What are emotions and what do they do?

Emotions are conceptualised as the output from a cognitive appraisal process, and provide impetus to act in ways appropriate to how we have appraised our current circumstances: 600 words.

Emotions have a bad reputation, presented variously as irrational, uncontrollable, or unfathomable. But they shouldn’t, and I’d like to repair that reputation in this post.

You may ask why it is necessary to feel anything at all; why for example, can we not just think and act, like the fictional Vulcans from the Star Trek TV series and films. To answer this I’ll first introduce a model taken from the mainstream psychological therapy, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), amended slightly to suit my current purposes.

The Cognitive Behavioural Model of Emotions

(In this model our appraisals are a ‘cognitive’ (thought) process, and emotions influence how we ‘behave’ (act), hence the name ‘Cognitive Behavioural Model’.)  

Starting at the top, we first find ourselves in a particular situation, or set of circumstances. We appraise this situation as good, bad or neutral in some way, and this appraisal creates a corresponding emotion, to which we respond with certain actions. By acting we create new circumstances, (or perhaps maintain the current circumstances), and so the cycle continues.

What causes emotions?

The way we appraise a situation, (we could also say assess, evaluate, or interpret), determines the emotion that we feel. So, if we evaluate a situation negatively, for example as threatening in some way, then we will experience a negative emotion, in particular anxiety (or fear). If on the other hand we think a situation holds plenty of promise for the future, then we will feel a positive emotion, in this case excitement. We might also view our circumstances as quite neutral, in which case we will not feel anything in particular.

The function of emotions

We can think of emotions as biochemical reactions in our body that create sensations, or ‘feelings’. We may or may not be consciously aware of the thought processes leading to our emotions, but regardless, our emotions create an impetus to respond, thereby translating our appraisals into actions.

Generally, negative emotions promote actions designed to avoid the situation that led to those emotions. For example, when we feel fear in response to a perceived threat we naturally take evasive action, such as escaping from, or avoiding the threat. Fear is one of the easier emotions to understand: Imagine you are absentmindedly crossing the road and hear a horn beep loudly; your fear stimulates an automatic startle reaction that helps you to quickly see the vehicle and get out of its way.

In contrast, positive emotions tend to stimulate actions which cause us to engage more with the situation which gave rise to those emotions. When excited, for example about an upcoming holiday, we think about it a lot, talk with our friends about it, and plan what we’re going to do so as to make the best of it (or indeed plan to be spontaneous, if that floats our boat more).

So, when our appraisals are sound, the consequent emotions promote actions intended to improve and prevent negative circumstances, or maintain and enhance positive circumstances, at least in the short term. If we have experienced an injustice then we become angry, which provides the impetus to fight this injustice. When we do the wrong thing, we may well feel guilty until we are able to make amends. And when we are satisfied that some danger has passed, our feeling of relief will permit us to lower our guard and relax.

The impetus to respond to emotions in a particular way may be difficult to resist, and we should have a good reason to try to do so. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t have a job if our emotions didn’t sometimes go a bit haywire, and I’ll discuss these circumstances in my next post.

Author: Edward

Edward is a clinical psychologist and keen hiker.

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