What are emotions?

As I was writing articles about emotional intelligence I began to wonder, just what are emotions?These articles include What Is Emotional Intelligence, How to Handle Criticism Like a Superhero, The Three-Step Method to Emotional Intelligence, and Empathy - What Is It? Why is It Important? How to Be More Empathetic.

What can science tell us?

While researching this topic, I found what I consider to be the mother lode.  I'm breaking from my practice of using multiple sources to gain a well-rounded understanding of a topic, and I will focus this entire post on one article.Scarantino, Andrea and Ronald de Sousa, "Emotion", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2021/entries/emotion/>.

This is no ordinary scholarly article.  In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "a scholarly, dynamic reference work," you will find this article with a fascinating history.  Written in 2003, the article has undergone four substantive changes since then.  It is associated with a highly prestigious institution, and it has been available for scholars and the public to view for 18 years now, so I have little doubt that it is accurate.

I am writing this to make the article more accessible to laypeople like myself, and more specifically, the process of writing this summary has forced me to wrap my head around the highly academic concepts it contains.  Let's get to it.

How much do we know about emotions?

How often do we encounter something so central to life, involving life and death in some cases, and yet we understand so little of it?

No aspect of our mental life is more important to the quality and meaning of our existence than the emotions. They are what make life worth living and sometimes worth ending.

In spite of all the research done on emotions in the last 100 years, we still don't have a clear understanding of what they are.  How much do we know?

Are emotions:

  • Occurrences or dispositions?
  • Short-lived or long-lived?
  • Processed primitively in the brain or in a sophisticated manner?
  • Conscious or unconscious?
  • Accompanied by typical facial expressions, or not?
  • A human characteristic, or shared by other species?

The answer is all of the above.

A person can panic or be prone to hostility. While anger can be short-lived, grief can last for months. A person may be quickly alarmed by a looming object, or they may realize gradually that they are losing a chess match.  Obvious facial expressions accompany surprise but not sadness. Although all species experience fear, schadenfreude (rejoicing in the pain of others) is a uniquely human emotion.

All emotions contain components:

  • Evaluative: Determining that a bear is dangerous
  • Physiological: Heart rate and blood pressure increase
  • Phenomenological: A strong, unpleasant feeling
  • Expressive: The upper eyelids raise and the jaw drops open
  • Behavioral: Fleeing from the bear
  • Mental: All the attention is focused on the bear

Do emotions cause these components, or do the components cause emotions? There is no consensus among academics regarding the answer to this question.

Three modern approaches

According to the article, modern approaches to understanding emotions can be divided into three main categories:

  • Those following the Feeling Tradition view emotions as unique conscious experiences whose main characteristic is how they feel.
  • In the Evaluative Tradition, emotions are primary in the way they understand the world, and emotions are (or involve) distinctive evaluations of the circumstances eliciting them.
  • Emotions are considered distinctive motivational states in the Motivational Tradition.

We can better understand these three schools of thought by examining the following questions:

  • Are emotions feelings?
  • Are they judgments?
  • Are they motivations?
  • Are they associated with objects (another person, for example), or can they be undirected?

Let's consider how each tradition weighs in on each of these four main questions.

The Feeling Tradition

Are emotions feelings?

Yes. They are considered to be similar to other sensory experiences, like tasting chocolate or feeling a pain in one's back.

Are they judgments?

Only to the extent that an object or quality is associated with the emotion. For example, a person feels fear when they see a bear, because bears are scary.

Are they motivations?

This tradition considers action and emotion to be essentially the same thing.

Are they associated with objects (another person, for example), or can they be undirected?

Both. A person who associates slights with anger may feel angry at someone who slights them. A person may also be angry at no one in particular, simply because they are not happy with the way things have turned out in their life.

The Evaluative Tradition

Are emotions feelings?

Not directly. This tradition views emotions primarily as judgments. Some hold the idea that emotions are essentially thoughts (cognitions or evaluations), while others believe that emotions come from cognitions or evaluations.

In the cause-and-effect relationship between judgments and other components of emotions, some advocate for one direction, while others advocate the reverse. This leads to a chicken-and-egg type of problem.

Currently, the majority of dominant theories of emotion are hybrids of the Evaluative and Feeling traditions.

Are they judgments?


The presence of recalcitrant emotions, that is, emotions that contradict a person's cognitive assessment of their situation, is problematic for this tradition.  Even someone who judges a transparent platform at the Grand Canyon to be safe might still be afraid to step on it.

Some researchers attempt to explain this by saying that emotions have a narrative (story) structure that plays itself out during the course of each emotional episode, and stories take place over stretches of time.  To be honest, this part made the least sense to me.

Are they motivations?


There are problems with this view. Motivation does not always follow a judgment. Also, animals and infants are not capable of forming judgments as we normally define them. In addition, emotions can be contrary to good judgment.

In order to compensate for this, some theorists add other components to judgments, such as feelings, beliefs, or desires.

What about emotions that contradict every conscious thought? For example, consider the above example of the transparent platform over the Grand Canyon. To explain the conflict between cognitive judgment and emotion, some compare the phenomenon to a visual illusion, where we perceive a pencil in a glass of water as bent, yet believe it to be straight.

Proponents of this tradition believe motivation stems from the feeling that something is worthy of attention and action.

Are they associated with objects (another person, for example), or can they be undirected?

Only to the extent that I associate the emotion with an object. For example, if I think of ice as being dangerous, I will feel fear when thinking about stepping onto it.

The Motivational Tradition

Are emotions feelings?

Yes, and to the extent they are pleasant or painful, they move us toward or away from the stimulus.

The tradition holds that an emotion can be viewed as a type of program that becomes active under certain circumstances and produces certain results. However, no empirical evidence has confirmed this.

According to this view, emotions indicate the body's readiness for action.

Are they judgments?

In this view, no. Emotions are considered to be attitudes rather than judgments.

Are they motivations?

According to the Motivational Tradition, emotions are directed toward achieving some sort of goal. This position poses problems:

  • Grief and depression, for example, demotivate rather than motivate.
  • Some emotions, such as regret, don't clearly motivate action.
  • Can someone who is jumping for joy be said to have a clear motivation?
  • A particular emotion does not always lead to a certain action, and an action may be prompted by more than one emotion.

Are they associated with objects (another person, for example), or can they be undirected?

This tradition doesn't appear to offer a clear explanation of the relationships between emotions and associated objects.

How do modern theories of emotion view the relationship between emotions and rational thinking?

Though logic is considered the opposite of emotion, rationality is not the same. Emotions can not be logical, but they can be rational. How? Emotion theorists specify three ways: An emotion can be fitting, warranted, or coherent.

If a person fears something that is truly dangerous, their fear is fitting.

Imagine someone feeling fear when a mechanical shark appears alongside their boat. The fear is not fitting, but it is warranted. The object demonstrates certain signs of danger.

If someone believes flying is dangerous and fears it, this is rationally coherent. It may not make sense, given that other modes of transportation are more hazardous, however logic is not the issue. The person's view of flying and their emotion are consistent with one another.

Irrational emotions would include:

  • Anger towards someone even after learning they did not do what we thought they did.
  • The act of panicking during a house fire and not paying attention to life-saving instructions given by the fireman.

Changes in prominent academic views on emotions over the years

Comparing the newest version (2018 revision) to the original version (2003) of this document has given me a good idea of the changes in general consensus among experts in the field of study of emotions. Here are some factors that have remained the same:

  • Emotions typically involve conscious experiences.
  • Emotions can vary considerably in many dimensions: intensity, types of associated objects, expressions, behaviors, and physiological responses, to name a few.

There have been some changes:

  • Though emotions were traditionally considered the opposite of reason, this no longer applies.
  • Recent research has shifted the focus from the role of emotions in moral and social life to the role of emotions in motivation.
  • Most researchers believe emotions represent something, such as intentionality.

In addition, modern neuroscience has led to more conclusions:

  • No specific part of the brain controls emotions. They can't even be tied to the brain specifically, but are part of the body and being as a whole.
  • Emotions can arise independently from conscious thought or experience.
  • Emotions can be appropriate or inappropriate.
  • Typically, they involve some kind of appraisal.
  • They typically correlate with changes in motivation.

However, the details are still being debated.

My conclusion

Emotions change over time, as does our understanding of them.  While unsatisfying, this seems fitting.

The different schools of thought discussed in this article remind me of the differing perspectives of critical thinking experts.  While we have a long way to go before we have a single standard definition for either critical thinking or emotions, it is good to know that we can at least understand what most experts agree on.  Right now, this is all anyone can ask for.