Source: Laura Weis, used with permission

Psychology is often conceived of as a biological, behavioural and cognitive science that looks at biological and social causes of thoughts and behaviour.  For a very long time the emotions were ignored or downplayed as being of less interest and importance than ideas (cognitions) or behaviour. We have Behavioural Science and Cognitive Neuro-Science but only (very) recently Emotion Science.

Emotions are powerful social signals. E-motion, and motivation have the same Latin root meaning “to move”.  Emotions send us quick, powerful, physical messages that allow us to respond to our environment.  They also enable us to communicate voluntarily or involuntarily.

Psychologists tend to define emotion by looking at its component parts.  Emotions are felt physiologically and behaviorally, often very expressively.  There is also a cognitive component associated with emotions.

Evolution has left us with a set of highly adaptive “programmes” all designed to solve specific survival problems.  We all inherit macro and micro emotional programmes that are the result of many encounters in the past.  We have had to learn who to trust, how to detect sexual infidelity, how to cope with failure and loss of states, how to react to the death of kin.  The automatic, involuntary expression of many emotions is a key feature of the successful social life of our social species.  We have a rich, detectable repertoire of emotional signals to facilitate social interaction.

The evolutionary psychologists believe we have developed a set number of emotional states and reactions that are extremely useful.  A particular condition or situation triggers an emotional programme or sub-programme that affects a person’s physiology and thinking.  Emotions galvanise and activate many systems together that deal with the problem.  So emotions serve first to detect evolutionary reliable cues, then trigger reactions that have proceed in the past to be good solutions to those problems.

A good example is fear:  the fear of being followed, ambushed or attacked at night.  This fear sets into problems and a whole set of circumstances or routines. 

First, you become highly attentive to particular visual or auditory cues.

Second, your priorities and goals change: hunger, pain, thirst are suppressed to achieve safety. 

Third, your information gathering systems get focused into particular issues.

Fourth,  some simple concepts emerge or change from easy-difficult to dangerous-safe. 

Fifth, memory for past events like this are triggered.

Sixth, there may be an attempt to communicate rather unusually like via a loud shout or cry; or indeed the opposite finding oneself paralysed by the fear and quite unable to utter a sound. 

Seventh, an inference or hypothesis testing system is evoked, meaning people try to work out what is happening and what will happen next.

Eighth, learning systems are activated and then ninth physiological systems.  This may be for a flight or fight response and then finally a serious of behavioural decision rules.  Thus the person might make or run or even attack.

The responses are adaptive but of course not always successful.  People are not aware or able to report on the triggering of these various programmes but certainly know the fear emotional state.  In this sense the function of the emotions is to mobilise whole systems that affect our goals and conceptual frameworks, motivational priorities, attention and perceptual and physiology.

Emotions tell us how other people are experiencing the situation.  They provide a continuous commentary on how others and ourselves see the meaning of things.

Clearly some emotions are automatically signalled.  Others are more complex and have no distinctive signals like guilt or jealousy. It seems that we need to send and receive information reliably and efficiently.  But is does depend on what information we are sending and to whom. 

We share emotional information more obviously, clearly and beneficially with friends and kin rather than enemies. People are more expressive and open with intimates and more reserved with strangers.  Also it depends on what information is communicated.  Thus evolutionary psychologists might expect sex differences in emotional expression.  Males should be better at anger, triumph and surrender but not as good with anxiety and pain.

Recognising emotions

Though disputed, many researchers have accepted that there are six fundamental and distinguishable emotions.  These are happiness, sadness, surprise, anger, disgust and fear.

Darwin, who was the first to write a scientific paper on non-verbal emotional expressions, argued that we can recognise distinctive facial expressions that correspond to the fundamental emotional states.  They are manifest emotions, part of our evolutionary background and not learnt.  Whilst much of non-verbal behaviour is shaped by cultural learning the expression of most-facial expressions are not.  Blind people express facial emotions much the same as sighted people.  Many expressions occur in all cultures.

The face has different highly expressive parts all of which can signal emotion.  The eyes can be wide or narrow, the pupils dilated or not, and the eye-brows raised or lowered.  The person may blink excessively or stare.  The mouth can be opened or remain shut; it can be turned up or down; the teeth and tongue can be seen or hidden.  The skin can be blushed or not, with or without signs of perspiration.  The nose can have flared nostrils.

Researchers have shown that one can describe the angry or happy or disgusted facial expressions that nearly all people will judge as that specific emotion.  The angry face has frowning with raised upper eye lid, dilated nostrils, open lips with lower teeth exposed, widened eyes, etc.

Facial and other non-verbal expressions act as ways of quickly and effectively communicating emotional states. However two caveats are worth considering.  The first as the issue of control and whether we can easily and accurately control our physical display of emotions.  Being surprised or shocked or attached leads to immediate and strong reactions by the autonomic nervous system.  We may get a typical fight or flight response accompanied by powerful physical reactions.

The question is what control we have over our emotions or expression of them.  Some appear more under our control than others. Thus we can supposedly relatively easily control our gestures and body movements through research has shown we often “leak” emotions by particular gestures and foot movements when stressed.  Equally most of us feel we have less control over our pupil dilation and heart rate.

The second issue concerns (conscious) awareness of emotions.  Sometimes both sender and receiver are fully aware as in the case of them blushing.  Equally, neither might be aware of small gaze shifts, eye brow movements or pupil dilation.  Experts are trained to be aware of particular non-verbal correlates of emotional states such as clamped or sealed smiles, yawning head movements.  Finally emotional message senders may be aware of their message but receivers unaware when they are trying to hid something.

Encoding and Decoding Emotions

People communicate emotionally.  Through facial expression, voice changes, body movement and posture people show their emotions.  Physiological arousal causes specific reactions that cause characteristic expression.  Thus fear leads to a restricted flow of blood to skin and muscles (and hence the white face) while for anger the opposite (the purple rage).

Infants detect and respond to different emotions in their caregiver from a very early age.  They show characteristic reactions to anger, disgust and fear.  Later they display characteristic and detectable emotional states: distress (crying, hand in mouth); anger (screaming, temper tantrums); frustration (scratching the body, teeth grinding, kneading the feet).

We encode information through tone of voice as well as gesture.  Hence we can often read or interpret the sounds and movements of apes and monkey, dogs and cats.

But as cultural and social psychologists have demonstrated we also learn correct, polite or acceptable ways to display emotions.  How and when we touch one another; hand and face gestures, eye gaze patterns, body posture and spatial behaviour (interpersonal distance).  Cultures develop rules and rituals about such things as greeting or showing status that may be highly specific to a particular culture.  Religious rituals are highly culture specific and designed to show a specific range of emotions.

Just as we have been programmed to, but also taught to, encode specific emotions so we have learnt to decode them.  Early studies showed people clearly expressing emotions like, joy, fear, surprise and anger.  Some were shown silent films, others films with sound, while others just heard a sound track.  Surprise and contempt were the most difficult emotions to recognise or decode while fear, anger and joy were the easiest.

People use many cues to decode the emotions of others.  This led psychologists to ask questions like which cue yields most information about which emotion and in which situation. Indeed it is assumed that non-verbal communication is much more powerful than verbal or vocal communication because it is more honest, read and unfaked.

Man Watching

Desmond Morris’s book The Naked Ape, published in 1967, was an evolutionary account of human behaviour.  His argument is that we are animals (a species of primates) and therefore a biological phenomena dominated by biological rules.  His technique was to observe Homo Sapiens as a zoologist trying to understand the meaning of behaviour of specific actions.

Actions are divided into various groups.  First, inborn or programmed actions.  Thus people stamp their feet when angry, bare their teeth when enraged and momentarily raise and lower eyebrows when greeting others.  There are cultural behaviours which have evolved to display emotions. There are also discovered actions (like folding arms) which we discover for ourselves; absorbed actions (adopting postures) which we unknowingly acquire from others and trained actions which are taught.

What caused so much interest was the close description of particular behaviours like eye gaze, self-touching or status display and explaining their meaning and function from an evolutionary perspective.  Thus considering submissive behaviours it is argued that when threatened with attack people have a few specific options: fight, flee, try to hide, call for help and try to appease the attacker.  Passive submissions in humans is much the same as animals: people cringe, crouch and bend; they grovel, whinge and try to protect the most vulnerable parts of the body.  The aim is to look small, act defeated, curl up with submissiveness.

Similarly sexual signals about courtship have identifiable behaviours and  specific pre-copulatory sequences that are borrowed from the intimate contact we had with our parents involving cuddling, kissing, stroking, etc.  These actions involve looking more with wider eyes and at more parts of the body; more smiling with the mouth more open, displaying more tongue, play, adopting more open body postures and moving more rapidly.

The idea is that zoological training in evolutionary theory and close observation can allow us to devise a field guide to human behaviour.  This explains what many of the everyday actions, gestures and signals we send and receive that have emotionally relevant content.

Measuring emotions

Psychologists tend to use four methods to measure most things in the area.  The first is self-report or what people say about themselves.  This can be done via interview or questionnaire.  The second is observation or what others say about a person they know or who they are observing.  The third method is to measure the person’s behaviour while doing a task.  The final related measurement is physiological including everything from blood, and saliva samples, through heart and breathing monitoring to electrical signals in the brain.

Thus ask somebody how they feel or felt:  to describe their emotions.  Or you could ask an observer or group how someone appeared when giving a speech.  You could also measure how fast or slowly a person spoke or moved in a particular situation compared to how they are “normally”.  Or you could measure a person’s heart rate, breathing or cortisol level soon after or during a particular episode.

The  problem for the researcher interested in this topic is which to use to measure emotion.  Part of the problem is that there is so little concordance or agreement between the various measures.  Thus a person may say they were very nervous but observers did not detect it.  Equally a person may report not being overly anxious during a performance get various physiological measures show very high levels of arousal.  Which then is telling the truth?  Which is most accurate or reliable.

Laura Weis, used with permission
Source: Laura Weis, used with permission

Another related problem is that there are different physiological markers of the different emotions.  More problematic still, people may experience more than one emotion (anger, surprise) at very much the same time or shortly after one another.

Physiological measures can be very crude and it is difficult to describe within any certainty what a person is, or was feeling, based on physiological data.

About the Author

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D.

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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