What is emotion? Is it the same as feeling or mood? If not, what is the difference? Some people are called over-emotional and others seem to be unemotional and over-intellectual, but is it possible really to have no emotions at all? Virtually everything you think about or do is tinged with some degree of emotion, even if it is only very mild. To imagine a world without emotion and emotionality you have to turn to science fiction, worlds inhabited by robots or ‘zom-bies’.

People feel many different kinds of emotion, and they can divide them into positive and negative. Positive emotions, such as love, liking, joy and happiness, all imply a motivation for or towards some object or activity. For example, when you say ‘I like rowing’ you mean not only ‘I get a kick out of it’ but also ‘I want to do it’. Negative emotions, such as shame, hatred and sorrow, all have the opposite motivational meaning. Emotions such as anger, fear and anxiety are also to do with running away from, or towards, someone or something.

Some people try to divide emotions into simple (pri-mary) and complex (secondary). Fear and anger are simple, uncomplicated feelings, whereas pride, guilt and love are more complicated – being made up of a variety of simpler emotions. This is not a very satisfactory way of thinking about emotions, largely because there is no clear dividing line between what is re-garded as simple and what is complex.

Emotions and behaviour

None of this, however, helps us with our first question: what is emotion? Several researchers have tried to answer this question, and many experiments have been performed to test their theories. The simplest model suggets that emotions drive behaviour. This seems pretty straightforward: you feel angry so you hit; you feel frightened so you run. In other words, your perception of something causes an emotional reaction in you, which in turn leads to your action or behaviour. Even if this is so, sometimes you can think of occa- sions when you act first and experience emotion afterwards. For example, if you are driving a car which goes out of control, you may be icy calm before the crash. Then, when you get out of the car and find you are unharmed, you begin to think about what could have happened; you may begin to shake, you may feel faint and have to sit down. In this case the emotion seems to come after the behaviour. The American psychologist William James (1842-1910) and the Danish physiologist Carl Georg Lange (1834-1900) put this forward as a (now abondoned) theory of emotion in which the person is an observer of his or her own behaviour and feels emotion according to the way he or she is behaving at the time. Rather than hitting because you feel angry, according to James and Lange you hit first and feel angry as a result of hitting. That is, you perceive something, act out your reaction to it, perceive your action and then experience a corresponding emotion. Why, however, should your emotions depend only upon your perception of yourself? Why not also take into account what is going on around you? If you did not run from danger you would probably still feel afraid. You would know you were afraid, because you would feel your heart rate increasing, your palms would be sweaty – and your knees would shake. These physiological effects of emotion are part of what is called the ‘fight or flight’ mechanism. They are caused by the release of adrenalin by the adrenal glands situated in the abdomen, just above the kidneys. It is called ‘fight of flight’ because adrenalin, which is closely involved with the activation of the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system, prepares the body for emergency action. Tension increases in the muscles, the hairs on the skin become erect, causing ‘goose pimples’, the nervous system becomes highly activated which enables faster processing of information about threatening situations, and there is the urge to move – to run away or to approach the threat aggressively.

How do these physiological effects fit in with your experience of emotions? In a famous experiment, performed in 1962, two American psychologists, Stc/iiley Schachter and J.E. Singer, tried to separate the effects of adrenalin and the effects of events going on around the person at the time. The subjects were told that the purpose of the study was to investigate the effects of a new vitamin product on vision. They were given an injection of either adrenalin or saline, but not told which, and sent to a waiting room to wait for the drug to take effect. The subjects that received adrenalin were divided into three groups. One group was informed correctly about the physiological reactions to be expected. A second group was not told of any possible symptoms, and a third group was misinformed about the type of symptoms they could expect. Schachter expected that the subjects in the latter two groups would be most susceptible to environmental conditions because they would be looking for a label to explain their state of physiological arousal. The environmental conditions were manipulated by several other ‘subjects’ in the waiting room – who in reality were working with the experimenters – and had been told to act either happy, nervous or angry. At the end of this period, the real subjects were asked to rate their own feelings. The intensity of their feelings was dependent on whether or not they had received adrenalin because receipt of the drug made the sub-jets feel aroused. However, the quality of the emotion, whether they reported feeling nervous, happy or angry, depended on the way the others in the waiting room had behaved.

This suggests another model of emotion in which the nature of our emotion – for example happiness, anger or fear – depends on what is happening around us, and we know how much emotion we feel by our physical symptoms – for example,.butterflies in the stomach or sweating.

Communicating emotion

One important feature of emotion is that you can convey your feelings to others. This is not unusual. You also convey your thoughts by speaking; but unlike thoughts or ideas emotions are conveyed as much by non-verbal as by verbal means – perhaps even more so. Think about facial expression. Your face is designed to convey emotion and you are most attentive to those facial features in others that are most expressive: the turn of the lips, the narrowing of the eyes, the furrowing of the brow. You take little notice of people’s ears because they do not convey emotion.

Evidence suggests that the basic ways of expressing emotion are innate: children throughout the world laugh when happy and cry when hurt or sad. Studies of children who were blind from birth indicate that many of the facial expressions, postures, and gestures that we associate with different emotions develop with increasing maturity. They appear at the appropiate age even when there is no opportunity to observe them in others.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) was very interested in this . Thus according to Darwin, many of the ways in which we express emotion are inherited patterns that originally had some survival value. For example, the human expression of disgust is similar that of chimpanzees, a pouting of the lips and protrusion of the tongue. Darwin thought this probably evolved from the action of expelling something from the mouth, something that tasted disgusting. Likewise baring the teeth in a snarl expresses anger, a readiness to bite. Evolution cannot explain all of our emotional expressions, because some depend on the culture in which we are raised. The Chinese, for example, have an emphasis on rather different features during emotional expression. Thus a sign of surprise involves sticking out the tongue; clapping the hands expresses worry or disappointment – not something that would go down well in a Western concert hall! The Japanese also express emotions differently. Smiling is much more often a sign of nervousness or insecurity than it is in the West.

Of all the emotions, anxiety has the best claim to being a ‘basic’ or physiological reaction. As already described, anxiety is quite a normal response to threat. However, it may occur at inappropriate times, for example when no real threat is present. We can think of anxiety as having three aspects: . feeling: this is the emotion of anxiety itself, . thinking: if you are anxious, even if there is no threat, you may have a dread of something vague, you may want to run, or in some cases you may think you are about to collapse or die; this is made worse by some of the physical symptoms of anxiety, . physical: a) over-breathing or hyperventilation (getting ready to run); this can lead to other symptoms such as feeling faint, and tingling or numbness in the hands and feet, b) butterflies in the stomach, sometimes with diarrhoea, c) sweating of the palms and face, d) racing pulse, perhaps with palpitations, e) tension in the muscles, sometimes with twitching; chronically tense people sometimes get headaches because of tension in the muscles of the forehead or back of the neck; others feel the tension in the limbs (and may think they have arthritis), or in the chest, like a heart attack.

Level of anxiety

In modern life a tendency to be overanxious can be quite a handicap, but without any anxiety at all you would not survive. The anxiety response alerts you to threat, for instance when you approach a busy road. A lack of anxiety would lead you to be over-confident and reckless but appropriate anxiety makes you take the right amount of care.

What about mental activity? How does anxiety affect your performance in an exam or an interview for example? With simple, well learned tasks, such as playing some video games, your performance improves as your level of anxiety goes up, even when it increases to quite high levels. With more complicated tasks that depend upon the integration of several thought processes, such as taking an examination, your optimum level of anxiety is lower. Your performance improves up to a certain point as anxiety increases, but begins to fall off as you become more anxious. Individuals differ greatly in the extent to which emotional arousal disrupts the efficiency of their performance. Observations have been made of people during crises, such as fires or sudden floods. These have suggested that only about 15 per cent of people show organized, effective behaviour. The majority of people, about 70 per cent, show various degrees of organization, but are still able to function with some effectiveness. The remaining 15 percent become so disorganized that they are totally unable to function, and may exhibit all manner of inappropriate behaviours. When sufficiently intense, emotions are likely to seriously impair the processes that control organized behaviour.


A person eats breakfast, rides a bicycle, talks, blushes, laughs and cries. All these are forms of behaviour. It is a complex subject, because the result of our behaviour is a reflection of a myriad of thoughts, emotions and feelings to the world as a whole.

The way in which we behave is dependent upon our present circumstances, our past experiences and our anticipations for the future. Thus a young baby may cry for food because it is hungry and has learnt from past experience that such behaviour may result in being fed. At this early stage in life our behavioural repertoire is quite small, consisting of only those behaviours necessary for survival and in provoking others to take care of us. As we grow older, however, the quantity and complexity of the range of actions available to us grows and expands. Behaviour is generally learned through experience, imitation, socialization and, particularly, by teaching the need to preserve and pass on information from one generation to the next. But is all behaviour learned? For many animals essential behavioural patterns are innate. For example, newly hatched ducklings possess an innate mechanism which ensures that they follow and remain close to the first moving object they see, which is normally the mother. Such innate or instinctive actions hold very strong survival value and are as relevant to humans as they are to animals.

Early theorists such as Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) believed that nearly all behaviour was attributable to such powerful innate forces which were in turn energized by two basic forces. These were the life instincts which find expression in sexual behaviour, and the death instincts which underlie aggressive acts. These instincts with their unconscious, powerful motivational forces could account for most exhibited behaviour. However, many cannot accept such a view of human behaviour since it implies that as individuals we have little free will in determining our course of actions, and that the way in which we behave is predetermined by heredity, rather than developed in reaction to our environment.


Social influences are the most pervasive of the many influences on behaviour. Socialization is a process by which we learn to behave properly – how we influence, are influenced by, and relate to others. This is the most significant determining factor and predictor of behaviour, and the majority of our learning is linked inseparably to this process of socialization. Not surprisingly, the main influence on people is people. From birth onwards we are subject to pressures which aim to make us behave in a particular way. The newborn baby soon learns that there are things it can and cannot do. Each family has its own rules which it teaches and enforces. Thus a young child is told by parents not to run across a busy road and depending upon the relationship with the parents will behave accordingly. The child will also learn to behave in a particular way by watching and imitating his or her parents’ behaviour. In this way we can be encouraged or discouraged through praise or punishment in association with general guidance. As we grow older we become subject to a greater sphere of social influences – friends, teachers, relatives, strangers – which all contribute to the development of a vast, complex network of behaviours which we carry throughout our adult life. On many occasions our actions may be conflicting, and what is appropiate in one situation may not be so in another -behaviour at adolescent mealtimes with friends may contrast strongly with that expected at mealtimes in the parental home. As a result of such differences, the individual may experience internal conflicts with the outward expression of defiance, or ‘behaviour problems’. In general however, rules tend to follow a hierarchical pattern in which some are more influen-tial than others, and therefore have a dominant effect in instances where there may be conflict.

Presence of others

Associated with all aspects of socialization are the effects of the presence of other people on us as individuals. Our behaviour varies according to whether we like or dislike the people with whom we are associating. The physical presence of others can cause us to react in a way that might otherwise be very different. Individual performance and voluntary actions may be encouraged or inhibited by an audience. A tragic example of this is the famous case of the ‘innocent bystander’ in America in 1964 when a young girl, Kitty Genovese, was murdered near her home in the early hours of the morning. Because she resisted, the murder took over half an hour, during which time approximately forty people heard her screams for help. Yet no one either came to her rescue or called for the police.

Studies of similar situations have consistently shown that when others are present the situation tends to be defined as a nonemergency, and the responsibility to act is diffused to the point that no one feels the necessity to take action. If one person does intervene this person acts as a model for others who may then rush to help.

Group decision making

Another phenomenon present in group behaviour is that known as the ‘risky shift’. This rather alarming finding showed that decisions made through group discussions are more extreme than they would be if made by members of the group individually. The often dangerous implications of this can be seen in gang violence, football hooliganism and the behaviour of crowds at some political rallies.

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