What is Emotion? by Phineas Upham
The study of emotion is a difficult one from many perspectives. For one, it seems to suffer from a lack of agreed upon definitions; Or it suffers from too many common, everyday definitions and this creates too hazy a realm to fully capture with one definition. For another, it is an intrinsically maddening concept to try to study. One must rely on what people say about their emotions and people are not always fully aware of the order, complexity, or magnitude of their emotions. The size of an emotion seems a hard question, and different emotions are rather incommensurable. Emotion seems to play an enormous role in our life and, along with consciousness, another heavily debated concept, it is one of those perplexing things of which we are fully aware and about which we are almost fully ignorant.
Richard Lazarus claims that in almost all cases (he allows for the possibility that some hardwired emotions are an exception) cognition precedes – is necessary and sufficient for – emotion. His claim can be glossed with the idea that the world must be mediated with cognition since one must at a very minimum understand/interpret the objects of the world around oneself before one can emotionally react to it. In dealing with the counterargument that emotion seems to come very, very quickly and at the very beginning of some situations before full understanding has been processed, he argues that cognition can be partial and, once internalized, very quick. The disagreement can be seen in the statement “I would certainly agree that a person need not be aware of his or her cognitive appraisals — but I would argue against the idea that some appraisals (Zajonc refers to preferences) are non-cognitive” (1022). But if we are defining cognition as any sort of appraisal, then it does seem logically true that we must unconsciously appraise a situation before we can have an emotion to it. One some level it seems we must register “edge” or “snake” or merely “snakelike characteristics” upon which our fear and emotional reactions proceed.
If we had just gained our eyesight (after being blind) the world around us would have no meaning and would just be flashes of undifferentiated color and light. This seems too weak a definition for “thinking” or true “cognition,” and this is exactly the point Zajonc pounces, but then he goes further and I do not follow. “My definition of cognition required some form of transformation of a present or past sensory input. ‘Pure’ sensory input, untransformed according to a more of less fixed code, is not cognition” (118). This seems like a perfectly fine necessary condition for cognition but he treats it as a sufficient one, which clashes with my earlier point (and Lazarus’s argument is suddenly back from the dead ‘” pun intended). A man who has never seem a snake/poison toad will not react emotionally to it. Clearly, one must register it as a snake (perhaps globally, or tentatively, or incompletely) and then ones automatic emotional reaction can occur. I am not sure what Zajonc, who I believe has the better of the argument in general, would respond to this. Nevertheless, I think Lazarus is begging the question with his definition of cognition and that more is required. Zajonc’s point that emotion is phylogenetic and ontogenetic primacy is a good one, as are the other four parts of his argument list.
Ultimately, though, this debate seems secondary to the function of emotion, which Lazarus seems to dismiss as subservient to cognition in many respects. An exploration of emotions as a useful heuristic and an exploration of its limitations/ how it changes/ what ranges exist in what species would be a fascinating one. Emotion is not only temporally primary to cognition, but it is a much more efficient and fast way of remembering an enormous amount of information about a whole set of interconnected things. It is also more “sticky” than cognition thus acting as a complimentary counterforce to cognition (as the Supreme Court does to the other branches in the US government). It is not just, as Zajonc claims, that emotion gives ground to cognition with regret, but that cognition cannot do what emotion does. This is one of the flaws of AI computers, they cannot feel and thus lack an essential tool to cope with the world.
Lazarus, R. (1982). Thoughts on the relations between emotion and cognition. American Psychologist, 37: 1019-1024.
Zajonc, R.B. (1980). Feeling and thinking: Preferences need no inferences. American Psychologist, 35: 151-175.
Zajonc, R.B. (1984). On the primacy of affect. American Psychologist, 35: 151-175.
Isen, A.M. & Baron, R.A. (1991). Positive affect as a factor in organizational behavior. In B.M. Staw & L.L. Cummings (eds.), Research in Organization Behavior. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, 13.
Taylor, S.E. & Brown, J.D. (1988). Illusion and well-being: A social psychological perspective on mental health. Psychological Bulletin, 103: 193-210.
About the Author
While an undergraduate student at Harvard University, Phineas Upham was the Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard Review of Philosophy. He graduated from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and currently works as an investor in New York City and San Francisco. Visit his website at PhineasUpham.com.