Emotion: An introductory picture
Emotion: An introductory picture

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Emotion: An introductory picture

3.3 Emotion, motivation and action

Perhaps one of the most striking features of James's theory is his account of the relationship between emotions and actions. As James points out, this is one aspect of his theory that runs directly counter to our ordinary conception of emotion. Ordinarily, we assume that emotions motivate actions: for example, if someone asked why Larry kicked Bella's bin, we might say that he was motivated by anger – that he did it because he was angry. On James's account, the order of explanation is reversed: according to James, Larry's anger is the consequence, not the cause, of his action. James, then, seems to deny that emotions motivate actions.

This raises the question whether James holds that emotions have any role to play in our psychology, or, alternatively, whether he believes that they are just by-products of the processes that cause behaviour. James says nothing about the psychological role of emotions in the Reading, and he has sometimes been interpreted as denying that emotions have any causal effects. Elsewhere in the Principles of Psychology, however, he argues that emotions can affect what we believe: the more emotional significance we attach to a possibility, he suggests, the more we are inclined to believe in its reality (ibid., pp. 307–11). Given that James allows that emotions can influence our beliefs, he would presumably also allow that they can influence our actions indirectly. Nevertheless, his account implies that they have no direct influence on our actions: on his account, emotions are not motivations.

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