Definition of emotion

Hundreds of philosophers and researchers have tried to create an exact definition of emotion. Unfortunately, the only common ground among a myriad of writers is the conclusion that emotion is not easy to define (Richins 1997).

 You can experience the problem of defining emotion yourself. What are your emotions when you see the next ad? It is not an easy task.

Candland (Candland et al. 1977) outlines the history of the definition of emotion:

In the third century BC, Aristotle considered emotion an experiencing and evaluating stimuli that weights experiences taking into account the potential for gain or pleasure. This definition represents the first signs of dualism, the belief that mind and body are two completely different entities. The consequence of this belief is that mind and body were studied like two isolated and even irreconcilable subjects.

For two thousand years the emotion concept did not change measurably. In the seventeenth century, Descartes thought that emotion mediated between a stimulus and a response, causing the response to be less rational than it would have been. Another important change that this philosopher was involved with was the transformation of the duality of mind-body to a soul-body relation (Strongman 1978).

Dictionaries in the 17th and 18th centuries described emotion in a direct meaning from the Latin derivation emovere (to move away from):

"1695: a moving out, a migration. 1735: causing a movement
1822: a physical moving, stirring or agitation" (Candland et al. 1977 p. 4).

Parallel to these developments, a definition related to mental states was also formed:

"1660: a vehement or excited mental state
1735: tending or able to excite emotion
1808: a mental feeling or affection
1847: connected with the feelings or passions" (Candland et al 1977 p. 4).

Since the advent of the scientific method the research of emotion has branched in distinct fields. These are as diverse as psychology, phenomenology, behaviorism, neurological science among others (Strongman 1978).

(The web page In Search of Emotion explains the evolution of emotion research)

The indiscriminate use of concepts like emotion, affect and mood by researchers in different areas has created confusion serious confusions. So as a first approach, this site will define emotion not as an independent concept, but as an idea explained by the differences with other conceptions (Holbrook and O´Shaughnessy 1984).


To separate the concepts of emotion and motivation some authors suggest that emotions are externally triggered, that is they are environmental, whereas motivations are internally fired up. Another difference is the active-passive factor. Motivations are action oriented and emotion are a series of reactions to surrounding situations.


The discrimination between emotion and affect is even less clear. One possible way to differentiate them is by the strength of an affective state. If the intensity is mild it is considered an affect, if this stimuli is intense then it is an emotion (Fell 1977).


Mood and emotion are two terms easily mixed up but Fell (1977) explains that the former has a longer span and is a general stimulus, in other words is difficult to determine the source of the mood. Meanwhile, emotion has a short term effect and is relatively easy to pinpoint the source of the affective state.


Therefore, emotions are responses to environmental stimuli that create an intense but short term affective state. It is important to realize that this definition is one of many possibilities. Some conceptualizations are broader or are even present opposite elements.

One broad and better definition is given by Kleinginna and Kleinginna (1981). They gathered, analyzed and classified 92 definitions and 9 skeptical statements about the concept of emotion concluding that there is little consistency among definitions and many are too vague. Therefore, the researchers suggested a comprehensive definition:

"Emotion is a complex set of interactions among subjective and objective factors, mediated by neural/hormonal systems, which can:

(a) give rise to affective experiences such as feelings of arousal, pleasure/displeasure;
(b) generate cognitive processes such as emotionally relevant perceptual effects, appraisals, labeling processes;
(c)activate widespread physiological adjustments to the arousing conditions; and
(d) lead to behavior that is often, but not always, expressive, goal directed, and adaptive" (Kleinginna and Kleinginna 1981 p. 355).

On this web site the definition of emotion will change considering the disciplines of the researchers and their objectives. However, no matter how far the study of emotion goes, is impossible to find one correct and unique definition. This is evident in the history of emotion.

Home | Definition of emotion | In search of emotion: A brief historical review | Emotion in advertising | Measurement of emotion | Advertising processing | Analysis of emotional effects | Emotional Appeals | Acknowledgement and references