Emotion: An introductory picture
Emotion: An introductory picture

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Emotion: An introductory picture

2.4 Components, causes and effects

In this section, I shall say a little more about the shape that we might expect an answer to the ‘What is…?’ question to take. In particular, I would like consider some different claims about the way in which an emotional occurrence is related to other types of occurrence.

Here is a story.

Larry is told by his manager, Bella, that the project that he has been working on for months has been shelved: all his hard work has been wasted. Larry hears Bella telling him the news as she lounges behind her expensive desk. His brain begins processing the information. His heart rate speeds up and his face flushes. He can feel his heart racing and his face burning. He clenches his fists. He is sure that Bella would not have treated any other employee in this way, and he feels a strong desire to throw a chair at her. He calls her something unprintable, kicks her wastepaper bin and strides out of her office. He cannot settle to work that afternoon: he continues to pace up and down, muttering to himself; eventually, he writes a letter of resignation.

Most people would infer from this description of events that Larry is angry. Still, on the face of it, nothing explicit has been said about Larry's emotional state. Instead, we have been given a very complex description, involving a number of different elements.

  1. An eliciting event or situation: Bella tells Larry that his project has been shelved.

  2. Larry's perception of the eliciting event.

  3. The subsequent processing of the information. Some of this may take place at a non-conscious level: for example, perhaps Larry is not consciously aware of Bella's posture, but that information might influence how he responds to what he has heard.

  4. Certain bodily changes: these include both internal changes, for example, an increase in heart rate; and expressive behaviour that communicates his emotion to other people, for example, the flushing of his face.

  5. Larry's feeling those bodily changes: he feels his heart racing, his face burning.

  6. Larry's judgement of the significance of this turn of events: he judges that Bella has treated him badly.

  7. Larry's desire to retaliate in some way.

  8. Larry's voluntary actions: he swears at Bella; he kicks her bin; he writes a letter of resignation.

How do all these different elements relate to Larry's anger? It seems natural to suppose that some of them, at least, are either causes or effects of his anger.

Activity 2

  1. Select one item on the list that you would identify as a cause of Larry's anger.

  2. Select another item that you would identify as an effect of his anger.

Discussion

Answers to these questions may vary. But the eliciting event certainly looks like a cause: we would find it natural to say that Larry is angry because Bella has told him that his project has been rejected. Again, most people would suppose that Larry's voluntary actions are effects of his anger: he swore at Bella, kicked her bin and later wrote a letter of resignation because he was angry.

Are all the items on the list causes or effects of Larry's anger? It might be suggested that a certain item on the list is not merely a cause or effect of Larry's anger, but is actually identical to it. For example, it might be suggested that Larry's anger is identical with the changes that take place in his body as he hears that his project has been rejected. This would imply:

A An occurrence of emotion is a set of bodily changes.

Again, it might be suggested that Larry's anger is a complex occurrence made up of a number of components – for example, the bodily changes mentioned above, together with the judgement that Bella has treated him badly. This would imply:

B An occurrence of emotion is a complex event, made up of a set of bodily changes together with a judgement (of a certain kind).

Alternatively, it might be suggested that Larry's anger could not be identified with any of the items on the list: it might be regarded as an occurrence of a distinctive kind, which occurs in addition to the bodily changes, feelings, judgements and desires mentioned in the story. This would imply:

C An occurrence of emotion is a psychological event of a distinctive kind.

As it stands, C is not very informative; but it could be made more informative by saying more about the type of occurrence in question. (I shall come back to that in a moment.)

Activity 3

Look again at the story about Larry and the list of elements mentioned in the story.

Do you think that any of these elements are identical to or are components of Larry's anger? Or do you think that Larry's anger is something in addition to the elements mentioned on the list?

You may not have settled views at this stage; but even if your views are vague or uncertain, write them down so that you can refer to them later.

According to A and B, the changes that occur in Larry's body as he hears the bad news are either identical to or else components of his emotion. The other items of the list are either causes or effects of it. But it might be suggested that some of these causes and effects have a special status, that is, they are necessary causes or effects of Larry's anger. What this means is that the bodily changes (say) that Larry undergoes will not count as anger unless they are caused in a certain way, or unless they have certain effects.

A comparison might help here. What makes it appropriate to describe a burn as a case of sunburn? The answer is that sunburn has to be caused in a certain way: that is, by exposure to the sun. A burn that has been caused in some other way will not count as sunburn, no matter how similar it is in appearance or effect. Exposure to the sun is a necessary cause of sunburn. Similarly, someone might hold that, while Larry's anger is identical with certain bodily changes, those changes will not count as an occurrence of anger unless they have been caused in a certain way, for example, by the judgement that he has been badly treated. On this view, the judgement is not a component of Larry's anger, but it is a necessary cause of it. This would give us the following account:

A* An occurrence of emotion is a set of bodily changes that have been caused by a judgement (of a certain kind).

Notice the difference between A* and B: according to B, the judgement is a necessary component of anger; according to A*, it is a necessary cause.

This suggests one way in which it would be possible to make an account like C more informative: it might be claimed that anger is a distinctive kind of occurrence that has certain necessary causes and effects. Once these had been specified, we would have an informative account of the nature of anger.

Activity 4

Look once again at the story about Larry and the list of elements mentioned in the story. Look at the elements that you did not identify as either identical to or as components of Larry's anger. Would you wish to say that any of these elements are necessary causes or effects of his anger?

Again, your views at this stage may be vague or uncertain; but write them down so that you can refer to them later.

Finally, it is necessary to bear in mind that any account might be presented as setting out features that are shared by, and distinctive of, all cases of emotion; or it might be viewed as applying only to central cases, allowing for the possibility that some states count as emotions not because they share these features, but because they are similar to states that do.

In what follows, we shall consider a number of different answers to the ‘What is…?’ question. None of them is identical to the examples that I have used in this section, but they take similar forms. Along the way, we will need to consider a number of questions about emotion. Here are some key questions to think about as you proceed:

  • In what sense, if any, is an emotion a feeling?

  • Could you experience an emotion without undergoing any kind of bodily change?

  • Can your emotions conflict with your judgements?

  • Can your emotions conflict with your desires?

  • In what ways (if at all) can emotions be controlled?

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