What is Emotion?


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Photograph A shows a toddler laughing. Photograph B shows the same toddler crying.
Figure 1. Toddlers can cycle through emotions quickly, being (a) extremely happy one moment and (b) extremely sad the next. (credit a: modification of work by Kerry Ceszyk; credit b: modification of work by Kerry Ceszyk)

What is Emotion? (OpenStax Psychology 2e)

As we move through our daily lives, we experience a variety of emotions. An emotion is a subjective state of being that we often describe as our feelings. Emotions result from the combination of subjective experience, expression, cognitive appraisal, and physiological responses (Levenson, Carstensen, Friesen, & Ekman, 1991). The exact order in which the components occur is not clear, and some parts may happen at the same time. An emotion often begins with a subjective (individual) experience, which is a stimulus. Often the stimulus is external, but it does not have to be from the outside world. For example, it might be that one thinks about war and becomes sad, even though he or she never experienced war. Emotional expression refers to the way one displays an emotion and includes nonverbal and verbal behaviors (Gross, 1999). One also performs a cognitive appraisal in which a person tries to determine the way he or she will be impacted by a situation (Roseman & Smith, 2001). In addition, emotions include physiological responses, such as possible changes in heart rate, sweating, etc. (Soussignan, 2002).

The words emotion and mood are sometimes used interchangeably, but psychologists use these words to refer to two different things. Typically, the word emotion indicates a subjective, affective state that is relatively intense and that occurs in response to something we experience (Figure 1). Emotions are often thought to be consciously experienced and intentional. Mood, on the other hand, refers to a prolonged, less intense, affective state that does not occur in response to something we experience. Mood states may not be consciously recognized and do not carry the intentionality that is associated with emotion (Beedie, Terry, Lane, & Devonport, 2011).

We can be at the heights of joy or in the depths of despair. We might feel angry when we are betrayed, fear when we are threatened, and surprised when something unexpected happens.


Spielman, R. M., Jenkins, W. J., & Lovett, M. D. (2020). Psychology 2e. OpenStax. Houston, Texas. Accessed for free at https://openstax.org/details/books/psychology-2e


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