Emotions are part of human nature. They give us information about what we are experiencing and help us know how to react. Emotions are experienced from the time you are born. Infants react to their emotions with facial expressions or actions such as cuddling or crying, but are not yet able to name the emotion or why they feel the way they do. As children get older they begin to identify and explain the way they feel. But why do people have emotions? What do they communicate? Emotions have a significant effect on people, but what is it all for?
‘An emotion is a complex psychological state that involves three distinct components: a subjective experience, a physiological response, and a behavioural or expressive response’
(Hockenbury & Hockenbury, 2007). Researchers have found that although there seems to be a number of universal emotions experienced by everyone, emotions can be highly subjective ranging in strength and dimension. Emotions involve physiological responses such as tensing muscles, changes in heart rate, breathing rate or skin temperature. Each emotion triggers a distinctive physiological reaction to help us deal with different situations that arise. For example, as you become angry your muscles tense up, your heart rate accelerates and your face may flush as increased blood flow enters your limbs and extremities in preparation for physical action. The behavioural response or expressions of emotions are generally universal such as smiling when you feel happy. However, cultural rules also play an important role in how we express and interpret emotions. For example, in Japan people tend to mask displays of fear or disgust when in the presence of an authority figure.
Emotions also involve action urges. An important function of emotions is to prompt behaviours. For example, if you feel angry the action urge may be to yell at someone or if you feel anxious the action urge may be to avoid or run away from the situation. The action itself (the yelling or running away) is not part of the emotion. However, the urge or feeling that prompts you to do the action, is considered part of the emotion. We experience urges all the time that we do not necessarily act on.
Function of emotions
From an evolutionary perspective, emotions played a role in survival. When people shared their environment with dangerous predators they needed emotions to help them act quickly in dangerous situations. If faced with a wild animal such as a bear, it was more effective to experience fear so strong that it triggered adrenaline to help them run away than to stay where they were and critically analyse their best move. People developed an emotional system because it could stimulate quick responses to danger.
Today, emotions still serve a purpose in helping to protect us, but they also serve other functions such as:
- Emotions can help motivate us to take action: Emotions help us to organise our behaviour and set us up to accomplish a goal. For example, when faced with an upcoming exam, you might feel anxious about how well you will perform. This emotional response might motivate you to take action and study to improve your chances of getting a good mark.
- Emotions can help us make decisions: Our emotions have a key influence on the decisions we make, from deciding what to cook for dinner to what career to pursue. Even in situations where we believe our decision was directed purely by logic and rationality, emotions play a key role. Researchers have also found that people with damage to certain areas of their brain have a decreased ability to make good decisions.
- Emotions allow us to communicate with others: When we interact with people we give them cues to help them understand how we are feeling. These cues include body language, facial expressions or verbal information about how we feel. For example, if you are happy, you will likely smile, your muscles will be relaxed and you will have open body language. Just as our emotions provide valuable information to others, the emotional expressions of others helps us recognise what others are feeling. For example, if your friend is sitting with their head and shoulders drooped and tears coming from their eyes you will likely perceive they are feeling sad.
- Emotions can help us communicate with ourselves: Emotions provide us with cues and clues about specific situations. They can be a signal that something is happening that we may need to respond to.
Emotions play an essential role in everyday life. Sometimes they can be difficult, overwhelming, confusing or scary. It is important to listen to what our emotions are telling us. When we do not tune in to our own and others emotions, psychological and social problems may develop. If you allow your emotions to be there without trying to suppress, ignore or hide them, you will find that they are there to guide, teach, warn and protect you. So why not spend some time getting to know and understand your emotions.
Ekman, P. (1999). Facial Expressions In T. Dalgleish & M. Power (Eds.), Handbook of Cognition and Emotion (pp. 301-320). Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.
Hockenbury, D. H. & Hockenbury, S. E. (2007). Discovering Psychology. New York: Worth Publishers.
Nesse, R. M., & Ellsworth, P. C. (2009). Evolution, Emotions, and Emotional Disorders. American Psychologist, 64 (2), 129-139. Doi: 10.1037/a0013503