What are Emotions for ?

Emotions are a very curious thing. Happiness, sadness, anger, depression but what possible use can they be?

Emotions are powerful social signals. ‘Emotion’ and ‘motivation’ have the same Latin root meaning ‘to move’

Evolution has left us with a set of highly adaptive programs all designed to solve specific survival problems. We all inherit macro and micro emotional programs 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 status, how to react to death. The automatic involuntary expression of many emotions is a key feature of the successful social life of our social species. We have a rich, decodable repertoire of emotional signals to facilitate social interaction. Emotions galvanize and activate many systems together that deal with the problem. We look below at some key aspects of emotions, what they are, how they help or hinder & how they can be recognized and measured.


Fear is one of the most obvious emotions that can have recognisable benefits.

Many fear being followed, ambushed or attacked at night This fear sets into process 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 in order to achieve safety.
  • Third, your information-gathering systems get focused into particular issues.
  • Fourth, some simple concepts emerge or change from easy and difficult to dangerous or safe.
  • Fifth, memories of past events like this situation 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 he for a flight-or-fight response which then leads to a series of behavioural decision rules. Thus the person might make a run or even attack.

Recognizing Emotions

Though disputed, many researchers have accepted that there are 6 fundamental and distinguishable emotions. These are:

  • happiness
  • sadness
  • surprise
  • anger
  • disgust
  • fear
unlike Star Trek’s Mr Spock, no matter how hard we try we can never fully conceal all our emotions

Charles Darwin, who was the first to write a scientific paper on non-verbal emotional expressions, argued that we can recognize distinctive facial expressions that correspond to the fundamental emotional states. They are part of our evolutionary background and are not learnt. Blind people express facial emotions much the same as sighted people. 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 eyebrows 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. The angry face has frowning with raised upper eyelid, dilated nostrils, open lips with lower teeth exposed, widened eyes.

To some extent emotions can be controlled and our internal emotional state can be hidden. However we do ‘leak’ and unlike Star Trek’s Mr Spock, no matter how hard we try we can never fully conceal all our inner emotions

Encoding and Decoding Emotions

It’s clear that people communicate emotionally: people show their emotions through facial expression, voice changes, body movement and posture. Physiological arousal initiates specific reactions that cause characteristic expressions. 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’) occurs.

Infants detect and respond to different emotions in their parents 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).

Just as we have been programmed, but also taught, to encode specific emotions, so we have learnt to decode them.

In various studies people were shown silent films, others films with sounds, while others just heard a sound track. Surprise and contempt were the most difficult emotions to recognize or decode while fear, anger and joy were the easiest.

non-verbal communication is more powerful than verbal communication

People use many cues to decode the emotions of others. There are conflicting cues such as someone with a smiling mouth but expressionless eyes. Indeed it is now recognised that non-verbal communication is much more powerful than verbal or vocal communication because it is more honest, and more difficult to fake.

Measuring Emotions

Psychologists tend to use 4 methods to measure most things in the area of emotions.

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 whom they are observing. The third method is to measure the persons behaviour while doing a task. The fourth and final measurement is physiological, including everything from blood and saliva samples, through heart and breathing monitoring to electrical signals in the brain.

However as you might expect, the first 3 methods are very subjective. For example 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, yet various physiological measures show very high levels of arousal. Another related problem is that there are different physiological markers of the different emotions. Physiological measures can be very crude and it is difficult to describe with any certainty what a person is or was feeling based on physiological data.

In a Nutshell then…

So to answer the original question …

Emotions are powerful social signals. Emotions send us quick, powerful, physical messages that allow us to respond to our environment. They also enable us to communicate voluntarily or involuntarily.

Author: Robert

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