Emotion is a core part of human experience and, as such, plays a central role in numerous aspects of human communication. Contemporary communication research examines how emotion influences various communication processes and outcomes, how different aspects of communication influence diverse emotional states, and the multiple ways in which emotional states are expressed during the course of interactions.
Conceptualizations Of Emotion
Definitions of emotion vary widely (Solomon 2000), but there is broad agreement that emotion is a subset of the broader construct “affect,” and should be distinguished from the related construct “mood.” As forms of affect, both emotion and mood are feelings that have some valence (typically on a positive–negative continuum), some level of intensity (mild to strong), and some duration (brief to enduring). Emotions are typically episodic (provoked by a particular circumstance), exhibit a relatively brief duration, and are comparatively intense. Alternatively, moods are typically tonic (more global and diffuse in character), are not usually tied to any particular provoking incident (and thus typically have no obvious cause), often endure for considerable periods of time, and are milder than emotions.
Moods are typically background states of which people may be only vaguely aware; moods generally have few direct motivational consequences. When moods influence behavior, they typically do so through subtle effects on perception, memory, information integration, and other forms of information processing (Forgas 2001). Emotions, however, have comparatively strong and direct motivational implications, arousing the distinct motivational and behavioral orientations termed “action tendencies,” biologically based behavioral responses that help organisms cope adaptively with emotion-eliciting environmental demands (e.g., the action tendency for fear is flight; the action tendency for anger is attack). Action tendencies provide orientations to action, not automatically executed behavioral programs; an aroused action tendency may be suppressed, ignored, or transformed rather than acted upon.
Although virtually all conceptualizations of emotion include the elements of feeling (especially valence) and action tendency, theorists diverge with regard to the essential nature of the emotions (for review, see Guerrero et al. 1998). Some maintain that emotions are categorically distinct states; proponents of this view hold that there is a small number of “basic emotions” (e.g., happiness, anger, fear, sadness, surprise, disgust), each of which consists of distinct (and discrete) patterns of feeling, arousal, and expression that are culturally universal. Others conceptualize emotions as fluid, fuzzy conditions best characterized as intersections of several different dimensions, such as valence (positive– negative), activation (active–passive), and intensity (mild–strong). A third perspective, the prototype approach, incorporates elements of both these approaches by maintaining that there is a small number of prototypical emotions, each of which consists of several distinguishing features (e.g., distinct feelings); in turn, each core emotion encompasses a family of related emotions that differ from one another on one or more dimensions (e.g., the “joy” family encompasses amusement, enthusiasm, contentment, pride, etc.).
Contemporary theories often treat emotion as a syndrome that is constituted from several components (Parkinson 1995). There is general agreement that the most complete emotional experience is characterized by a distinctive (1) feeling state (a sensed subjective experience that is relatively brief and intense), (2) action tendency (motivational orientation), (3) set of cognitions (appraisals of the environment), (4) collection of expressive behaviors (including nonverbal, paraverbal, and/or verbal signals and symbols), and (5) physiological state (including patterns of neuroendocrine, cardiovascular, and respiratory responses). Theorists vary on which (if any) of these components are necessary (or sufficient) for emotional experience, and different theories give distinctive weights to each component in their depictions of emotional phenomena.
Theories Of Emotion
Four broad perspectives inform most current theories of and research on emotion: the Darwinian perspective, the Jamesian perspective, the cognitive perspective, and the social constructionist perspective (Cornelius 1996). Each of these has had a significant influence in areas of communication research.
The Darwinian Perspective
Grounded in Darwin’s Expression of the emotions in man and animals (1872/1965), the Darwinian perspective maintains that emotions are universal (species-wide) response patterns that developed over the course of evolution. These response patterns function to help the organism cope with (and survive) persistent environmental challenges. Viewing emotions as adjustment mechanisms leads to a focus on the action tendencies and expressive behaviors (i.e., facial displays, gestures, vocalizations) associated with particular emotions since these are the vehicles through which coping occurs; the physiological response patterns associated with emotions also receive attention by some Darwinians. Because they are products of evolution, all humans should share the same emotions (especially the same set of basic emotions) and should experience and express these in similar ways. Further, because the genetically based patterns of expression for particular emotions are universal, these expressions serve an informative function (communicating the organism’s internal experience), as well as an adaptive function.
Some research in this tradition focuses on identifying and assessing the universality of facial expressions for a variety of basic emotions, and considerable evidence indicates there are notable cross-cultural similarities in the facial displays associated with several distinct emotions. Other research suggests substantial cross-cultural universals in the meanings (i.e., experience) of different emotions, a finding consistent with the notion that basic emotions represent species-wide semantic primitives. Darwinians recognize, of course, that people do not always fully express every emotion they experience, nor does every emotional expression correspond to an experienced emotion. These facts are reconciled with the claim of universals in emotional experience and expression through the notion of “display rules,” “socially learned, often culturally different, rules about the management of expression, about who can show which emotion to whom and when they can do so” (Ekman 2003, 4). The Darwinian perspective is evident in communication research examining social implications of spontaneous, socialized (rulegoverned), and strategic (planned) expression of emotion, especially in deception contexts (Buck & VanLear 2002).
The Jamesian Perspective
The Jamesian perspective, inspired by the speculations of William James (1884), is also informed by evolutionary theory and assumes that emotions evolved as adaptive mechanisms that facilitate coping with environmental demands; however, it assumes that emotional experiences arise as a consequence of bodily reactions. Accordingly, bodily responses – including facial expressions, postural changes, neurological activity, and visceral reactions (e.g., changes in heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, and other autonomic activity) – follow directly from the perception of an “exciting fact” (i.e., an external stimulus), and the organism’s sensing of these bodily responses is the emotion.
On this view, “we do not smile because we are happy. Instead, we are happy because we smile, and also angry because we frown, sad because we sit slumped and listless, and so forth, for all emotions” (Laird & Bresler 1992, 213).
One point of division within this perspective concerns the physiological (especially autonomic) specificity of different emotions. Some Jamesians hold that each emotion encompasses a distinct pattern of physiological arousal, it is the unique physiological pattern associated with a particular emotion that people experience as a discrete emotional state. Consistent with this view, some tests of the facial feedback hypothesis have found reliable changes in subjective feelings and autonomic activity when people pose certain facial and postural expressions of emotion; emotional experiences appear to follow these expressions. Communication scholars have observed that because people engaged in face-to-face interaction tend to mimic one another’s expressions, one implication of the facial feedback hypothesis is the social contagion of emotion; that is, an emotional state may be passed from one person to another through the unconscious mimicry of the other’s facial expressions and body positions (Cappella 1993).
Empirical evidence regarding the autonomic specificity of different emotions is mixed; although autonomic activity reliably differentiates negative from positive emotional experiences, specific emotions have not been reliably differentiated by distinct patterns of autonomic arousal. Thus, a second group of Jamesian theorists suggests that although physiological arousal is a necessary condition for emotional experience, and may precede that experience, the arousal associated with most emotions is undifferentiated and must be interpreted or labeled to acquire significance. For example, Schachter’s (1964) two-factor theory of emotion maintains that undifferentiated arousal gives rise to searches for the cause of the arousal, with individuals examining features of the setting, the status of goal-directed behavior, and other contextual cues in the effort to label the arousal. In communication scholarship, this multifactor Jamesian view of emotional experience is best represented in Zillman’s excitation transfer theory and three-factor theory of emotion; these frameworks provide explanations for the emotional effects of media exposure, among other emotion-related communicative phenomena.
Cognitive Or Appraisal Theories
A third perspective on emotion, cognitive or appraisal theories, maintains that bodily reactions are generated as consequences of the individual’s cognitive interpretation (appraisal) of the situation. These theories view emotions as arising from an individual’s cognitive evaluation of a situation and its appraised implications for personal well-being. Because appraisal theories view emotion as generated by cognitive evaluations of specific person–environment relationships, different patterns of appraisal about how the environment affects well-being lead to the experience of distinct emotions. Associated with the cognitive appraisals, subjective feelings, and consequent physiological activity that constitute the emotional experience are action tendencies that function to help the person cope adaptively with the emotion-arousing event.
Research within the cognitive perspective addresses a variety of issues, including the general dimensions along which events are appraised, the specific appraisal patterns associated with particular emotions, how emotional reactions are altered through modifying appraisals, and the consequences for action that follow from particular appraisals and emotions (see review by Smith & Kirby 2001). Communication scholars have utilized the cognitive perspective to explore how appraisals and their attendant emotions influence – and are influenced by – interaction goals, message processing, and message use in a variety of social settings (MacGeorge 2001).
The Social Constructionist Perspective
A fourth approach to emotion, the social constructionist perspective, conceptualizes emotions as transitory social roles enacted by people in particular, socially defined settings (Averill 1980). Action tendencies and patterns of expressive behavior receive focused attention within this viewpoint, but social constructionists see emotions originating in cultural conventions about the feelings and actions that are appropriate in particular social situations. Thus, the social constructionist perspective denies (or de-emphasizes) universals in emotional experience and expression, instead suggesting that the character of emotional experiences and modes of expression for these experiences are developed within particular communities. Emotions – particular patterns of thought, action, and feeling – are socially recognized and constituted roles within a community. Thus, “being angry,” for example, means taking on the role of an “angry person” – a role that includes particular actions (e.g., threatening others), expressions (e.g., a contorted face), and cognitions (e.g., seeing oneself as demeaned by an unwarranted insult) that are conventionally associated with anger within a given community. As such, emotions are social institutions for accomplishing social functions.
Research within this perspective focuses on identifying the emotions common within particular communities, detailing the social circumstances associated with the experience and expression of those emotions, and documenting the community’s rules governing legitimate occasions for, and expressions of, particular emotions. In communication research, the social constructionist perspective on emotion is most visible in research examining aspects of “emotion labor,” the notion that the emotional experiences and expressions of individuals in organizational contexts are heavily regulated by organizational norms and rules.
Emotion In Communication Research
In most communication research, emotion is treated in one of three manners: (1) as a dependent variable influenced by some aspect of the communication content or process (e.g., effects of media content on fear reactions; effects of interactional synchrony on feelings experienced by interaction participants), (2) as an independent variable that influences some aspect of the communication process (e.g., effects of anxiety on verbal performances; effects of anger on verbal aggression), or (3) as the focal or background content of communicative behavior (e.g., expressions of happiness during greetings; behavioral leakages that signal anxiety during an interview) that conveys information about internal states of actors.
The contributions of different theories of emotion to communication research are most evident when emotion is considered a dependent variable impacted by communication processes and contents. Creating, changing, moderating, and intensifying others’ emotions is a common objective for communication. For example, advertising research regularly examines how the form and content of ads can generate moods or emotions so that these feelings can (1) become associated with a particular product, person, or image, or (2) influence the processing and outcomes of particular persuasive messages that are presented in conjunction with or subsequent to the affect-arousing stimulus. An important thread of persuasion research examines the aspects of messages and situations that reliably create perceptions (appraisals) of threat and feelings of fear, anxiety, and concern (Witte & Allen 2000), as well as effects of these emotions on the processing and outcomes of associated persuasive appeals. Other research examines the properties of fear-arousing media entertainment and its effects on various audiences; there is also research examining how media entertainment produces humor, mirth, and other positive emotions in audiences and the diverse effects of these emotions. Still other research examines message strategies intended to help those who are sad, anxious, fearful, or otherwise distressed.
Communication research examining emotion as an independent variable seeks to understand how emotional (or affective) states influence communication processes and outcomes. For example, considerable attention has been given to how various emotions and moods influence message production (Burleson & Planalp 2000) and message processing (Dillard & Nabi 2006). Other research examines how specific emotions impact particular communicative behaviors (e.g., the effects of anxiety on speech preparation, presentation, and outcomes; Communication Apprehension and Social Anxiety). Emotion can play a varied role with respect to communication, acting as a motivator (focusing and directing communicative activities), an energizer (enhancing the speed, fluency, or accuracy of communicative activities), or a disruptor (interfering with the conduct of communicative activities).
Finally, a substantial body of communication research treats emotion as the content or substance of communicative encounters; emotion is what people convey (both intentionally and unintentionally) during interactions. This research tradition addresses numerous issues, including how and why emotion is communicated, the nature of the verbal and nonverbal vehicles through which emotion is conveyed, the occasions for the expression of various emotions, the spontaneous vs strategic expression of emotion, the function of emotional expressions in the regulation of interactions, and the constitution of emotional meanings within interactions (for review of these and related issues, see Planalp 1999).
Emotion is inseparable from communication, just as it is from human life. The fundamental questions confronting scholars thus concern how the relationships between communication and emotion should be conceptualized and studied. Our understanding of how communication influences emotion will be deepened by improved theories of emotion; these will help us better appreciate the nature of emotional experiences and expressions, the sources and consequences of these, and how varied aspects of communication influence these. Our understanding of how emotion influences communication will be deepened by improved theories of core communication processes; these will help us better appreciate the mechanisms through which emotional arousal motivates, energizes, and disrupts particular communicative activities. And our understanding of how communication conveys emotion will be deepened by improved theories of both emotion and communication; these will help us better appreciate how, when, and why emotions are experienced and expressed by people as they interact.
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