In search of emotion: A brief historical review

The human understanding of what is an emotion is a long and complex story. In this web page, it will be presented only an outline of this history. If you are drawn into this subject you may examine Candland et al. (1977), Strongman (1978) and Leventhal and Tomarken (1986).

Early developments

The thinkers of the last two thousand years were inspired first by Aristotle and much later by Descartes. These philosophers have in common that they used the functioning of the body as a major explanatory principle of emotion. Another commonality is the relevance granted to the mind or as Descartes named it, the soul. Also, both authors suggested that the mind and the body are two completely different and autonomous elements of a human being. This dualistic approach affirms that emotion is a mediator between an environmental stimulus and a response, deviating behavior from a purely rational reaction (Strongman 1978).

The past 100 years

In this last century, theories of emotion has developed rapidly in different areas of human knowledge. Biological, behavioral and cognitive approaches are the most common mentioned disciplines in the study of emotion. Every one of these fields work at different pace and with distinct methodologies creating a wide array of concepts, interpretations and theories. Nevertheless, just in the last thirty years a general approach has been tried (Hunt 1993).


This approach stretches out from the study of the bodily expression to the new research of the neuronal system. The most relevant theories were created by W . James, W. Cannon and recently, by D. Bindra (Strongman 1978).

The numbers inside the parenthesis are the publication dates of the most important works of the researchers included in this review.

James (1884)

One of the most famous theory of emotion was created by William James. His theory emphasizes the peripheral components of an emotion. More specifically, he believed that "bodily changes follow directly the perception of the exciting fact, and that our feeling of the same changes as they occur is the emotion" (James 1890 p. 449).

For example, if a swimmer sees a shark near his surfing table, the cerebral cortex sends orders to the viscera and skeletal muscles. The orders might be something like contract the stomach, make a gesture that can be labeled as fear and try to fit all your body in the surfing table. As a result of these body changes the surfer feels fear.

The basic implication of James´ theory is that the feeling aspect of emotion, provoked by the activity of the cerebral cortex. is a response to a change of the body's organs and muscles. This feeling is the emotion itself (Candland 1977).

Cannon (1915)

A critic of James' theory was W.B. Cannon. He argued that emotions are created by the following process: An environmental stimuli activates receptors which send impulses to the cortex. The cortex stimulates thalamic processes and finally, these processes act in specific patterns that correspond to particular emotional expressions manifested by the excitement of certain muscles and viscera (Strongman 1978). Simply put, the feeling of emotion arises when the thalamus is aroused by an element of the environment.

Bindra (1969)

More recently, Bindra suggested a model that integrates emotional and motivational feelings. This approach is called central motive state (CMS). The CMS is the outcome of the joint perception of environmental and physiological action on a common set of neurons. The firing of the neurons, mediated by the CMS creates autonomic discharge, postural adjustments and environmentally organized motor output (Strongman 1978).

The CMS is not a drive state that is autonomous of external conditions, thus it is alterable by experience, but also contains inherited components (Candland et al. 1977). This is an important aspect of Bindra's model because it means that the CMS can be classically conditioned. In other words, an organism can be trained to react in a certain manner to a stimuli via the conditioning of the central motive state.


Behavioral theories suppose that emotion is subject to the nature of a reinforcing stimuli and to classical conditioning. This approach was not interested by cognitive functions, an important flaw. However, authors like Watson, Harlow and Millenson are interesting because they studied the salient nature of emotion and created the appropriate instruments for its measurement (Hunt 1993).

Watson (1929)

J.B. Watson was the first researcher to use a behaviorist perspective. Watson believed that "An emotion is an hereditary pattern-reaction involving profound changes of the bodily mechanism as a whole, but particularly of the visceral and glandular systems" (Watson 1929 p. 225).

The pattern-reactions can be differentiated among three fundamental types: fear, rage and love. Each of these patterns of reactions is built in and visible from birth (Strongman 1978).

Millenson (1967)

The author presents a tri-dimensional system that encompasses all the emotions, simple and complex. The latter ones are a composite of the basic dimensions. Each dimension represents variations in emotional intensity.

Dimension 1: Terror, anxiety or apprehension. These emotions sometimes suppress and sometimes facilitate operant behavior.

Dimension 2: Elation or pleasure. It enhances operant behavior.

Dimension 3: Anger. It facilitates some operant behavior and directs to a greater possibility of attack and destruction.

These dimensions are responses to observable changes in the environmental conditions (Strongman 1978).


Schaster (1962)

Schaster suggests that an emotion is the output of an interplay between physiological arousal (increased activity of the sympathetic nervous system) and cognitions of the cause of that arousal. In Schaster's theory arousal is considered emotionally non-specific. This means that it determines only the intensity of the emotion. Meanwhile, cognitions determine their quality (Leventhal and Tomarken 1986). In other words, emotions are regulated by way of a close interaction between physiological excitement and cognitive evaluation.

Arnold (1970)

The synthetic quality of Arnold's theory makes it one of the major explanations of emotion. This theory is considered comprehensive because it is cognitive in the sense that the organism actively appraises and acts and at the same time it is phenomenological because it emphasizes the addition of evaluation to the interpretation of sensations. However, the explanatory power resides on physiology, more specifically, neural substrates (Candland 1977).

The cognitive element is interesting. Arnold suggests that people almost involuntary evaluate any environmental element. These appraisals are based on past experiences even when people evaluate new situations. This interaction between situation and evaluative memories create imagination activity. Namely, a person imagines what will happen in terms of the good or bad nature of the situation (Strongman 1978).

Lazarus (1991)

Lazarus' model explains emotional responses as an outcome of internal and situational appraisal processes. The three possible outcomes of these processes may be: biological urges to act, subjective affect, and physiological responses. Emotions, at the same time, induce coping activities. Lazarus believe that there are two basic coping responses when negative appraises are present. One possible response is problem-focused coping, a set of efforts that try to overcome or reduce the effect of an undesirable situation. The other response is the emotion-focused coping that refers to cognitive strategies that try to master, reduce, or tolerate an undesirable situation (Bagozzi and Moore 1994).

Grand approach

Plutchik (1970)

Plutchik regards his theory an integrative framework because his model views emotions from a broad biological and evolutionary point of view without forgetting the importance of cognitive processes (Plutchik 1977).

A major aspect of the theory is that all emotions can be classified in eight basic emotions or their combinations. These emotions are multidimensional. The dimensions are intensity, (fear is not as intense as terror), similarity (loathing and grief are more similar than loathing and amazement), and polarity (grief is the opposite of ecstasy). The Plutchik's solid represents the dimensions and the eight basic emotions (Strongman 1978).

Izard (1972)

Izard's discussion of emotion is considered the most comprehensive theory of the 1970´s. This theory states that there are nine innate and unique emotions, which produce the main human motivational system. The emotions are: interest, enjoyment, surprise, distress, disgust, anger, shame, fear, and contempt. All of them are discrete because of the facial and physical activities that follow these emotions.

In Izard's perspective, emotion is activated by three person-environment interactions and five intra-individual processes.

Person-environment interactions:

(a) Obtained perception;
(b) demanded perception;
(c) spontaneous perception.

Intra-individual processes:

(a) Memory. It can be obtained, demanded or spontaneous;
(b) imagination;
(c) proprioception of facial-postural or other motor activity;
(d) endocrine and other autonomic activity;
(e) Spontaneous activity of the neuromuscular systems.

When an emotion is activated the consequent phases involve a complex interaction between perception, efferent neural transmission, brain-stem reticular arousal system, hypothalamus, facial-postural patters, feedback, limbic cortex, endocrines and viscera, cardiovascular and respiratory systems, subjective experience, and emotion-cognition-motor interaction (Strongman 1978).

After this brief review of emotion theories, it is easy to see that the common factor between the different perspectives is the belief that emotion is a system which affects and is affected by other systems. Also, emotions are conceptualized as different levels of intensity. Another common topic among the different types of research, especially on the more recent theories, is the most promising area, the interaction of arousal and cognition.

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