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Blurred Definitions of Affect and Emotion

[Photo by Hugo]

Blurry and confusing definitions are the stock-in-trade of psychologists, just as they are of many other scientists. Perhaps you have noticed that I have been guilty of using the words ‘affect’ and ’emotion’ rather loosely. I’m not the only one. Similar to many other areas of psychology, emotion researchers are far from decided and united on where to draw the lines, and, indeed, if lines can or should be drawn at all.

Panksepp (2000) offers the following delineation:

  • Emotion is the umbrella term for all of the behavioural, expressive, cognitive  and physiological changes that occur.
  • Affect is the conscious experience of an emotion.
  • Emotional affect is the unconscious component of emotion.
  • Non-emotional affect is rather a vague term that just includes everything that isn’t an emotional affect, e.g. nausea and pain. [I don’t agree with Panksepp here, how can pain be considered non ‘action-promoting’?]

Emotional affect, then, is what Panksepp dismissively refers to as “…’spooky’ mental issues…” (Panksepp, 2000:50) and what LeDoux (1996) calls the proper and necessary subject of emotion research.

The well-known neurologist and emotion researcher Antonio Damasio has suggested the following taxonomy:

  • A state of emotion can be started and executed unconsciously.
  • A state of feeling is unconscious.
  • A state of feeling made conscious which is the emotion and feeling made conscious (I think!)
  • Affect, then, is the conscious experience of emotion.

Different purposes require different definitions and Panksepp and Damasio have different purposes for their definitions. That said, there are considerable differences. For example, Panksepp thinks affect is both conscious and unconscious, Damasio think it is only conscious (or nonconscious as he writes). Panksepp thinks emotion is an umbrella term for everything, Damasio thinks it describes only unconscious aspects. And, as each of them is grappling with these vague concepts, just like the rest of us, they are both correct, for their own purposes.

To take a third example, perhaps more typical, Davidson (2003) appears to use the words ‘affect’ and ’emotion’ interchangeably.

“Sin 2: Affect is subcortical. There is a tendency among some investigators to regard emotions as largely subcortical and to sometimes also assume that cognitions are cortical.” (Davidson, 2003:129, emphasis added)

Incidentally I’ll be returning to this article to talk about the seven deadly sins of emotion researchers.

Given the state of confusion over meaning, I’m forced to reserve judgement over the ‘correct’ definition of affect and emotion. I’d like to go along with the dictionary definition of ‘affect’ as a “Feeling or emotion, especially as manifested by facial expression or body language” (Dicitonary.com) but, clearly for psychologists and those in related fields, the word’s technical usage has yet to settle down.

Damasio, A. (1999). The Feeling of What Happens: Body Emotion and the Making of Consciousness. London: Vintage.

Davidson, R. (2003). Seven sins in the study of emotion: Correctives from affective neuroscience. Brain and Cognition, 52(1), 129-132.

Panksepp, J. (2000). Affective consciousness and the instinctual motor system: The neural sources of sadness and joy. The Caldron of Consciousness: Motivation, Affect and Self-organization, Advances in Consciousness Research. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Pub. Co.



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