12 Laws of the Emotions

Explore the psychology of the emotions with these 12 laws.

Explore the psychology of the emotions with these 12 laws.

We tend to think of our emotions as having laws unto themselves, but one psychological researcher has suggested that our emotions do follow certain general rules.

Professor Nico Frijda puts forward twelve laws of the emotions (Fridja, 2006). As with most laws there are exceptions, but these have been synthesised from years of psychological research and hold true much of the time.

1. The Law of Situational Meaning

The first law is simply that emotions derive from situations. Generally the same types of situation will elicit the same types of emotional response. Loss makes us grieve, gains make us happy and scary things make us fearful (mostly anyway – see all the other laws).

2. The Law of Concern

We feel because we care about something, when we have some interest in what happens, whether it’s to an object, ourselves, or another person. Emotions arise from these particular goals, motivations or concerns. When we are unconcerned we don’t feel anything.

3. The Law of Apparent Reality

Whatever seems real to us, can elicit an emotional response. In other words how we appraise or interpret a situation governs the emotion we feel (compare with laws 11 & 12). The reason poor movies, plays or books don’t engage us emotionally is because, in some sense, we fail to detect truth. Similarly it’s difficult to get emotional about things that aren’t obvious, right in front of us. For example grief may not strike when we are told about the death of loved one, but only once it becomes real to us in some way – say when we pick up the phone to call them, forgetting they are gone.

4, 5 & 6. The Laws of Change, Habituation and Comparative Feeling

The law of habituation means that in life we get used to our circumstances whatever they are (mostly true, but see laws 7 & 8). The emotions, therefore, respond most readily to change. This means that we are always comparing what is happening to a relatively steady frame of reference (what we are used to). As a result our emotions tend to respond most readily to changes that are relative to this frame of reference.

7. The Law of Hedonic Asymmetry

There are certain awful circumstances to which we can never become accustomed. If things are bad enough, it is impossible to escape negative feelings like fear or anxiety. On the other hand positive emotions always fade over time. No matter how much we are in love, how big the lottery win, or how copious the quantities of drugs consumed, positive emotions like pleasure always slip away.

8. The Law of Conservation of Emotional Momentum

Time doesn’t heal all wounds – or if it does, it only does so indirectly. Events can retain their emotional power over the years unless we re-experience and re-evaluate them. It’s this re-experiencing and consequent re-definition that reduces the emotional charge of an event. This is why events that haven’t been re-evaluated – say, failing an exam or being rejected by a potential lover – retain their emotional power across the decades.

9. The Law of Closure

The way we respond to our emotions tends to be absolute. They often lead immediately to actions of one kind or another, and they will brook no discussion (but see laws 10, 11 & 12). In other words emotional responses are closed to goals other than their own or judgements that can mitigate the response. An emotion seizes us and send us resolutely down one path, until later that is, when a different emotion sends us down the opposite path.

10. The Law of Care for Consequences

People naturally consider the consequences of their emotions and modify them accordingly. For example anger may provoke violent feelings towards another, but generally people refrain from stabbing each other willy-nilly. Instead they will shout, hit their head on the wall or just silently fume. Emotions may absolutely dictate a type of response, but people do modulate the size of that response (usually!).

11 & 12. Laws of the Lightest Load and the Greatest Gain

The emotional impact of an event or situation depends on its interpretation. Putting a different ‘spin’ on a situation can change the feeling. The law of the lightest load means people are particularly motivated to use re-interpretations to reduce negative emotions. For example we might reduce the fear of the credit crunch by generating the illusion we won’t be affected. The exact reverse is also true: whenever a situation can be reinterpreted for a positive emotional gain, it will be. For example anger can be used to make others back down, grief attracts help and fear may stop us rashly attempting difficult or dangerous tasks.

Exploring the emotions

You may not agree with all of these ‘laws’, for example this is quite an individually based account of emotion, and tends to downplay the social aspects of emotion. Nevertheless it is an excellent starting point which provides a very useful way of thinking about emotions, and helps pave the way for examining individual emotions.

[Image credit: Victor Bezrukov]

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This site is all about scientific research into how the mind works.

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Author: Jeremy Dean

Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology. He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book "Making Habits, Breaking Habits" (Da Capo, 2013) and several ebooks.