Emotion: An Example of the Need for Reorientation in Psychology

Elizabeth Duffy
Sarah Lawrence College

During the past few years theories of the emotions have been subjected to much criticism and revision, and in certain instances important objections have been made to what were previously held to be almost self-evident facts. But this criticism seems to have been less far-reaching and destructive than the situation warrants. There is beginning to arise this important question: Does the concept of emotion serve any useful purpose in scientific psychology? The writer suggested in a previous paper (2) that the differentiae of emotion are very inadequate and, indeed, incapable of exact application in distinguishing an ‘emotional' from a ‘mental' state.[1] It was pointed out that differentiation is customarily made, very in-exactly, in terms either of the stimulus situation or of the degree, rather than the kind, of reaction. Meyer (5) has recently stated a similar point of view, and has predicted that ‘emotion' will eventually disappear from psychology. But in neither Meyer's paper nor the writer's has the concept of emotion been sufficiently analyzed.

It is evident that contemporary investigation of the emotions has proceeded upon the following assumptions: (1) that there is an important difference in kind between emotional and other responses, and (2) that there is an important difference in kind between one emotion and another. The second of these assumptions has recently been questioned by a number of psychologists. The experiments of Sherman (6) and the theoretical analysis of Dashiell (1) have called attention to our dependence upon the stimulus situation for

( 185) the name to be assigned to any given emotional manifestation. Dashiell's frequently quoted statement is that it is quite possible that "such names as are conventionally used for different emotions refer to different types of viscerally facilitated or inhibited overt behavior patterns, that have been classified and labeled more in terms of their social significance than in terms of their visceral components"(1, p. 325). Dunlap (3) goes a step further in making the point that the various emotions not only are named from the stimulus situation as apprehended, but must be so named, since the responses to which these names are attached do not appear to have any constant distinguishing characteristics apart from their occurrence in a certain context. He says "that in which the various ‘fears' resemble one another, the various ‘griefs' resemble one another, and the various ‘joys' resemble one another is in the likeness of the situations in which these states arise, or rather in the perceptual and ideational apprehension of these situations" (3, p. 574). He further suggests that the attempt to classify the various emotional responses as of one kind or another is as futile as the attempt to classify the instincts. Such distinctions are based upon an interpretation of the stimulus situation rather than upon specific and differentiating reactions of the subject. But no question is raised by these writers as to the validity of the assumption that there is an important difference in kind between emotional and other responses. Dunlap, who most nearly approaches the questioning of this proposition, says that "Emotion, however, is a fact quite aside from questions about ‘the emotions'. We do get ‘stirred up', ‘moved': we feel. All introspection agrees on this point" (3, p. 573).

What, then, are the accepted differentiæ of emotional states? Experimental differentiæ which are conclusive in their application have not been discovered. Pulse rate, respiration, muscular changes, galvanometric phenomena, and other measurable responses have all failed to distinguish definitely between an emotional and a non-emotional condition. Introspection alone has been able to determine the issue, and how accurately and by what criteria we can only

( 186) surmise. And even introspection has at times given an equivocal answer. For example, in certain experiments on the effect of adrenalin, some of the subjects reported feeling ‘as if afraid', etc. Indeed, in ordinary life any individual must experience many states of which it would be difficult to decide whether they were emotional or non-emotional. Our lack of success in recognizing emotion could be due to faulty experimental techniques and to inadequate guides for introspection, but it could also very well be due to the fact that the object of our search is, in the form in which we seek it, non-existent.

An examination of the various definitions of emotion offered by contemporary psychologists indicates that the differentiation of emotion from other states has been proposed on the following bases

1. The physiological mechanisms involved in the response, e.g., visceral as opposed to somatic activity; or activity of the thalamus as opposed to activity of the cerebral cortex.

2. Degree of arousal, or intensity of reaction, of the organism.

3. Disorganization, and consequent ineffectiveness, of behavior.

4. Interpretative data of various sorts, e.g., descriptions of the content of consciousness, or of the kind of stimulus-response situation.

5. Various combinations of the above differentiae.[2]

Though the term ‘emotion' is assumed to denote a unique state of the organism, no one of these criteria has been successful in delimiting this state in such a way as to make it appear different in kind from other states. Each attempts to describe a certain kind of behavior or experience which occurs when the individual is subjected to a certain type of stimulation conventionally called ‘emotional', but neither the response nor the stimulus situation has been successfully de-limited. Sometimes the response appears to get its name

( 187) from the stimulus situation, sometimes the stimulus situation from the response. But, whichever the criteria employed in recognizing emotion, the distinction can always be shown to be one of degree rather than of kind. ‘Emotion' does not represent a unique state; it represents merely one end of a continuum. Or rather, it represents various ill-defined points on a number of continua, according to the definition employed. The recognition of this fact has certain important con-sequences which will be pointed out in a later section of the paper. But first we must substantiate our contention that each of the types of definition of emotion mentioned above fails to describe a state differing in kind from other states of the organism.

Differentiation of emotional responses on the basis of the physiological mechanisms involved in the reaction has been, perhaps, the most generally accepted form of classification. The most common variety of this form of definition assumes that emotions are primarily visceral reactions, or, at any rate, that in the viscera may be found that difference in kind of behavior which separates emotions from other states. In support of this point of view it is said that changes in visceral reactions have been shown to occur under ‘emotional' stimulation. (We do not, of course, know that similar changes do not occur under other types of stimulation, e.g., during mental work, during strenuous physical exercise, etc.) It appears obvious that there are visceral changes of some sort occurring in the organism at all times. Which are those particular patterns of visceral action which shall be called emotional? How does the ‘stirred-upness' of digestive disorder differ from that of emotion? Which visceral contractions are emotional and which are not? The vegetative mechanism passes through various cycles of increased and diminished activity as it sustains the organism and provides the basis for the energy used in motor response. Do we have an emotion whenever increased energy is supplied for motor reaction? Or when there is a decrease in energy? If so, exactly how great an increase or decrease in energy (or in the functions coöperating to provide energy) must occur

( 188) before an emotional state is produced? Other physiological mechanisms have been described in the differentiation of emotion (vascular changes, respiration, pulse rate, etc.). In each case the questions raised above apply. The distinction is one of degree.

A slightly different type of delimitation of emotion on the basis of physiological mechanism is the description in terms of the part of the nervous system involved in its control. Emotional responses are responses controlled by the autonomic nervous system, and the ‘center' for emotion is to be found in the thalamus. But unless we are agreed upon a statement of which responses are emotional responses, it is meaningless to ask whether these responses are always con-trolled by a certain section of the nervous system. On the other hand, we are at liberty arbitrarily to define as emotional those responses which are predominantly controlled by any part of the nervous system which we may select. But unless these responses have certain characteristics in common, so that they are recognizable, the classification is of no psycho-logical value% The situation here is analogous to the situation in regard to the description of reflexes. Unless reflex responses can be shown to possess constant delimiting characteristics it is of no psychological value to call ‘reflex' all those responses which are controlled by certain lower neural centers. Neurological description is not psychological description, and correlations between these two classes of phenomena can be discovered only when the phenomena in each class have themselves been clearly defined.

The second type of definition of emotions, similar in certain respects to some of the definitions of the first type, is more frankly based upon the degree of response involved. In this case the emphasis is upon the intensity of the total reaction, the degree of ‘arousal', of ‘reactivity', or of ‘tension' of the individual as a whole, The term ‘emotional' has been applied to one end of a continuum which might be said to stretch from the soundest sleep to the most frantic effort. However, it is evident that excited or ‘keyed up' states occur not only during stimulation called emotional, but also during

( 189) intense mental work, and during strenuous physical effort. That there are constant and characteristic differences in the patterns of the aroused states under these various circumstances seems highly improbable. Rather it appears that the situations themselves do not show clear-cut differences, but shade into one another, and that the responses to these situations are specifically adjustive and are not subject to rigid classification into categories.

The third type of definition of emotion maintains that emotional behavior is disorganized behavior—that it is the type of behavior which results when the individual has no adaptive response in readiness. But do we find that behavior, except under emotional stimulation, is perfectly smooth and well-organized? Are there no stages of disorganization during difficult mental work or during the learning of a new muscular skill?. Is fumbling and confusion not the rule, rather than the exception, when adjustments other than habitual ones are being made? Should all mental blocking be called ‘emotional' blocking, and should all in-coördination of the muscles be termed ‘emotional'? 'Disorganized responses are clearly found in many situations which would not ordinarily be termed ‘emotional', and well-organized responses are, in the opinion of many psychologists, frequently found in the presence of ‘emotional' stimulation.' Unless we wish to disregard the stimulus situation and call all disorganized response ‘emotional' response, this criterion is not likely to prove helpful. But even if we should adopt this procedure we should find that we had no absolute criterion of an emotional state, for organized behavior shades into disorganized behavior, with no gap between the two. Our third criterion proves also to depend upon the degree of the response involved.

The fourth type of definition of emotion may be called interpretative, since it necessitates the formation of a judgment about either certain characteristics of consciousness or the meaning of a given stimulus-response situation. Definitions of this kind discover emotion when a certain type of mental attitude is present; or when consciousness has a

( 190) pleasant, or unpleasant, or confused, or otherwise described quality. When applied by strict behaviorists such definitions identify an emotion by means of an interpretation of the direction or the significance of the overt behavior of the individual. But in any case an element of interpretation is involved, and the results of no two investigators can be depended upon to be identical.

Let us, for example, ask what kind of mental attitude is an emotional attitude. The question is difficult to answer. We find that we cannot describe an emotional attitude in general unless we say that it is whatever attitude accompanies certain types of bodily responses. But in that case the definition of emotion is in terms, not of the attitude, but of other phases of behavior which have been discussed in the preceding paragraphs. If we wish to use mental attitude as a differentia, we are forced to say that an emotional attitude is any one of a large number of specific attitudes—that it is, for example, an attitude of fear, of love, or of suspicion. In other words, ‘emotion' is a group name for certain conventionally defined systems of ideas,. But which systems of ideas are emotional and how do they differ from systems of ideas which are non-emotional? Are interpretations of situations as being interesting, peculiar, suspicious, etc., emotional or non-emotional? We have here as much opportunity for disagreement on classification as we have in the compilation of lists of instincts, and for similar reasons.

The situation is not remedied by resort to various at-tributes or qualities of consciousness. Emotion cannot be clearly differentiated by defining it as a state of confused or unanalyzed awareness of how the body feels, or by defining it as involving feelings of pleasantness or unpleasantness. Here again we are dealing with criteria which must be interpreted in terms of degree. How confused must our perceptions of our bodily states be before we can be said to have an emotion? And where shall we draw the line between mild pleasantness or unpleasantness and a neutral feeling tone? Or do we indeed ever experience a completely neutral feeling tone?

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The fifth type of definition of emotion requires no discussion since it is based upon a combination of two or more of the four types of differentiae considered above. In so far as each of these differentiae is inexact in its application, the combination will be found also to be inexact.

Since it appears that no one of the proposed definitions of emotion clearly separates emotional from non-emotional states we are led to inquire by what means the psychologist or the layman actually makes his judgment as to whether a given individual is displaying emotion. Since the opinion that emotion exists as a distinguishable state of the organism has gained such wide acceptance it would appear that there must be in common usage, whether or not included in our definitions of emotion, certain means by which an emotion can be distinguished from other states. But an analysis of the ways in which emotion is usually identified points only to the inexact use of two of the criteria mentioned above: (1) type of stimulus situation, and (2) intensity of reaction. An ‘emotional' response is found when the stimulating situation is interpreted as ‘emotional'. For example, in psychological experiments the reactions to sudden, loud sounds, or to tipping of the chair in which the subject sits, are ‘emotional' reactions, while the reactions to a problem presented for solution are ‘intellectual or cognitive' reactions. In the absence of stimuli conventionally classified as emotional, we do not usually discover an emotional response, no matter what the reactions may be. An exception to this rule is found in the case of extremely intense responses. The psychologist is accustomed to think of very intense reactions as emotional reactions, of highly aroused states as emotional states. He is certain that he is witnessing an emotional reaction when an individual behaves violently in a situation conventionally classified as emotional. He is confused and is likely to think of illness or derangement when an individual behaves violently under other circumstances. The deficiencies of his criteria are obvious, but nevertheless he remains certain that he can recognize an emotion, chiefly because it is not difficult to recognize one end of a continuum. When he

( 192) becomes confused in classifying a response not at the end of the continuum, he assumes that he would be able to say whether it was emotional or non-emotional if he knew more about it; or he says that such responses represent, not true emotions, but feelings or sentiments. Instead of recognizing a continuum, he makes another category.

It may appear that the question whether the term 'emotion' applies to a unique state or to one differing merely in degree from other states (and therefore not definitely distinguishable) is a trivial query and of no practical import. But the history of experimentation in this field indicates that our hypothesis that ‘emotion' represents a distinct category of behavior has had far-reaching results, Guided by this hypothesis, the majority of investigations have had as their object the discovery of the unique characteristics of particular emotions or of emotional states in general. But since neither ‘emotion' nor any one of the specific ‘emotions' appears to have such constant distinguishing characteristics, the search has proved futile, Correlation of various physiological phenomena such as blood pressure, respiration, galvanometric phenomena, etc. with artificial psychological categories such as ‘emotion' has yielded no constant results. Many investigators have, therefore, been inclined to conclude that the physiological measure in question had no psychological significance. Few have been inclined to draw the alternative conclusion that the psychological category with which they were dealing had no significance, that it needed re-formulation on a different basis. Landis (4) prematurely, I think, reached both of these conclusions in relation to the ‘psycho-galvanic reflex'. The ‘reflex' had little or no psychological significance, and the various psychological categories in relation to which it had been studied had no significance. Thus he says, "This much vaunted expressive reaction finally shows itself as having only a very limited psychological meaning. I feel that this loss not only demonstrates that another ‘test' has failed, but that it points to the very real necessity for psychologists to clarify their thinking with respect to the psychological categories employed in psycho-

( 193) physiological correlation" (4, p. 396). Either of these conclusions alone would have been sufficient. If the psycho-logical categories were significant, then, obviously, the ‘reflex' which showed no correlation with them was not significant. But if the categories, such as ‘emotion', ‘volition', ‘ideation', etc. are, as he is inclined to believe, not of fundamental significance, but merely loosely descriptive, then the fact that the ‘psycho-galvanic reflex' fails to correlate with them indicates nothing at all about the possible psychological significance of the ‘reflex'.

The same arguments apply to other physiological measures studied in relation to the various psychological categories. Though studies of these phenomena to date have been relatively futile, there is no reason to conclude that they are without significance and abandon their investigation. It has been observed that changes in these. physiological functions occur when there are changes in stimulation. The problem is to study these changes in reaction in relation to each other and to more fundamental psychological classifications which we may be able to formulate. Changes in muscular tension, for example, should be studied in their own right and not as the tension of a mental set on the one hand, and ‘emotional' tension on the other. It is probable that the same degree of tension will produce the same effect upon behavior, regardless of whether the tension is ‘physical', ‘mental', or ‘emotional' in origin. We do not need to conclude that, unless a given physiological measure reveals discontinuity between the responses to, for example, emotional stimuli and all other classes of stimuli, it is of no scientific value. We should not expect any measurable function to show meaningful correlations with descriptive terms uncritically taken over by the psychologist from the layman's vocabulary.

A glance at any text-book or treatise on psychology will convince the reader that we are still very ‘literary'in our approach. The number of loose descriptive categories into which we have placed psychological phenomena is appalling. If we recognized this as simply the inevitable result of our ignorance of the fundamental nature of the phenomena with

( 194) which we are dealing, the situation would be more hopeful. Instead, we are likely to take these superficial and inexact categories seriously, and to attempt to find correlations between them and phenomena which can be measured with some degree of accuracy. Thus we not only engage in futile experimentation, but we also fail to direct our attention toward the search for general fundamental dimensions of behavior.

Further progress would be greatly accelerated by an at-tempt to define through experiment the simple, irreducible aspects common to all behavior. Such fundamental dimensions of behavior, when and if found, might be comparable in logical simplicity and universality to the dynamic ultimates of physical science, such as energy and velocity. They might also, like these physical ultimates, be individually measurable under all types of conditions. It is obviously impossible to propose at this time even a tentative list of the dynamic fundamentals of behavior. Their formulation awaits further experimentation and analysis. But our position may be clarified by assuming for illustrative purposes that we have in degree of excitation and degree of inhibition two such basic dimensions. We may then consider the way in which concepts of this sort could be utilized in the investigation of the dynamics of behavior. By degree of excitation we shall mean the extent to which the organism as a whole is activated or aroused, not as measured by overt behavior, but as measured by the activity of those processes which supply the energy for overt behavior. There are a number of physiological measures which may, either singly or jointly, prove to be indicators of this aspect of behavior, e.g., galvanometric reactions, tonus of the muscles and, perhaps less consistently, pulse rate, respiration, etc. By degree of inhibition we shall mean, not the mere absence of overt action, but the degree to which there is restraint of the tendency to act .It is difficult to state this conception inmeasurable terms. It may prove to be an unserviceable abstraction, or it may prove to be definable simply as the degree to which overt behavior occurs or fails to occur under a given degree

( 195) of excitation. These concepts of excitation and inhibition could be made the basis for investigation of certain phases of the dynamics of behavior by formulating such hypotheses as the following:

Other factors remaining constant,

(1)increases in the degree of excitation tend to produce increases in the speed and force (or intensity) of the activity in progress, whether that activity be a muscular performance, a train of thought, or the expression of emotion.

(2) very high (and probably, also, very low) degrees of excitation tend to produce uncoördinated reactions—whether the reactions are muscular responses, thought processes, or the behavior in an ‘emotional' situation.

(3) increases in excitation appear to make the individual more sensitive to stimulation—whether the stimulation be physical, mental, or emotional.

(4) changes in certain aspects of the stimulus situation (intensity, novelty, etc.) tend to produce changes in the degree of excitation,

(5) the effect of a given degree of excitation upon overt behavior will depend upon the ratio between excitation and inhibition. For example, a high degree of excitation accompanied by a low degree of inhibition will result in intense, uncoördinated behavior; a high degree of excitation accompanied by a high degree of inhibition will result in intense, coördinated behavior; a low degree of excitation accompaniedby a low degree of inhibition will result in easy-going, co-ordinated behavior; and a low degree of excitation accompanied by a high degree of inhibition will result in labored, uncoördinated behavior.

The value of such an approach is that these relationships, if substantiated, would hold not simply for a single inexactly defined category of behavior, such as emotion, but for behavior in general, without regard to the kind of behavior or the kind of stimulus situation. Where other factors remain constant, the same degree of any one of the fundamental dimensions of behavior would produce the same result.

( 196) Moreover, our descriptions of behavior would be in terms, not of inexactly defined and unmeasurable categories, but of precisely defined and measurable dimensions, the degree of each of which could be stated in terms of some scale upon which we should agree. This is not to be taken as implying that any given dimension of behavior will vary entirely independently of other dimensions. On the contrary, we should expect varying degrees of inter-dependence among the various aspects of behavior, and our concern should be to describe the total organization or pattern as determined by the various dimensions in their relation to each other .

Abandonment of the present categories in psychology might open the way for advancement in a number of different fields of investigation. It might, for example, effect a rapprochement between the psychology of the emotions and the psychology of thought, now too often separated by the assumption that, while one may affect the other, they do not in any sense represent harmonious manifestations of the same underlying processes. With a different approach it might very well appear that what we call the ‘intellectual' and what we call the ‘emotional' reactions of an individual display the same general pattern. For example, it might be shown that the individual whose ‘emotional' reactions are easily set off has easily set off trains of ideas; that the individual who has difficulty in coördinating his overt behavior has difficulty in organizing his thoughts; that the individual whose actions are impulsive will require long training if he is to learn to re-examine and criticize his ‘bright ideas'. The study of personality traits in general would quite possibly gain new vitality from this approach, for it would involve the abandonment of the study of traits defined in literary terms (these classifications are usually neither clear nor fundamental) and the substitution of the study of individual differences in fundamental dimensions of behavior and their combination into various patterns of reaction.

Since, as psychologists repeatedly emphasize, the organism is integrated and behaves as a unit, it seems reasonable to suppose that we shall be able to discover basic dimensions

( 197) running through all behavior. If we continue to direct our attention, not toward the search for such dimensions, but toward the study of ill-chosen categories of behavior, we shall inevitably obscure the significance of much of our experimental data. The field of the ‘emotions' demonstrates the confusion which may result from unwise classification. There is reason to think that psychology can develop for its purposes, in this and other fields, a more fruitful set of abstractions. When our classifications have become more fundamental from a scientific point of view, our experiments will yield a more coherent picture and our science will advance at a more rapid rate.


This paper questions the common assumption that there is an important difference in kind between ‘emotional' and other responses. It points out that psychologists have pro-posed differentiation of emotional patterns on the basis of: (1) physiological mechanisms involved in the response, e.g., activity of the viscera or of the thalamus; (2) degree of arousal or intensity of reaction of the organism; (3) disorganization, and consequent ineffectiveness, of behavior; (4) interpretative data of various sorts, e.g., descriptions of the content of consciousness, or of the kind of stimulus-response situation; and (5) various combinations of the above differentiæ. An examination of these various types of definition of emotion results in the conclusion that in every case the distinction between ‘emotion' and other patterns of reaction is one of degree rather than of kind. 'It further appears that, since the precise degree of a given kind of behavior which is to be called ‘emotional' is never stated, the concept is not useful in exact psychological investigation. The attempt to correlate this vague category of behavior with various physiological changes has led to confusion. We should cease our attempt to study ‘emotion' sui generis and should study instead the variations in certain fundamental aspects or dimensions of behavior in general as these occur under varying stimulation and as they correlate with each other. Abandonment of ‘emotion' and other vague and necessarily un-

( 198) measurable categories should prepare the way for the experimental determination of simple, irreducible aspects of behavior comparable in universality to the dynamic ultimates of physical science.


1. DASHIELL, J. F., Are there any native emotions?, PSYCHOL. REV., 1928, 35, 319—327.

2. DUFFY, E., The measurement of muscular tension as a technique for the study of emotional tendencies, Amer. J. Psychol., 1932, 44, 146-162.

3. DUNLAP, K., Are emotions teleological constructs?, Amer. J. Psychol., 1932, 44, 572—576.

4. LANDIS, C., Psychology and the psychogalvanic reflex, PSYCHOL. REV., 1930, 37, 381—398.

5. MEYER, M. F., That whale among the fishes—the theory of emotions, PSYCHOL. REV., 1933, 40, 292—300.

6. SHERMAN, M., Differentiation of emotional responses in infants, J. Comp. Psychol., 1927, 7, 265—284, 335-351.

[MS. received August 14, 1933]


  1. 'Mental state' should be understood to refer to intellective or cognitive processes uncomplicated by affective reactions. The term ‘state', as used here and throughout the discussion, is intended to refer to a cross-section of the individual's responses at a given moment.
  2. These criteria of emotion are not quotations from definitions offered by con-temporary psychologists but are summaries of the various bases of differentiation which have been proposed in these definitions.

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