Emotion Research:

Cognitive and Experimental Psychology

Selected Topics

The complexity of the phenomenon of emotion precludes the systematic treatment of all topics relevant to this broad field of research. The special topics list below is an attempt to broaden the coverage of the basic theories in experimental and clinical psychology provided earlier.

Selected Definitions and Functions of Emotions

As emotion research evolves, so do the definitions of the terms. Below are several representative quotes defining the role and nature of emotions. As can be seen from most of the quotes, these definitions are often complex, not referring to a single, well-defined or easily-observable phenomenon, and thus reflecting the complexity of the area.

"Emotions are communications to oneself and others" (Oatley and Jenkins, 1992)

"Emotions are part of a management system to co-ordinate each individual's multiple plans and goals under constraints of time and other resources. Emotions are part of the biological solution to the problem of how to plan and to carry out action aimed at satisfying multiple goals in environments which are not perfectly predictable. Emotions are based on non-propositional communications which we will call 'emotion signals'. They function both to set the whole system suddenly into a particular mode, and to maintain it tonically in that mode. Emotion signals provide a specific communication system which can invoke the actions of some processors and switch others off." (Oatley and Johnson-Laird, 1987, pp. 31, 3233, 35)

"Emotions arise as disturbances which accompany interruptions and discrepancies among multiple goals and representations." (Oatley and Johnson-Laird, 1987, p. 30).

"They have adaptive functions for the individual; they need to be inferred from various sources of evidence; they are based on specific cognitions; and they reveal something of an individual's attitudes and motivations." (Plutchnik, 1993, p. 59).

"Emotions constitute theprimary motivational system of humans. Each of the primary emotions (joy, interest, surprise, fear, anger, distress, contempt, disgust, and shame) supplies its own unique kind of motivating information" (Tomkins' theory of affect described by Magai and Hunziker (1993, p. 261)).

"a positive force in maintaining and enhancing the goal-directed behavior of the organism" (view of Rogers and Leeper described by Pervin (1993, p. 303)).

"Emotions organize memories and lend persistence to ideas (e.g., obsessions), in addition to leading to repression" (Rapaport's views described by Pervin (1993, p. 302)).

Methodologies for Studying and Assessing Emotions

The different disciplines exploring the nature of emotion use different methodologies. A common method in experimental and cognitive psychology laboratories is to first induce the desired affective state and then give the subject specific tasks and measure their performance. For example, positive affect can be induced by watching a funny film or receiving a small gift (Isen, 1993). Performance such as recall and retention of items can then be measured. The speed, accuracy, and content of the recalled material under different affective conditions is then used to draw conclusions about the impact of affective states on cognition.

Another popular method is the emotional Stroop task, a modification of the original Stroop task, which is an experimental psychology method for testing attention and the interference among multiple processes. In its simplest form it consists of a task where words naming different colors (e.g., "red", "green") are printed with different inks. The subject is asked to name the color of the ink under different conditions, e.g., "red" printed in green ink or "red" printed in red ink. The processing times vary, with indicating interference between the processes used for identifying the word meaning and the processes identifying the ink color. Emotional Stroop task uses emotional words as stimuli and the degree of their interfernece with the naming is measured. There are two hypotheses explaining this effect: emotional stimuli cause a greater degree of activation, hence greater degree of interference, or decay intervals for emotional stimuli are longer than those for neutral stimuli.

Researchers focusing on physiological theories use a variety of physiological measures, including the galvanic skin response (GSR), heart rate, and facial musculature. In some cases blood samples are drawn to test for the presence of particular metabolites associated with specific emotional states (e.g., cortisols associated with stress.)

Researchers studying the neurochemistry of affect use a variety of techniques, including imaging techniques using PET scan and MRI. These non-invasive techniques are particularly promising in that they allow the studying of the human brain in-vivo.

Another set of more descriptively-oriented methods involves the use a psychometric technique such as multi-dimensional scaling to classify emotions according to their similarities. This method is used in the study of basic emotions. Subjects are given pairs of emotion-describing words (e.g., angry vs. sad) and asked to rate their similarity. From these judgments a map of the is obtained, analogous to the color wheel (Plutchnik, 1993).

In research-oriented clinical work emotions are studied by a number of methods, most frequently by instruments focusing on specific emotions such as anxiety or the more complex series of emotions comprising depression (see Assessment of Affect and Affective States). Examples of instruments are the Beck Depression Inventory and the Taylor Manifest Anxiety Scale. Researchers also use videotapes and observations of subtle facial musculature to detect shifts in emotional states.

In non-research oriented clinical work emotions are typically assessed subjectively, by both the client and the therapist. The client is asked to pay particular attention to signs of emotionality (e.g., the occurrence of specific affects such as sadness, anger, anxiety, etc., or to physical signs inficating affect (e.g., blushing, increased heart rate, etc.). The therapists is also focused on detecting displays of emotions. When a heightened state of affect is experienced, the client is asked to focus on this state and to elaborate any associated thoughts, feelings, memories, etc. Affective states are thus used to access material, conflictual or otherwise, to be further explored in the psychotherapeutic process.

Cognitive-Affective Interactions

Cognitive-affective interactions have recently been the subject of numerous studies. Progress in cognitive psychology and cognitive science, in particular, the delineation of distinct mechanisms comprising cognitive processing, that is: attention, encoding, storage, and retrieval (Nugent and Mineka, 1994), has contributed to a more careful analysis of the effects of different emotions on cognition and vice versa. A large number of studies have been conducted exploring the differential impact of various emotional states on recall, both implicit and explicit memory, attention, and performance. This is an active area of research and in many cases data cannot be replicated and no consistent theories have yet emerged. However, several findings stand out and appear consistent. These are summarized below.

Mood Congruent Recall

Memory recall is influenced by current mood, so that cognitions with similar affective tone are retrieved more easily (Blaney, 1986; Bower, 1981). This phenomenon has been extensively investigated in depressed states, where there is a significant bias toward negative information, both self-related and non self-related.

Emotion-Induced Cognitive Biases

Anxiety tends to focus attention on threatening stimuli and influences perception to interpret ambiguous stimuli as threatening (Williams et al., 1988; Mineka and Sutton, 1992). Anxiety is associated with fast response times, minimal involvement of cognition in decision-making, reduced memory consolidation, and facilitation of classical conditioning (Mineka and Sutton, 1992; Shors et al., 1992). Anxious states promote quick and crude decision making, while relaxed states promote more complex integration of information and the elaboration of existing schemas to accommodate new knowledge (Nugent and Mineka, 1994).

Depressed emotional states tend to bias information processing to more negative, but more realistic interpretations (Alloy and Abramson, 1982). Depressed individuals also perceive themselves to have less control over situations than do non-depressed individuals. Positive affect appears to induce increased elaboration of material but only positive material (Isen, 1993).

Positive affect also seems to exert an influence on decision-making and risk-taking but the results are not clear cut. Several studies indicate that individuals in a positive affective state think they would be willing to take more risk but when their actual performance (e.g., a game involving betting) is measured, their behavior is in fact risk averse (Isen, 1993). Subjects in positive affective states were found to be make complex decisions faster, "displayed significantly less redundancy in their search pattern, and tended significantly more than controls to eliminate unimportant dimensions" (Isen, 1993, p. 271). Isen suggests that this may be due to the influence of positive affect on cognitive integration; in other words, the relevant material is more available to processing and thus decision-making and problem-solving can be more efficient.

Basic Emotions

There is a lively controversy as to the existence of basic emotions, that is, whether or not there exists a set of emotional primitives from which all other emotions are derived and what such basic emotions might be. Opinions vary as to how many such emotions there are (generally between six and ten), which emotions are basic (most basic emotion sets include fear, anger, joy, sadness, and disgust; some include surprise, shame, interest, and others), and whether there is a functional difference between basic and derived emotions. However, all proponents of basic emotions agree that each emotion reflects a unique motivational and behavioral tendency. The basic emotions are significant in that they represent distinct modes of action tendencies and are physiologically distinguishable (Ekman, Levenson, and Friesen, 1983). Proponents of this view include Plutchnik, Tomkins, Oatley, Johnson-Laird, and Izard.

Independence of Positive and Negative Affects

There is evidence for two separate, independent anatomical systems mediating positive and negative affectivity (Davidson, 1993; Diener and Emmons, 1984) and that particular individuals may be physiologically pre-disposed towards a stronger experience of one or the other type of affect. In terms of the brain structures involved, the frontal lobes of the right hemisphere have been implicated in inhibition and negative affects (behaviors falling under the general tendency of withdrawal), while the frontal lobes of the left hemisphere have been implicated in positive affect (behaviors falling under the general tendency of approach); damage to the left frontal lobe region is associated with depression (Davidson, 1993). Some personality psychologists have suggested links between the predisposition towards one or the othe affect and personality traits. For example, Tellegen (1985) suggests that positive affectivity tends to lead to extraversion (one of the key personality traits), whereas negative affectivity, that is, predilection towards anxiety and depression, leads to neuroticism (also a key personality trait). The existence of these two separate systems has particularly strong implications for clinical work, where a particular psychotherapy approach may focus on decreasing negative affective experiences or increasing positive ones.

Emotions and Consciousness

The topic of emotion and consciousness is as old, and as unresolved, as many other attempts to define the role of consciousness in psychological phenomena. Can emotions exist and exert influence at the unconscious level? Freud's view was that emotions cannot be unconscious, that their experience is bound with the conscious experience, and that only predispositions towards certain emotions can exist in the unconscious. A promising avenue of research follows on the work in explicit and implicit memory and in automatic and controlled processing, both of which show evidence of unconscious cognitive processing. Is it possible that emotions can similarly exist and exert influence at the unconscious, as well as the conscious level? An example of this research is the work of Phaf and colleagues (Phaf et al., 1994), who are constructing connectionist models of the interaction between explicit and implicit memory and affective processing. While numerous interesting speculations exist, including the psychoanalytic views of the existence of unconscious mechanisms used to repress dangerous or disturbing emotions, until both emotion and consciousness are given more exact operational definitions, the study of their mutual influence needs to be approached with caution.

(See also Institute for Emotion and Motivation, University of Amsterdam; Tucson Conference on Consciousness, 1996)

Defenses, Coping Strategies, and Emotions

In the course of our existence we are often confronted with unpleasant or even threatening emotions and have developed mechanisms to somehow ward off or suppress these emotions. Psychologists genrally place these mechanisms in two categories: those that are conscious and selected and applied through an act of will (coping strategies) and those that take place unconsciously (defense mechanisms). Defenses are considered to be unconscious mechanisms for warding of emotions that are unpleasant, threatening to the ego, or dangerous to survival (Plutchnik, 1993). A variety of defense mechanisms exist and these are generally categorized according to their adaptive value, ranging from the least adaptive (psychotic) to the most adaptive (neurotic). Neurotic defenses include sublimation, suppression, and humor, among others. Detailed treatments of defenses can be found in the work of Vaillant. Treatments of coping mechanisms can be found in the work of Lazarus.

Assessment of Affect and Affective States

Affect has not fared as well in the assessment field as cognition and cognitive processing. With the exception of depression and anxiety, there are few instruments for the assessment of affective functioning in general, that is range of affects, intensity, developmental level, etc.

Below is a list of some of the most popular instruments for assessing affect. An excellent resource is the ERIC web site, which has a searchable database on more than 10,000 psychological assessment instruments. Other useful sites are the Buros Institute of Mental Measurements and a site at the Psychology Dept. at Macquarie University (Australia). (Thanks to R. Goodyear for these pointers.)


There are more than a hundred varieties of depression instruments. Several examples are listed below.


There are over 200 anxiety instruments, many focusing on specific types of anxieties (e.g., mathematics, social, etc.). Several examples are listed below.

General Emotion Assessment Instruments

.... coming soon

Affective Techniques in Psychotherapy

Affective Development

Affect and Personality

Experimental/Cognitive Psychology, Cognitive Science, and Clinical Work

Editor: Eva Hudlicka [psychometrixassociates.com]

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