Snow and ice are important to the Inuit people and their lexicon includes 93 words to describe them in their different guises. However, there are only a dozen basic words for snow and another ten for ice. The remaining words are modifications that provide additional meaning. A similar principle applies to emotions. They are important to us and the English language contains many words to describe our different emotional states. 271 of these are listed in the following publication by the University of California, Berkeley.
Fortunately, most psychologists believe there to be just a few basic emotions and regard the remainder as combinations of these. For example, it has been suggested that hate is a combination of fear, anger, and distrust. There is little agreement among psychologists on which emotions are basic and which are compound. In fact, there is little agreement on what is defined as an emotion and what is not. Opinions differ from author to author, but many regard anger, sadness, fear, disgust, joy, and surprise as basic emotions. So, these, together with one notable omission, love, are what I will discuss in the next article.
General Features of Emotions
Emotions have an external cause. As mentioned in the previous article, they are associated with satisfiers, or those external things that satisfy our needs, and contra-satisfiers, or those external things which cause harms we wish to avoid. Emotions attach to satisfiers or contra-satisfiers. These, in turn, attach to needs and contra-needs. For example, fear attaches to existential threats. Bearing in mind that most satisfiers and contra-satisfiers affect several needs or contra-needs, it is unsurprising that many emotions are also of a compound nature.
The emotions that we experience have an evolutionary basis. They help us to make decisions in the interest of our survival and the propagation of our genome. However, they evolved when we lived together in fewer numbers and in a more natural environment. Some of our emotional reactions are also inherited. This is particularly the case when a satisfier or contra-satisfier impacts on our more basic needs or contra-needs. For example, threats to life cause fear. Others associated with the satisfiers of our higher needs may well be learned, for example anger caused by an opposing political stance.The emotions that we experience have an evolutionary basis. They help us to make decisions in the interest of our survival and the propagation of our genome. However, they evolved when we lived together in fewer numbers and in a more natural environment. Some of our emotional reactions are inherited. This is particularly the case when a satisfier or contra-satisfier impacts on our more basic needs or contra-needs. For example, threats to life cause fear. Others associated with the satisfiers of our higher needs may well be learned, for example anger caused by an opposing political stance.
Involuntary facial displays can be associated with emotions, allowing others to recognise the latter and to act accordingly. In fact, some psychologists use facial display as a criterion for differentiating emotions from moods and feelings. The facial displays associated with our basic emotions are relatively easy to recognise. However, those associated with compound emotions are more difficult and it is easy to make mistakes.
People can, of course, give facial displays of emotion deliberately or in an unconscious attempt to mitigate a difficult situation.
The concept of emotional contagion has been recognised by researchers for well over a century. However, the work of Hatfield, Cacioppo, and Rapson in 1993, has been of particular value in providing an understanding. You can read more about their work here.
In summary, people express their emotions through facial expression, body language, posture, and behaviour. When interacting with others we often mimic these. If, for example, someone smiles at us we will smile back. Mimicry is normally an unconscious process that helps us relate to others. It is closely associated with empathy. However, by mimicking an emotion we also begin to feel it. A positive feedback process then occurs. The more strongly we feel the emotion the more genuinely we express it. The more genuinely we express it the more strongly we feel it, until it becomes fully a part of our experience. Positive feedback can also take place between the communicating individuals, leading to emotional convergence. Our expressions can be picked up by others nearby, and emotion can, therefore, spread throughout a group.
Emotional contagion can affect any group of people, for instance in family or social contexts, work environments, via TV, social media, email, and advertising. Most particularly, contagion can occur in crowds, such as political rallies.
Such externally acquired emotions do, of course, affect our decisions. Both positive and negative emotions can proliferate in this way. However, it is almost impossible for the emotion, love, to proliferate in a group because no easily recognised facial expression is associated with it. Furthermore, because contra-satisfiers elicit stronger and more rapid emotional responses than satisfiers, negative emotions can spread more readily than positive ones.
To add to the problems of negative emotional contagion, people in groups often delegate personal responsibility for their actions to the group or, if one exists, the group leader. This can free them from the constraints of personal conscience.
In the next article I will discuss our basic emotions in more detail.