History Module: The Quest for a Theory of the Emotions

The nature of what we call the emotions has always been a subject of debate. Many explanations have been proposed for the process by which a particular stimulus produces a conscious emotion in an individual.

William James can be said to have really launched the debate in 1884 with the publication of his article "What Is an Emotion?" In this article, James asked whether we flee from a bear because we are afraid, or whether we are afraid because we are fleeing. For him, the first, most obvious explanation was not the right one. On the contrary, James asserted that we feel fear precisely because we experience this flight response.

James’s theory of the process leading to the emergence of an emotion was based on the observation that emotions are accompanied by various bodily phenomena such as a faster heartbeat, wet hands, and tense muscles. According to James, these bodily processes came first, and it was only when the brain became aware of them that the emotion corresponding to the bodily changes specific to a given situation arose.

Jamesís conception of the emotions was widely accepted until the 1920s, when the physiologist Walter Cannon began to question it. Cannon had observed that all bodily responses to situations that were important for survival were very similar, and that all of them were controlled by the autonomic nervous system. According to Cannon, since all emotions had this same signature in the autonomic nervous system, they did not require the brain to ďreadĒ anything through the body. In Cannonís view, the emotions were produced entirely in the brain.

Throughout the mid-20th century, when behaviourism dominated the field of psychology, very little effort was made to explain what causes the emotions. Like all other mental processes, emotions were regarded as concepts that were unnecessary for the scientific study of behaviour and should even be eliminated from it.

But things began to change in the early 1960s, when Stanley Schachter and Jerome Singer proposed a new solution to the debate between James and Cannon. Influenced by the emerging cognitive sciences, Schachter and Singer proposed that thoughts or cognition could bridge the apparent gap between the non-specificity of the feedback received from bodily responses and the specificity of the emotions felt. In Schachter and Singerís model, our thoughts, using information about the context in which we are experiencing an altered bodily state, assign it an emotional label, such as fear, love, anger, or joy. In other words, we experience an emotion when we use our cognitive abilities to attribute an explanation to ambiguous bodily signals.

At just about the same time as Schachter and Singer were developing their theory, Magda Arnold published an important book about the emotions, in which she introduced the concept of appraisal of a situation. According to Arnold, the brain must first appraise a situation and decide whether it is potentially beneficial or harmful to the organism. Next, the brain chooses an action consistent with its appraisal of the situation. Only then does the emotion emerge, from becoming aware of the approach or avoidance action.

Many other researchers, such as Richard Lazarus, subsequently showed that the way that a situation is interpreted strongly influences the emotion that is felt. Arnoldís concept of appraisal in fact became the cornerstone of the cognitive approach to the emotions, which tended to reduce the distinction between emotions and cognition. This approach prevailed until the 1980s.

But this distinction re-emerged as the result of an article by Robert Zajonc, who showed that emotions can be independent of cognition and can even exist prior to any cognitive activity. In his article, Zajonc reported experiments in which his subjects were exposed very briefly to new stimuli, such as Chinese ideograms. Zajonc than asked his subjects to choose the ideograms that they liked best from a set of several. The subjects almost always chose the ideograms to which they had been exposed previously, thus illustrating a positive emotion (preference). In these experiments, the pre-exposure was always subliminal, so that the subjects did not even have any conscious recollection of having seen the ideogram in question before.

These results thus clearly contradicted the then-widespread idea that we must consciously know what something is before we can determine whether we like it or not. Zajoncís research thus opened the way to studies on unconscious perception and to current research, which posits that we can have emotional reactions without being consciously aware of a stimulus.

Linked Module: A Historical Perspective On Emotion bodyís reactions.Linked Module: What to read to learn more about emotions.Linked Module: Emotion Research: A Multi-Disciplinary TourLinked Module: Emotion Seminar discussion themesLinked Module: How do you feel?


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