different emotions with different stimuli and vice versa.

Again, you have a psychological stimulus, you have a psychological response and a feeling/emotion. What differs this time is the fact that in between that psychological response and the respective feeling or emotion you have a cognitive interpretation and conclusion. This time the shortened formula would be: stimuli => reaction/response => interpretation/conclusion => feeling.

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For example, when you accomplish a very hard task, you smile, laugh, relax your muscles, your analysis will show happiness as the final emotion. How is that possible? It is quite simple. You react to that stimulus, to that accomplishment and then you realize that you are proud or happy or even grateful for what you realized and how you realized it, the help you received it, etc. Then that cognitive interpretation, that realization, results in what you actually feel, that emotion you experience.

However, if you have the same reaction when you are with your partner, you will identify the emotion as love. You see your loved one, you smile, laugh, relax your muscles and you realize that you feel safe around that person. You interpret these reactions as love, attraction, emotional stability within your relationship. And then you feel what is called love, or affection, attraction, relaxation or stability. As you can see, this theory of emotions is very similar to the previous one. However, certain aspects differ. You come up with a cognitive conclusion, one based on the psychological stimuli.

Lazarus’s theory of emotions

Lazarus’s theory of emotions seems to be very similar to the Schachter-Singer and the James-Lange theories. However, what it is different from these two theories is reflected in Lazarus way of analysis. Again, we have a psychological stimuli or arousal, something external that provokes us. But, next in line we have an “appraisal” or the progress of resulting or making an opinion on something or someone, the act of judgement in progress.

He also states there are two types of appraisal. We have a primary appraisal, the one dealing with the process of recognizing the event or allowing the consciousness or unconsciousness to give a significance to something, what it means for the individual that is experiencing the stimulus. The second type of appraisal is the secondary appraisal, the process that happens after the primary appraisal. This type deals with how a person can get over or cope with the aftermath of what happened to them.

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Lazarus tells us that the big difference between his and the Schachter-Singer theory is the fact the appraisal happens before the interpretation seen in the previous theory and provokes the response or reaction and what we feel at the same time. A shortened “formula” for this would be: stimuli => appraisal => response/reaction AND feeling. The interpretation is kind of “excluded” from the “formula” because, as Lazarus argues, this process has the possibility of being either conscious or unconscious.

For example, if you are lost in the woods, at night, without any food or water, you consciously or unconsciously realize what has happened to you. You realized you are alone, you have no idea where you are, you cannot see anything and you have no sources of food and water. After you realize this you start trembling, shaking, sweating, your heart is beating fast and you feel afraid. What happens after your realization does not occur in phases, but at the same time. This makes a little bit more sense, doesn’t it?

The evolutionary theory of emotions

This comes from Charles Darwin himself. He said that emotions helps not only humans, but other animals as well, to survive. They exist so we can adapt do various environments, allowing us a chance of survival. Our psychological responses and feelings are a result of an evolutionary tactic of remaining out of danger, avoiding perilous situations and finding the best mate to continue the reproduction of the species. It is all natural, normal, and part of who we are not only as humans, but as species as well. It is understandable, after all.

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For example, you feeling safe, loved, happy and aroused around your partner whenever you see, touch, engage in different activities with them or think about them is in fact an evolutionary trait. You unconsciously seek the best possible mate for your future offspring. The same goes when you are experiencing fear, if, for example, you are walking alone at night. This activates your fight or flee instinct in order to have your best chances of survival. You can sense this in almost every feeling you experience, whether you are feeling safe, in danger, in love, you hate someone, or when you are feeling afraid.

The Facial Feedback theory

As the last theory that we talked about in this short article, we have the facial feedback theory that has at its roots, you guessed it, the naturalish Charles Darwin again! And William James as well. This theory of emotions states the facial expression(s) that an individual makes is being directly correlated with and affected their emotions! Strong feelings or emotions result in strong facial expressions. Darwin argued that instead of being a consequence of a feeling, what psychologically changes inside an individual’s mind as a cause of that feeling, it has a direct impact on the feeling.

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Another curious fact about this theory is represented by a study conducted by Claudia van den Heuvel, Mariëlle Stel and Raymond C. Smeets that proved that people within the autism spectrum do not experience or show facial feedback when they are in direct touch with any kind of stimuli. The way in which our brains work is, indeed, very peculiar.

The conclusion

There are many theories that explain them, why, when and how the occur, yet things differ from individual to individual. I’ve briefly explained just a very small segment of them. There is no such thing as the perfect theory or definition of feelings so how or from what point of view you choose to identify and interpret your emotions is up to you. However, the most important aspect is the ability to identify, recognize, manage and link your emotions with the reasons why you are feeling them and what is the source behind what you feel!

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