Cognitive theories of emotion



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My soul is a hidden orchestra; I know not what instruments, what fiddlestrings and harps, drums and tambours I sound and clash inside myself. All I hear is the symphony.

(Fernando Pessoa)

The purpose of this chapter is to outline some of the major current cognitive theories of emotion in psychology. Our focus will therefore be more on the adequacy of these theories as theories (Dalgleish, 2004) than on the empirical data, which will be considered in more detail in the second half of the book. We saw in Chapters 1 and 2 that there is a considerable historical tradition for many of the ideas that underpin the cognitive approach—for example, in Aristotle's The Art of Rhetoric, in Spinoza, and in cognitive philosophical theories of the twentieth century. Two of the key themes that emerge from this background relate to the issues of associationism and of constructivism; thus, the two main groups of theories that we shall examine in this chapter either derive from the associationist tradition and are based on semantic networks, or derive from the constructivist position and have come to be known as appraisal theories. The debate between these two approaches in cognitive science is as strong now as it has ever been; it was given new impetus with the development of connectionism and Parallel Distributed Processing (PDP) models (Rumelhart & McClelland, 1986). Although PDP models have overcome many of the limitations of previous associationist approaches—for example, in their solutions about how networks learn new material—it is unclear what advantages they provide for theories of emotion except when combined with the constructivist or appraisal models.

The starting point for the theories to be presented in this chapter is an attempt to provide a cognitive account of normal emotions. A number of important questions were raised in Chapters 1 and 2 that need to be recycled here and, in addition, a number of new ones need to be raised. For example, emotion is an everyday part of human experience, but how do we account for the facts that two people can apparently experience different emotions about the same event, or that the same individual can come to feel different things at different times about the same event? Why are some emotional experiences more transient than others? Why do we sometimes cry with laughter, or not feel anything at all when we should feel something? There are dozens of such questions that convey much about our everyday understanding as well as our everyday ignorance about emotion; all of the theories to be presented attempt answers to questions such as these at least some of the time. Of course, a second set of questions relates to how well the theories then account for abnormal or extreme variants of each emotion. Again, we will suggest that some theories do reasonably well, whereas others pay little or no attention to such extremes.

One of the issues that highlights the question of the role of cognition in emotion arises from the focus of the so-called Zajonc-Lazarus debate. The debate centred on the question of the primacy of affect or the primacy of cognition in the generation of emotion. To summarise, Zajonc (1980) argued that the initial processing of stimuli, that is, within the first few milliseconds following sensory registration, assesses the affective tone of the stimulus as positive or negative, safe or threatening, and that "cognitive" processes occur subsequent to this affective processing. Although critics of Zajonc's initial standpoint such as Lazarus (1982) argued that Zajonc had confused conscious processing with cognitive processing, and that he had assumed that any automatic processes were affective processes, Zajonc has subsequently presented a more restricted view. For example, Murphy and Zajonc (1993) now accept that the term "cognitive" can refer to processes that occur outside of awareness, but still maintain their position that the initial processes are qualitatively distinct affective ones; they agree with theorists such as Lazarus that cognitive processes can influence the course and type of emotion experienced, but state that this interaction between cognitive and affective processes occurs later. They also state that there are distinct neuroanatomical tracts between the visual system and the limbic system that they interpret as support for the affective primacy hypothesis. That there have been two or more such visual routes has been known for some time (e.g., Luria, 1976). Indeed, the phenomenon of "blindsight" (Weiskrantz, 1986) seems to require such an additional visual route: it has been found possible for a patient without the relevant visual cortex to respond to and avoid objects in the immediate environment and at the same time deny any conscious experience of the objects. The question therefore hinges on whether, contrary to Zajonc, such fast automatic processes should all be labelled "cognitive" in the sense that they involve low-level computations in the perceptual system, one important feature of which is to detect the affective value of the stimulus. By analogy therefore with David Marr's (1982) proposal that there is a fast "primal sketch" of sensory input, we would suggest that there is a fast automatic categorisation of a stimulus, which, as we will discuss later, can for certain innate or automated sequences lead to the rapid generation of emotion: as if "primal sketch" were to meet "primal scream". Even in the case of this automatic or direct route to emotion, we must emphasise that the distinction presupposed in the Zajonc-Lazarus debate between cognition and emotion is a false one, as we argued in Chapter 2. The "emotion" and the "cognition" are integral and inseparable parts of each other and although it is useful to use different names for different aspects of the generation of emotion, the parts are no more separable than are waves from the water in which they occur.

One other issue that we will highlight before discussing specific theories is the issue of categorical versus dimensional approaches to emotion. Both the categorical (or "discrete") and the dimensional approaches have strong vocal proponents, and both have been very influential in different areas of psychology and adjoining fields. For example, from the time of Descartes, through Darwin and on to Ekman, there have been proposals for a limited number of basic emotions from which other emotions are derived. As we will present in detail later in the next section, on the basis of evidence collected from cross-cultural studies of the facial expression of emotion, from studies of the sequence of development of emotions, from linguistic analyses of emotion terms, from categorisation studies of emotion terms, from psycho-physiological recording, and from studies of brain imaging, there is strong evidence for the existence of basic emotions, in particular the emotions of anger, sadness, fear, disgust, and happiness. However, although appraisal theorists generally agree that there has to be some basic categorisation of emotions, there is no agreement about how many such basic emotions there should be, and any number from two upwards can be found in one theory or another. Again, the situation with network theories is unclear; as Bower (1992) has commented, network theories originally incorporated "lay theories" of emotion, in that beyond being represented as nodes in networks, there was no theory of the relationship between cognition and emotion nor of the types of emotion involved. But if an emotion is no more than a node in a network, it is difficult to see how any distinction between, say, basic and complex emotions could be incorporated in the original single-level networks that were proposed. Instead, more complex multiple-level networks would seem to be required which might be better dealt with in connectionist models. First, however, we will examine the debate between categorical and dimensional approaches to emotion—that is, we will consider the structure of emotion before going on to review specific process-based models.

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