Category Archives: emotion

ABC of emotions

All of psychology can be summed up as a combination of Affect, Behaviour and Cognition. Emotions are affect proper, but being in an affective or emotional state also carries along with it certain changes in behaviour and cognitions. For eg, an angry person not only feels angry but also behaves in an aggressive manner and his whole perception of other conspecifics is coloured by his being in a state of anger.

Now consider certain basic and prototypical emotions like joy, sadness, interest, fear, love , anger and surprise, disgust. While all of them have a distinct affective tone associated with them, less is known about the behavioural and cognitive dimensions to these emotions. Today I’ll like to share my thoughts regarding the same.

Joy is associated with being playful (B) and thinking creatively and divergently and imaginatively (C); sadness on the other hand is associated with being withdrawn (B) and has been shown to be associated with thinking more critically, convergently and in a intellectual fashion (C). As is apparent there is an opposing way in which these emotions and their behavioural and cognitive tendencies are associated. While positive emotions help you sample a greater universe out there , negative emotions help you focus on a salient selected stimuli.

Now consider interest; its is associated with being able to explore a given environment (B) and learning new information (C). While fear is associated with exploiting a given environment (B) (and not venturing beyond the unknown) and performing as per the given knowledge structure (C). Again we see the dichotomy and opposition.

Consider love that is associated with nurturing/protecting (B) the loved ones and with whom you feel a sense of belonging/ kinship (C). Anger on the other hand is associated with aggression or attack (B) on people considered different from self (C). Different perceptions or thinking may get evoked for same person based on emotion. For eg, you may feel anger towards your son when he disobeys and then literally want to slap him and want to disown him/ distance form him in the angry mood.

Finally consider surprise. Its associated with leaning with wonder and being fascinated (B) and trying to accommodate the new information (C) ; on the contrary, disgust would be associated with recoiling away in contempt and being judgmental (B) and trying to assimilate everything in the black and white schemata (C).

The above is broadly in line with the broaden and build theory of positive emotions and the specific action tendencies theory of negative emotions. What do you think, do share your comments.

Emotions and Motivations

I have written a series of posts about emotions and personality and regular readers will know my fascination and commitment to the eight basic emotions perspective. I have also written about the four fundamental drives/ motivations; as a matter of fact my Psychology Today blog was titled The Fundamental Four. Today I wish to connect the dots.

Till today, I myself was confused as to what is a motivational subsystem and what is an emotional subsystem and if my blog posts conflated the two and created confusions, I apologize. I have now come to believe that emotions are the reading by our mind of how our body is doing. This needs some unpacking.

The somatic marker theory of Damasio, and others, is inline with this formulation that there are brain areas that keep track of how the body is doing and if the body is say geared to flee a predator- then a corresponding feeling of fear may be felt by the mind. Feelings are conscious emotions and the subject of this post. The eight basic emotions to recap are Interest, Fear, Lust/ Wonder, Disgust, Love, Anger , Joy and Sadness. The emotions may even be conceptualized as indicators of bodily needs: eg. Disgust signifying the need of the body to close off / get away from source of disgust.

Motivations, or the basic fundamental drives, on the other hand are drives that help us cope with problems in living: These are to SURVIVE , REPRODUCE, TAKE-CARE-OF-YOUNG-ONES and to THRIVE. All the steps are essential to pass on our genes to the next generation- if say we don’t take care of our young ones then our genes do not live on. So evolution has built in these four basic drives in us. These drives are action-focused: they are intentional and *about* the world; they are mechanisms via which we get our needs met. They are primed action tendencies that tilt us to act one way or the other, out in the world.

Most of us when we think about motivation think of Maslow’s needs. They are conceptualized at a higher level- the level I am taking about is the most fundamental, the most basic. Panksepp has talked about that level, but he wrongly called such neurocircuits as affective subsystems, while they should be called drives/ motivational systems to reduce confusion.

Lets unpack this a bit. SURVIVE system in an ideal world should be about finding food and nutrition to grow and maintain ones’ bodily composition. Of course we don’t live in an ideal world, so predators loom large and survival also becomes about avoiding them. However the underlying drive/ need is the same to preserve, maintain and grow ones body. Some people have focused on maintaining bodily integrity or avoiding dangers/ predators as having primary significance and thus focused more on FEAR ; I however think that’s mistake. The drive is primarily about finding nutrients for self and because in the search for food, you are likely to come across predators, secondarily about avoiding them once you encounter them.

Thus the primary neurocircuit for SURVIVAL is the SEEKING system: it is primary in the sense that it is the default program of the self when it comes to survival. It primarily enabled foraging behavior, but since then has been coopted for finding knowledge (learning) etc too and is marked by curiosity, exploration, learning, pattern finding, meaning making etc.

While searching for food (either hunting or gathering) you are likely to come in contact with a predator; at that time only the FEAR/predator avoidance system kicks in and focuses actions and body for that specific task. At least that is the purpose for which this system evolved.

The primary neurocircuit for REPRODUCTION is LUST/Seducing system. When one is in the grip of this circuit/drive one flirts, seduces, and tries to mate with conspecifics.

While trying to copulate with as many con-specifics as possible, a danger of getting infected with STD looms large. My hunch is that DISGUST evolved as a means to avoid STD’s/ be picky and selective while choosing.

The primary neurocircuit for TAKE-CARE-OF-LOVED-ONES is CARE. It evolved so that parents can take care of their children, but sine then has been coopted for taking care of all vulnerable entities.

The secondary neurocircuit comes into play because of cuckolding. While one wants to take care of ones genuine offsprings, one doesn’t want to be cuckolded and displays aggression towards the weakling which in not of self. This is the RAGE circuit.

The primary neurociruit for THRIVING is PLAY. It evolved so that we can form social bonds/ rise up the hierarchy by building coalitions and alliances.

While playing and rising up the social ladder, there is a risk of aggression by the alpha male or the risk of losing existing ties and suffering losses. This manifests as the PANIC/ separation distress system.

How do the (eight basic) emotions and the (eight basic) motivations interact? It might be tempting to assume that each motivational circuit is associated with one emotion/ feeling; however that would be a mistake. We first need to understand that emotions come in pairs (interest-fear, wonder-disgust, love-anger and joy-sadness) ; we also need to appreciate that the motivational circuits form opponent processes such that if FEAR is activated, SEEKING is suppressed etc. with that background lets forge ahead.

Feelings modulate motivations/drives. They either initiate and sustain the corresponding motivational circuit or suppress and stop it. Thus they are either inhibitory or excitatory in their effect.

Take SEEKING. If your body is feeling interest (is in a state of interest) it is more likely to explore or activate the SEEKING system. On the other hand if the body is feeling fear, it will suppress the SEEKING system. And how does the body gets into a state of interest/ fear? In the most general case its by cognitive appraisal of outside events/ stimulus. Lets take novelty, say a rat placed in a novel environment. The rat can either see that novel environment as interesting and thus get curious and explore; or it can see the novelty as frightening, get fearful and stop exploring. Thus the cognitive appraisal we make induce emotions that either inhibit or excite the motivational circuits.

Lest take another example: Take PLAY. Feelings of joy will increase likelihood of playing; while being in a sad mood will decrease playful behavior. Or take PANIC: feelings of sadness will tilt the probability of panicking , while being in a joyful mood will buffer against panic.

Or take CARE . Appraising a vulnerable dependent/weakling as in group leads to feelings of love and compassion leading to activation of CARE; appraising the same person as outgroup leads to feelings of anger over why I need to support him/her and lead to suppression of CARE.

Or take LUST. Thinking someone as attractive leads to feelings of wonder about what the person is like and activate flirting/seducing behavior aka LUST. However, thinking of the person as unattractive/ugly leads to feelings of disgust and deactivation of LUST system.

I think by now, it should be clear how the emotions and motivations are connected. In the next post I will be extending this emotions/ motivations linkage forward to personality traits and psychological disorders.

I was inspired on this line of thought while doing the FutureLearn course ‘What Is A Mind’ by Mark Solms and would like to express my gratitude to him as well as the late Jaak Panksepp.

Emotions and Motivations: an SDT perspective

I have blogged previously about personality and emotions and also personality and motivations, but haven’t made an explicit linkage between emotions and motivations; today I wish to rectify that and talk about how emotions and motivations are interconnected. I will be using the Self-Determination Theory (SDT) of human motivation to make my case.

SDT consists of as many as six mini-theories; we will focus on OIT and BPNT for the purposes of this post.

Organismic Integration Theory (OIT) posits that people act due to a variety of reasons. Some of these are intrinsic reasons (the activity/ task feels fun, pleasurable, energizing) while other are extrinsic reasons (someone asks us to do it, we do it to gain rewards/ avoid punishments). When someone is intrinsically motivated, they feel more autonomously regulated or in other words they feel more in control of the choices they make and activities they do and endorse these actions as emanating from the self. However, when one is extrinsically motivated they feel controlled in their choices and activities and may attribute their actions to the rewards/ punishment contingencies under which they are working.

People indulge in all types of activities, only a small part of which is for intrinsic reasons such as the activity being fun and interesting. We need to work, to pay the bills, and though the activity is performed primarily to gain external rewards (pay), the reasons for the same can be internalized to various extent. OIT posits that the more integrated to self and internalized we make the reasons for doing an activity that is primarily or initially driven by external regulation, the more autonomous the regulation will become and less controlled it will feel.

For e.g., I may do my work properly due to fear of loss of job or expectation of a pay hike and my motivation is external and I am externally regulated. This type of motivation is the most controlled. I may also do my work properly because I feel guilty on doing a shoddy job and displeasing my supervisor- here I have internalized the motive as emanating from within- feelings of guilt- and hence this will feel less controlled and more autonomous than external regulation. This is introjected regulation. I may also do my work properly because I think that’s the right thing to do, maybe to support my family – I identify with and accept that part of my life. Thus my motivation for work would be Identified motivation and will feel even more autonomous. Finally, I may do my work properly because I am a conscientious/ honest person and this fits in with my notion of who I am- I can identify with this motivation/ reason and integrate with my self concept. This form of Integrated motivation is the most autonomous of all, barring intrinsic motivation, which feels the most autonomous, because you don’t need to internalize any external reasons.

Basic Psychological Needs Theory (BPNT) on the other hand claims that all humans have three basic psychological needs- the need for autonomy ( being able to be volitional and endorse ones actions), the need for competence (being able to be effective at a task) and need for relatedness (being able to belong and have intimate, satisfying connections with others). When these needs are satisfied, a person thrives and works on optimal level, when these needs are thwarted a person languishes and may have ill-being.

There is some interaction between OIT and BPNT. The more a person acts from autonomous motivations (feeling free and volitional), rather than controlled motivations (feeling pressured and compelled) the more his or her basic needs will be satisfied and thus the more happier and well-functioning he/she will be.

The above was the standard SDT formulations; I want to propose some changes/ modification to the same. To start with, as many others have proposed, I want to propose a new basic psychological need- the need for meaning. This need consists of both the need to find meaning and to lead a meaningful life- the need for both coherence and contribution in one’s life. Thus one would be driven by a need for comprehending the world and find in some inherent meaning in it; one would also be driven to add meaning to that world by being generative and making an impact. Just like other needs, the satisfaction of this need for meaning will lead to positive well-being, while frustration of this need will lead to ill-being.

The second change I want to propose is that just like extrinsic motivation is split into four types- External, Introjected, Identified, and Integrated, based on how autonomous/ controlled it is , we also differentiate between different types of intrinsic motivations- Intrinsic motivation driven by competence, Intrinsic motivation driven by meaning, Intrinsic motivation driven by relatedness and finally Intrinsic motivation driven by autonomy. I believe, and this is an empirical question, that even Intrinsic motivations of the four types will differ in the amount/ quality of autonomous regulation.

Now, that we have laid the groundwork, let me go straight to the main thesis of this post viz that emotions and motivations are connected in a very systematic manner. To illustrate my point, I will be using my eight basic emotions theory. To recall, the basic emotions are Fear, Disgust/guilt, Anger, Sadness, Interest/ courage, Wonder, Love and Joy. These emotions come in opposing pairs- Fear/ Interest, Disgust/ Wonder, Anger/ Love and Sadness/Joy. My thesis is that the motivations too come in pairs- External/ Intrinsic with competence; Introjected/ Intrinsic with meaning; Identified/Intrinsic with relatedness; and finally Integrated/ Intrinsic with autonomy. Also these motivation pairs correspond to the emotion pairs in the same order.

Lets start with External regulation. The threat of punishment is one mechanism that is active here, resulting plausibly in an emotion of Fear. Also when competence need, which is associated with this motivation pair is frustrated, then one is likely to feel incompetent and thereby suffer from anxiety based psychopathology , which is associated with emotion of Fear.

Consider on the other hand Intrinsic motivation with Competence. The exploratory drive or opportunity within challenge, is one mechanism active here, resulting plausibly in the emotion of Interest / courage. Also when competence, which is associated with this motivation pair, becomes a focal concern to the exclusion of balance with other needs, then one falls victim to obsessive passion and is thereby may even suffer from obsession and compulsions related psychopathology which is associated with emotion of Interest.

Next consider Introjected regulation. The incomplete internationalization is typically engendered via feelings of Guilt etc. Also when meaning need, associated with this motivation pair, is frustrated, one is likely to feel insignificant/ disillusioned and thereby suffer from addiction/ substance use based psychopathology, which is associated with emotion of guilt/ disgust.

On the other hand, Intrinsic motivation with Meaning leads to curiosity and sense of Wonder. When meaning need associated with this takes over to the exclusion of other needs one consequence could be dissociation based psychopathology associated with emotions of wonder.

Consider next Identified regulation– here at times there is compartmentalizing of self leading to frustration and Anger. When relatedness need , which is related to this particular pair, is frustrated it results in feelings of alienation leading to psychopathology associated with hostility, which is associated with the emotion of anger.

Intrinsic motivation with relatedness on the other hand leads to feelings of belonging and Love. When this need is focused on exclusively however, this may lead to excessive valuing of ingroups and prejudice towards outgroups.

Integrated regulation, where one’s self is in alignment and yet one is controlled and not fully autonomous, may lead to feelings of loss and Sadness. When autonomy need associated with this is frustrated, it results in feelings of being controlled and may result in depressive psychopathology, itself associated with sadness.

Finally, Intrinsic motivation with autonomy, leads to feelings of fun, play and Joy. When this need for autonomy becomes a predominant need however to exclusion of others one may get so charged up and free wheeling as to become manic, a pathology associated with emotion of joy.

I have delineated above based on strong theoretical grounds. There is some empirical support too, but more work needs to happen. This recent study for eg shows that negative emotions like fear and anger lead to loss in feelings of agency. I know that agency is not the same as controlled vs autonomous regulation, but the findings are tantalizing.

To me the emotion pair, motivation pair linkage makes perfect sense. Do let me know if you are aware of any research studies exploring on similar lines?

The Evolution of Cooperation: Thankfulness and Inspiration as Two Routes

Cooperation or Altruism or Prosociality is the tendency to help others, even at a cost to oneself. Naive conceptions of evolution, make us think that cooperation or altruism cannot evolve because the genes are selfish and only care about perpetuating themselves. However, the selfish gene view of evolution does not preclude organisms to become altruistic if for example they share genes ; one of the mechanisms for the same is kin selection.  

Another mechanism that can give rise to cooperation is direct reciprocal altruism. In colloquial language, it is akin to you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.  You help someone in their time of need and expect that the person will help you back in your time of need. Consider our hunter/ gatherer ancestors; if one of them made a big kill and shared with a con-specific, it becomes more likely that the peer will share with him when good fortune shines on the peer.

A necessary condition for reciprocal altruism to evolve is the ability to punish if someone doesn’t reciprocate or at least to not keep trusting that freeloader in future. Both punishment as well as not indulging with that person again or repaying a past benefactor, depends on the ability to remember the person whom who we have helped or who has helped us. This ability will typically involve remembering faces. Another ability that will come handy is the ability to gauge intentions- whether the person who helped did it on purpose or accidentally.

Yet another mechanism that gives rise to cooperation is indirect reciprocity. I help you and you help someone else. While in direct reciprocity, a pair or dyad helps each other over time or helps now with the hope/ expectation of a payoff in the future; in indirect reciprocity, one helps a stranger just because one has been helped by someone. Indirect reciprocity works by creating a culture of altruism, where helping becomes the norm and people accumulate reputations.

Now, direct reciprocity can work by encouraging feelings of gratitude in a beneficiary. These feelings of thankfulness and indebtedness towards the benefactor , act together to ensure that the person receiving favors, returns them.

Indirect reciprocity works similarly, by promoting feelings of elevation or inspiration in the general public who may be recipient or even just witnessing a virtuous act of kindness, morality etc. . Once such feelings are aroused, the person witnessing such acts become more likely to act prosocially.

The above may seem speculative, but there is solid evidence around the evolution of direct reciprocity as well as indirect reciprocity. and so too is there strong linkage between direct reciprocity and gratitude. The link between indirect reciprocity and elevation is also hinted.

For example, consider the following article by Sui et al that shows that trait gratitude and trait elevation have different neural correlates. From the abstract:

We demonstrated that trait gratitude was positively correlated with gray matter volume (GMV) in the left cerebellum extending to fusiform gyrus, and also the right middle occipital gyrus (MOG) extending to posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS) and temporoparietal junction (TPJ), while trait elevation was negatively correlated with GMV in the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. While controlling each other, all the regions still held significant, except the right MOG and pSTS/TPJ. The results indicate that there are distinct neuroanatomical correlates for proneness to gratitude and elevation, while the evidence is mixed that pSTS/TPJ may be the common correlates for them.

The authors discuss the implications of above: gratitude  is associated with more GMV in fusiform gyrus, an area important for remembering faces, and is thus the emotion associated with direct reciprocity where remembering faces is important. Also, both gratitude/ elevation are associated with  pSTS and TPJ, areas important for attributing and inferring intentions to others. Elevation further is negatively associated with GMV  in left DLPFC, a region that involves thinking in a utilitarian manner rather than in intuitive manner about moral issues. As per dual process theories of morality one can either take a intuitive, de-ontological stand where a moral act is moral because it is the right thing to do or a duty to uphold; or the second pathway consists of more deliberate, utilitarian reasoning whereby one looks at acting such that happiness/utility is maximized for maximum number of people. Trolley problems are famous examples of such utilitarian reasoning battling with moral intuitions. 

 To me the differential neural correlates of gratitude and elevation, as well their different manifestations at the emotion and behavioral level, strongly suggest that they are associated with different types of altruism- direct and indirect respectively.  

What Good (and Bad) are Positive Emotions?

There is a seminal article by Barbara Fredrickson titled ‘What good are positive emotions?’ which introduces the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. As per this theory, while negative emotions are associated with specific action tendencies, positive emotions broaden the thought-action repertoire available at that moment and help build physical, social and intellectual resources over the long run.

To take an example, joy is associated with creativity, and more loose associations, etc, all involving a move away from rigidity and fixedness to flexibility and fluency in thinking ;  joy is also associated with rough-and-tumble play in many species, including humans, and this play although apparently without any purpose, prepares the young ones for avoiding predators later on. Thus, being in a state of joy over time prepares/ enables one to take care of an important evolutionary problem – that of avoiding predators.

However, there is a downside to extreme continued state of joy or euphoria- Mania that is marked by energy (needed for play), paranoia (predator avoidance and suspiciousness kicking in) and other characteristics like racing thoughts and verbal diarrhea (creativity and loose associations gone haywire). Some of the features of this syndrome (like paranoia) can only be understood when one applies the evolutionary lens to the phenomena.

I have listed elsewhere the major adaptive problems faced by all humans in the EEA, and will like to use as an example the first two problems: Avoiding predators and finding food (by hunting/ gathering).

One may surmise that not being able to avoid predator and getting eaten partly or wholly is painful and distressing and that these emotions play a great part in ensuring survival in the short term.  In the long term however if one has to avoid predator one needs to rehearse in peace time to be prepared for the show when one encounters the predator next. Joy signals such a peaceful state where one can indulge in rough and tumble play and practice predator avoidance tactics and strategies.

Now how is the state of joy induced? Once the organism is not in a state of pain or in a state that can lead to more pain, it can focus on hunting/ gathering to get food and become string and heal. Eating such food leads to pleasure/joy and the cycle repeats.

….joy leads to play leads to predator avoidance leads to less or no pain leads to hunting/gathering leads to eating food leads to pleasure joy leads to ….

Thus the positive signal of Joy/pleasure moves the organism towards food (other consummatory rewards)  while the negative signal of pain/ distress makes the organism avoid predator and move away from such in danger states.

Normally, these work in perfect balance, but if pain/distress takes over one loses the drive to hint/ gather and may suffer from depression; if pleasure/ joy takes over one is too focused on avoiding (imaginary) predators that one may become manic (paranoid type).

The natural question arises, does this analysis apply to other emotions too? Below I try to list the cycles for each emotion (two emotions form a pair and work in conjunction)  along with the adaptive problems they solved in EEA.

  1. Predator Avoidance: failure of predator avoidance leads to pain/distress. When there is no pain/ distress (and one has healed) one hunts/ gathers.
  2. Hunting/ gathering food: eating food leads to pleasure/joy. Joy leads to rough and tumble play which preparers one to avoid predators in future.
  3. Nature’s fury (unpredictability/ novelty ) avoidance: failure of not being able to predict weather or encountering a new phenomenon etc lead to fear/ guilt. When there was no fear or guilt and conditions were stable one explored the world.
  4. Exploration of the world/ environment: Encountering novel phenomenon leads to interest in such phenomenon. Interests leads to learning maybe via nighttime dreams where one subconsciously elaborates the cognitive maps and explores the dark corners including nature’s fury and tries to understand them so as to avoid them in future. The main function involving fear/ interest here is learning about the good and the bad stimuli in the environment.  When fear takes over it manifests as phobias, when interest takes over it manifest as obsession and compulsion (rituals to avoid unpredictability?).
  5. Misunderstanding avoidance (theory of mind) : failure of this leads to misunderstanding among the dyad and leads to anger/ aggression etc. When there is no anger / aggression one indulges in communicating with the other and build bridges of understanding.
  6. Communicating with others: When one feels listened to and understood, one feels love and compassion for the other. Love leads to social play (say flirting) that ensures that you have a better grasp on what the other person is thinking. The love/ anger cycle is responsible for ensuring proper bonding and communication between con-specifics. When anger takes over you have antisocial/ conduct disorders; when love takes over you may have dependence/ addiction.
  7. Incest Avoidance: failure of incest avoidance led to disgust. When the ancestral human was disgust free he mastered the art of remembering faces so as to distinguish kin from non kin.
  8. Face recognition: When one recognizes a familiar face/ pattern, one is in awe or get elevated.  Being in Awe one experiments with morality and builds character which leads to incest avoidance.  this system of disgust/ Awe has been co-opted for morality. When disgust takes over you may have dissociation.
  9. Wrong mate avoidance (mate selection): Selecting the right mate is very important. Failure to do so leads to envy/jealousy. When one is free of envy/  jealousy one can take care of the marriage- by investing in kids and relatives.
  10. Helping children and kin (Parental investment):  When one is helping one’s children and kin, one feels the contentment of merely being able to serve them. Contentment leads to savoring where one enjoys the time together with the same mate; the actions you take cements the relation and leads to less chances of mate selection being bad.  This cycle is about family systems.
  11. Cheating avoiding (cheater detection): In altruistic and social beings, detecting cheaters is very important. Failure to detect them timely leads to feelings of dissatisfaction/ vengeance. When such feelings are lacking one can make new friends and alliance partners.
  12. Making new friend and alliances: When one makes new friends and alliance partners one feels gratitude towards them.  Gratitude leads to reciprocal plays like repeated prisoner’s dilemma, where you learn not to get waylaid by cheaters and can avoid them in future.

Although some of the above is speculative, I as usual am very much excited by the above framework- its makes a number of empirical predictions that can be easily tested. What disorders do you foresee from the excess of both positive and negative emotions? Do let me know via the comments!

Emotions as a Result of Approach and Avoidance

There is a powerful theory in psychology, proposed by Carver and Scheier, about how emotions arise as an indication of how we are progressing towards our goals. Today’s post will be elaborating and extending on that model.

Basically this cybernetic theory of emotions, is based on that fact that most of our actions are goal directed, we are either trying to archive a desired end state / goal; or we are trying to avoid an undesirable end-state or anti-goal. The same action or overt behavior may be motivated by different goal related orientation. For e.g., a student studying for a test may be driven to achieve the highest possible marks so that he can top in the class; or he may be motivated to study hard to avoid failing in the test.

The former motivation where one is driven to achieve some goal is categorized as an approach behavior and the corresponding system the approach system.  The latter drive, where one is more focused on moving as far away from a negative outcome as possible is known as the avoidance system.

Foraging for food, maybe an approach system action, while avoiding being eaten by a predator may be an avoidance system action.

Progress in both the systems , i.e moving towards the goal in approach system and moving away from the anti-goal in the avoidance system leads to positive outcomes or end results. The failure to achieve the goal or avoid the anti-goal leads to negative outcomes. So far so good.

At this point Carver and Scheier introduce the feedback control concept. We will take the example of Approach system. Lets say we are moving towards a goal at rate ‘r’ (how fast we are moving from our current sate to the desired state); they suggest that each of us has an internal criteria of how fast that movement should be. In situations which are familiar to us, this is more or less stable value, say ‘a’; but in situations where we have little experience there is a lot of room for flexibility in what this criterion rate ‘a’ should be.

What they suggest is that if the actual rate at which we are moving towards the goal ‘r’ is less than the criterion rate ‘a’, then we feel negative emotions like sadness/ frustration/ anger that are an indication to us to increase our efforts towards the goal (as we are falling behind); on the other hand if the actual rate ‘r’ is greater than the criterion rate ‘a’ then we feel positive emotions like joy, love, care etc, which is a signal to us that we can coast or reduce efforts allotted to this particular goal and maybe move to some other task (because this task is already faring well).

The same applies to avoidance system;   if r<a then we would feel negative emotions like fear, anxiety, guilt and if r>a then we will feel positive emotions like calmness, relief etc.

They also relate the emotion felt, with re-prioritization of the task that evokes the emotion. As they rightly discover, anger/frustration and sadness have opposite effects on effort as well as task prioritization, though both are an indication that we are not progressing towards the goal at desired rate. Frustration/ anger makes one redouble efforts and also leads to increases in the priority of task, Sadness however, that is associated when the goal has become unreachable or lost, makes one reduce efforts and decrease the importance or priority of the goal thus making it easy to give up the goal. They explain it as non-linear impact of progress towards goal.

IMHO, they go some distance, but do not go far enough. Below is what I believe makes sense:

  1. In the Approach system, when r<a, then one feels frustration or anger (if goal is interpersonal) , which indicates that goal requires efforts, which leads to more effort spending and increase in priority of the task.  Thus, when things are not going well, but are manageable it leads to frustration/ anger and more focus on the task
  2. In the Approach system,  when r << a , that is rate of progress is much, much less than the criteria, or one is very close to failure, then one feels sadness or depression, which indicates that goal is no longer tenable, which leads to less effort spending and decrease in priority of the task. Thus, when things are out of hand, it leads to sadness/ depression and reduced efforts and focus.
  3. In the Approach system, when r>a, then one feels passion or commitment (love if goal is interpersonal), and contrary to what Carver and Schieier suggest, leads to more efforts towards the goal and increase in priority of the goal. Thus, when things are going well, but are barely manageable, one redoubles ones efforts and is generally in the passionate/ commitment/ care zone.
  4. In the Approach system, when r>>a , that is rate of progress is so high that one is almost guaranteed to succeed, then one ends up feeling joy, and starts coasting and reducing efforts, starting looking for other opportunities, and thus decrease in priority of current task. Thus, when things are going strongly in your favor of achieving goal, it leads to happiness/ joy and coasting.
  5. In the Avoidance system, when r<a, then one feels fear or anxiety, which indicates that avoiding goal requires more efforts, which leads to more effort spending and increase in priority of the task.  Thus, when things are not going well, but are manageable it leads to fear/ aanxiety and more focus on the task.
  6. In the Avoidance system,  when r << a , that is rate of avoidance is much, much less than the criteria, or one is very close to reaching the anti-goal, then one feels guilt or disgust, which indicates that anti-goal is no longer avoidable, which leads to less effort spending and decrease in priority of the task. Thus, when things have gone out of hand, it leads to disgust/  and uncomfortable acceptance of the situation (the feeling you get when you already failed the test)
  7. In the Avoidance system, when r>a, then one feels interest or courage, and contrary to what Carver and Schieier suggest, leads to more efforts towards avoiding the anti-goal and increase in priority of the anti-goal. Thus, when things are going well, but are barely manageable, one redoubles ones efforts and is generally in the interested/ courageous/ calm zone.
  8. In the Avoidance system, when r>>a , that is rate of avoidance is so high that one is almost guaranteed to escape, then one ends up feeling wonder/ gratitude, and starts coasting and reducing efforts, starting looking for other dangers, and thus decrease in priority of current task. Thus, when things are going strongly in your favor of your avoiding the anti-goal, it leads to wonder/gratitude/ relief and vigilance.

The beauty of Carver and Shcheier model is their differentiation between an Approach system and an Avoidance system and how success or frustration in these systems have different emotional consequences. These are also conceptually related to promotion and prevention focus of Higgins et al.

I am excited by the above model as it aligns well with the eight basic emotions model and I hope this new extension of Carver and Scheier model will lead to much more empirical work in the field.

Evolution of the 4 Emotion Dimensions

PAD is a popular dimensional theory of emotions, whereby all emotions can be classified on three dimensions: Pleasure (Pleasant- Unpleasant), Arousal (Ready-Relaxed), and Dominance (Control- Lack of control). To this model has been added a fourth dimension called Predictability (Ambiguous- Certain) (please see my earlier post for why this fourth dimension is relevant).

Manga emotions

Manga emotions (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As an example, anger and fear are both unpleasant emotions, but angry person is in control (has high dominance) while a fearful person is not in control of the situation.

Similarly, both contentment and excitement are pleasant emotions, but the former is low arousal and the latter high arousal.

Thus, emotions differ on four basic dimensions. I’ll address each of these dimensions below:

Pleasure (pleasant – unpleasant). This is similar to pleasure-pain polarity as highlighted by Millon and works at the Affective level in the ABCD model. The pleasure polarity addresses the physiological needs (Maslow’s hierarchy, see here) for maintaining body, while the pain polarity ensures that we stay out of harm’s way and take care of our safety needs. If one were to measure well-being related to this dimension, the appropriate measure would be something like PANAS, a difference between your positive affect and negative affect. In a nutshell, this is characterized by in-the-moment feelings and if your needs are met here, you live a happy life in the hedonic sense. The existential challenge would be body-givennenss and what to do given the body- a potential answer being – survive and protect body integrity.

This dimension, related to feelings, may have evolved to help our bodies/genes survive. If something leads to unpleasant emotions, avoid it; if it leads to pleasant emotions, indulge and approach!


Arousal (Ready-Relaxed): This is similar to the active-passive polarity as highlighted by Millon and works at the Behavioral level of ABCD model. The active polarity, which is related to being excited/ inspired, addresses the self-actualization needs of Maslow’s, while the passive polarity, which may be related to tranquility/ calmness/ meditation etc is related to transcendence needs.  If one were to measure well-being related to this dimension, the appropriate measure would be something like Ryff’s Psychological well-being measuring things like psychological growth etc.  This dimension may be related to living authentically in this world and experiencing life to the fullest. The existential challenge relevant here would be how to cope with a meaningless/ absurd world. The answer may lie in living life fully and experiencing it deeply.

This emphasis on experience is related to the ‘experience’ component of consciousness (recall that consciousness is made up of two parts- experience and agency).  This dimension of emotion, related to energy/ experience, may have evolved to give the emotion a vibrant and vivid tone.  That vibrancy may be required if after gaining a  mind, we can retain it i.e. remain sane.


Predictability (Ambiguous- Certain): This is similar to the broad-narrow polarity as highlighted by Millon, and works at the cognitive level of ABCD model. The broad polarity, which is ambiguous and amorphous, is related to the Aesthetic and beauty needs of Maslow, while the narrow polarity to Knowledge and understanding needs. If one were to measure well-being related to this perhaps Satisfaction with Life survey might work. This dimension is related to attracting mates (both beauty and brains are attractive) and perhaps reproduction. The existential challenge here may be Death and the answer may be transcending death by leaving progeny. Cognitive abilities allow one to reflect on one’s own death and this leads to obsession with procreation. Intelligence (and beauty) associated with this dimension may be a result of sexual selection.

This dimension, associated with intelligence, may have evolved to help out bodies/ genes replicate. To figure if a mate is the best possible mate, and to attract / coax it, one may need intelligence and beauty.


Dominance (Control/ Lack of control): This is similar to self-other polarity, related to Drive level of ABCD.  The Self polarity is associated with self-esteem needs while the Other polarity with Belonging needs. Another way to conceptualize the same polarity is on interpersonal dimension of competence and warmth. If one were to measure well-being related to this dimension, the appropriate measure would be something like Key’s Scoial well-being measuring things like social trust. This dimension is related to controlling/ influencing others either via power or via love. The existential given here is Isolation and the solution is domination and control through exercising one’s ego. Agency/ ego/self may be important here. the issue whether we have control or nor makes this a part of moral domain too.

This dimension, associated with ego, may have evolved to spread the memes associated with the ego far and wide.


In essence, while Feelings and Intelligence are more closely related to evolution (survival and reproduction) of our physical bodies, Agency and Experience are more closely related to the evolution of our minds.

Emotions and Personality: Take 8

I am currently reading ‘Emotions in the practice of psychotherapy‘ by Robert Plutchik and have been finding it a good read. In it Plutchik elaborates on his famous psycho-evolutionary theory of emotions that led to the circumplex and the Plutchik wheel of emotions. Basically, Plutchik argues that emotions can be classified on three dimensions- intensity, similarity and polarity (complementarity) and if one were to focus on similarity and polarity one can find eight basic or primary emotions, with other emotions either being a blend of the primary emotions or differing in intensity.

Cover of "Emotions in the Practice of Psy...

Cover via Amazon

An example will help clarify: if one takes anger as a basic emotion then emotions like rage, fury or irritation, annoyance differ in their intensity from anger; likewise when two emotions like disgust and anger are co-present, then one may feel the emotion of hatred/hostility, which is a secondary emotion.

Long-term readers of this blog will know that I am sympathetic towards the basic emotions concept and also believe that their are eight basic emotions; the eight basic emotions identified by me are same as those by Plutchik though the polarity aspect varies slightly.  For e.g., I believe the right polarity combinations are Fear-Interest; Sadness- Joy; Anger – Love; and Disgust- Surprise. Note that Plutchik considers Anger-Fear to be opposites and believes that Love is not basic but a blend of Joy and Acceptance.

Plutchik believes, and I have been arguing in my series of posts on emotions and personality, that emotions and personality are intimately connected and that regular/ habitual emotional experiences/ states lead to enduring related personality traits. Also having a particular personality trait likewise increases the probability of experiencing a particular emotion predominately. Thus there is a string bidirectional linkages between the emotional states one finds oneself in and personality traits one has.

Emotions evolved because they helped us survive and thrive. They are related to particular contingencies or features of the situation and help prime action tendencies that effectively deal with those situations to restore one towards homeostatic state (in case of negative emotions) or move towards flourishing and growth (in case of positive emotions). Personality or stable differences in emotional, behavioral, cognitive and motivational responding evolved as it enabled different persons to adapt to different niches of the (social) environment. Personality disorders evolved when things were taken to an extreme or their were unresolved conflicts related to the corresponding emotions.

English: Robert Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions

English: Robert Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We will look at emotions and corresponding personality disorders to delineate the relationship between personality and emotions.

Examples will make this clear.

Consider Fear. Fear evolved whenever Danger was present and primed the action tendency to Escape/ withdraw/ protect. Or consider Sadness that evolved in relation to a significant Loss and primed the action tendencies towards Reintegrating or gaining social support or renegotiating. Anger evolved in situations where Obstacles impeded progress or goal achievement and primed the action tendencies of Destruction of that obstacle or aggressiveness in social situations. Disgust evolved when faced with Unpalatable or harmful object priming the action tendency to Reject that object, be it physical or social.

Positive emotions have similar situational triggers and similar action tendencies.

Now, Plutchik also looked at personality disorders, their co-morbidity in patients and the similarity ratings by experts for personality disorders, that were factor analyzed, to lead to a circumplex structure of personality disorders. This structure could clearly delineate which personality disorders were similar and clustered together. Remember this clustering is based on actual empirical data and not arbitrary like the clusters defined by DSM.

Plutchik listed three clusters; but I could make out four clusters based on theoretical rationale as well as inspection of the circumplex.

The four clusters of personality disorders are :

  • Cluster A: Avoidant, Self-Defeating and Dependent personality disorders.
  • Cluster B: Dysthemic, Borderline, Histrionic and Hypomanic (this is not there in Plutchik circumplex)
  • Cluster D: Antisocial, Narcissistic, Sadistic and Passive-aggressive
  • Cluster C: Schizoid, Schizotypal, Paranoid and Obsessive-compulsive.

This brings me to my ABCD model, especially as applied to personality. To extend it to above relationship between emotions and personality disorders, I will make a point that Fear-Interest emotional dimension is related to Cluster A (Affect based) personality disorders, Sadness-Joy to cluster B (Behavioral), Anger-Love to cluster D (Dynamic/Social) and Disgust-Surprise to Cluster C (Cognitive).

Consider Avoidant and Self-defeating personality disorders – they are clearly related to (social) withdrawal, escape etc. and thus to Fear;  Dependent can be related to lack of Interest.

Dysthemic and Borderline are clearly related to reintegration/ renegotiation etc and thus to sadness; Histrionic and Hypomanic are clearly related to problems with Joy/ Activity.

Sadistic and Passive-aggressive are related to destructiveness (either overt or covert) and related to anger; Narcissistic (too much self love) and Anti-Social (no love for society)  are problems with Love/compassion.   Taken together the four personality traits related to above like Sadism, Machiavellianism,  Psychopathy and Narcissism make the Dark Tetrad.

Lastly, Paranoid and Obsessive-compulsive are related to getting rid of something undesirable (external conspirators or internal thoughts) and possibly related to disgust.  Schizoid and Schizotypal may on the other hand be related to Surprise.

If one were to continue extending the circumplex and extrapolate from emotions and personality disorders circumplex, one would arrive at the same ABCD structure of personality that I arrived from other considerations.

In essence, Fear is related to Neuroticism personality trait which is related to Avoidant and self-defeating personality disorders. Interest is related to eXtraversion trait and Dependent personality disorder.

Sadness is related to Conscientiousness trait and Dsythemic and Borderline disorders. Joy with Impulsive Sensation Seeking trait and Histrionic and Hypomanic disorder.

Anger is related to Agreeableness trait and Sadistic and Passive-aggressive disorders while Love is related to Honesty/Humility trait and Antisocial and Narcissistic disorders.

Finally, Disgust is related to Imagination trait and Paranoid and obsessive -compulsive disorders; while surprise is related to Openness to Experience trait and Schizoid and Schizotypal disorders.

To me, the above seems conclusive and makes immense sense. The cluster A disorders (as I have defined them, not the DSM ones) are primarily disorders of Affect; Cluster B of Behavior , Cluster C of cognition while cluster D of motives or are interpersonal in nature. This to me is an important theoretical advancement and should be followed up with empirical work.

Different Frames, Different Outcomes, Different Emotions

Most readers I presume are familiar with the work of Kahneman and Tversky on how statements framed in either loss or gain lead to different outcomes; however this is not a post about prospect theory. Instead this is about a different type of framing: whether the goals you set for yourself are in terms of approach or avoidance, and is loosely based around the work of AJ Elliot as also that of Higgins around prevention and promotion focus.

English: Emotions Q-sort

English: Emotions Q-sort (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One can set an approach goal or a goal with promotion focus (I’m using these interchangeably in this post though there are important theoretical differences) wherein one is very much focused on achieving a positive outcome. Or one could set an avoidance goal or a goal with prevention focus whereby one is overtly focused on not achieving or ending up in a negative state.

To illustrate by way of an example, if I am studying and appearing for an exam in near future, I may phrase my approach goal as ‘I want to pass in this exam’ or I may phrase my avoidance goal as ‘I don’t want to fail in this exam’. From a lay reading both goals may seem equivalent but they are not. They have different repercussions in terms of emotions felt while pursuing the goals etc.

Research has also shown that some people have a more approach oriented temperament and other more avoidance or preventive focused.

Avoidance goals are typically related to your fears and anxieties while approach goals to what you look forward to and are excited about.

Consider a scenario where you don’t currently have any overarching, activated goal. If you frame this lack of goals in avoidance terms that ‘I don’t have anything to be worried about’ you are likely to feel calm; on the other hand phrasing it as ‘I don’t have anything to look forward to’ will lead to you likely feeling bored.

Thus, while presence of an avoidance goal leads to fear, an absence of the same leads to calm; the presence of an approach goal leads to excitement/ Interest/ curiosity while the absence of same leads to boredom.

Another important theory by Carver and Scheier stresses the emergence of emotions as indicators of progress towards goals- with positive emotions arising if you are making progress toward the goal and negative emotions if you are not making sufficient progress.

Applying the same to the two different framing of goals, if you are progressing towards an approach goal say ‘I am likely to pass the exam’ you are likely to feel quite happy about the fact; however if you are far from achieving the approach goal say ‘I am unlikely to pass the exam’, you may become sad. Similarly, if you are progressing well towards an avoidance goal (‘I am likely to not fail’) you may feel relief; while if you are not making progress towards the avoidance goal (‘I am likely to fail’ ) then you will feel much stress.

Next consider the avoidance/ approach goal to be framed in zero-sum or non-zero sum game terms. A zero sum game is where if one person wins then the other loses; a non zero sum game is where there can be multiple winners and nobody’s payoff gets diminished due to others winning.

A zero sum avoidance game sees either winner or loser in a social situation and believes that the only way to not fail is to not let others succeed too and may phrase its goal like ‘I don’t want to be the loser’.  This may justifiably lead to feelings of anger and aggression when interacting socially with other con-specifics while trying to pursue this goal; On the other hand a  non-zero sum avoidance goal assumes that it is possible that everyone may fail or everyone may win and the attitude is more compassionate towards con-specifics who are all suffering and focused on not failing. The phrasing of goal is slightly different ‘I don’t want to be a loser’.

A zero sum approach game again sees either a winner or a loser in any social interaction but is focused on winning ‘I want to be the winner’ . This leads to justifiable competitiveness; a non zero sum reading of the same situation ‘I want to be a winner’ leads to much more altruistic and kind emotions and behaviors.

I can vouch for this from personal experience too- when I was preparing for JEE I just wanted to be one of the top 100 and did not look at my friends who were also preparing as competitors but as collaborators- because I wanted to be ‘a’ winner, not ‘the’ winner.

The last set of emotions tied to these different framing are when one either satisfactorily completes the avoidance/ approach goal or fails to do so.

Consider satisfactory completion of an avoidance goal- ‘I did not fail’ – because the initial goal if farmed negatively one may be surprised at the results; if however on does fail one may be filled with disgust.

Satisfactory completion of an approach goal – ‘I passed’ may lead to feelings of wonder/ awe/ gratitude while unsatisfactory completion or failure- I did not pass’  may lead to feelings of shock etc.

Thus, I believe there are at least 16 different types of emotional responses eight tied to approach goals and eight to avoidance goals- approach goals related emotions are excitement/ boredom; happiness/sadness; competition/ kindness; and wonder/ shock. Avoidance related emotions are fear/ calm; relief/ stress; aggression/ compassion ; and disgust/ surprise.

This of course is based on theory as well as my reading of some empirical work done on emotions related to approach/ avoidance. However, there is a lot of scope for additional research to validate these predictions- I hope someone out there does do some research around this framework.

Stress causes negative emotions – are you NUTS?

Stress has been defined in many ways – one conceptualization that I find powerful and useful is the NUTS framework developed by Dr. Sonia Lupien. As per it, stress results when one or more of the following four ingredients are present in a situation.

NOVELTY Something new you have not experienced before
UNPREDICTABILITY Something you had no way of knowing it would occur
THREAT TO THE EGO Your competence as a person is called into question
SENSE OF CONTROL You feel you have little or no control over the situation

English: Emotions Q-sort

English: Emotions Q-sort (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These conditions need not be aversive for the situation or event to feel stressful. For example, a person who is recently promoted may feel stress because of the new responsibilities that are novel and maybe he has no real option of declining the promotion, so he has little control too in the matter. Or consider the birth of a new born. So both positive and negative life events may lead to stress and maybe its more about how you are appraising stressful event.

If you are appraising a Novel event as a disruption of schedule/ comfort you will probably feel disgust; if you are appraising the same event as an opportunity to explore new stuff, you will most probably feel surprise / wonder. Its also conceivable that those high in the personality trait of Openness to experience may have more positive appraisals.

Similarly, an unpredictable situation may result in sadness if the unpredictability of rewards/ stimuli is attributed to deficits in self. If however, the unpredictability of situation is attributed to luck or external circumstances one may be more at ease and feel joy or happiness (note that ‘hap’ means luck). Its likely that those who are more Extraverted have a more positive appraisal.

A threat to ego or self may lead to feelings of fear and anxiety if the threat is considered unmanageable. On the other hand if the threat is considered manageable, it will result in the emotion of courage and facing the issue rather than running away. Those high in emotional stability (vs Neuroticism) are likely to show more positive appraisals.

Lastly, when one is in a situation that provides little options of control, one may feel anger if one is in a dominating frame of mind and needs control. On the other hand, one may feel love or compassion if one is ready to voluntarily give up control and submit oneself in the service of other. Agreeableness may mediate the relation with positive appraisals.

So as Kelly McGonigal has pointed out stress by itself is not bad; its how you appraise stressful circumstances that may be the key to suffering and wilting or rejoicing and flourishing.