Chapter 1: What is an Emotion?

Differentiating Emotions from Other Constructs

Another way to understand an emotion is to compare an emotion to other psychological constructs that may seem similar, but are actually different.  Emotions are different from the following constructs (Ekman, 1994; although emotions may be included in the definition of these constructs):

  • Drives (e.g., hunger)
  • Moods (e.g., cranky)
  • Affective Disorders (e.g., depression)
  • Attitudes (“I hate Ohio State”)
  • Personality Traits (e.g., Extraversion)

 A drive is a motivational state that occurs when someone’s physical body or psychological condition is in a negative state of tension.  A negative state of tension could be hunger, thirst, sexual deprivation, or mental exhaustion.  Hunger, thirst, and other examples are considered “negative states” because the physical/mental body is lacking something such as food, water, sexual intercourse, or sleep.  Drives motivate us to engage in behaviors that restore balance.  For instance, hunger would motivate us to seek out and approach food.  One reason a drive is different from an emotion is that drives are not caused by a change in the environment.  In addition, drives are not always accompanied by cognitive appraisals.  Now, an emotion could accompany a drive.  For instance, when people are hungry, they often report feeling “hangry” or angry.  Thus, this drive of hunger could be the eliciting event that causes us to experience the emotion anger.



Attitudes, sometimes called sentiments, are people’s favorable or unfavorable attitudes toward an attitude object.  The attitude object could be anything – relationship partner, a brand such as McDonald’s, or even a snow shovel.  An attitude is our stable evaluation of an attitude object.  Thus, a major difference between an attitude and emotion is that an attitude tends to be more stable overtime, whereas an emotion lasts for a small period of time. Attitudes are comprised of three types of attitudes – cognitive, affective, and behavioral.  Although these three components sound similar to the emotion components, they are different.  A cognitive attitude represents the advantages and disadvantages of the attitude object.  For instance, what are the pros and cons of Starbucks coffee? A pro could be that it is delicious, but a con could be that it is expensive!  A behavioral attitude is our how our past behavior can inform our current attitudes.  For instance, when we think about our past behavior, do we typically purchase Starbucks or Dunkin coffee?  If Starbucks, then I may hold a favorable attitude toward Starbucks, but unfavorable attitude toward Dunkin.  Finally, an affective attitude is defined as the emotions elicited when we think about or utilize the attitude object.  For instance, drinking a cup of Starbucks could make me feel positive emotions such as joy and contentment, negative emotions such as guilt (maybe for spending too much money!), or even both positive and negative emotions – content and guilt at the same time!  Thus, an attitude object can elicit certain emotions, but attitudes and emotions are separate constructs.  A final difference is that a specific eliciting event is not causing this attitude.  Attitudes are typically learned or acquired through our environments such as our upbringing and relationship experiences, and again, tend to remain stable over time.

Attitudes and emotions do hold similarities.  Both include a cognitive component, which requires conscious or automatic evaluation of the attitude object or interpretation of the emotional eliciting event.  Both attitudes and emotions can cause behavior change.  If we hold a favorable attitude toward Starbucks, we would approach and purchase a cup of coffee.  If we hold an unfavorable attitude toward Starbucks, we would avoid purchasing or drinking a Starbucks coffee.

As we progress through the course, we will learn about constructs that some researchers believe are attitudes, while others believe are emotions.  For example, some (Hendrick, & Hendrick, 1986) believe love is a favorable attitude toward a romantic partner.  Conversely, some emotions researchers believe love is an emotion that is elicited by a romantic partner – but only for a brief period of time (Fredrickson, 2013).  Different perspectives are present for hate – some view this as an unfavorable attitude toward another person, while others view hate as an emotion (Sternberg, 2003).


Personality Trait

Personality traits are feelings, thoughts, and behaviors that are stable over time and across situations.  Unlike attitudes, personality traits have a strong genetic and biological component.  Two universal personality models are the Five Factor Model (FFM), which includes the traits of Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism and the HEXACO model, which includes the traits of Honesty-Humility, Emotionality, eXtraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Openness.   Unlike emotions, personality traits are not caused by the situation and should not vary with the situation.  For instance, an individual high in Agreeableness should get along well with others in different situations – at work, at home, during a conflict, during a cooperative game, etc.  An emotional perspective would state that most people’s emotions would differ across these situations – the conflict situation would elicit anger, while the cooperative game might elicit compassion.  So, personality psychologists are interested in the way thoughts, feelings, and behaviors do NOT change over time.  Whereas, emotions researchers and social psychologists are interested in the way different situations cause different emotions.  Another difference is that personality traits last over a longer period of time, while emotions lasts for a short period of time.  Because personality traits are stable over time, we would expect a 4-year old high in Extraversion to still be high in Extraversion at age 50.

An emotion could be viewed as a sub-component of a personality trait.  For instance, an individual high on Extraversion tends to experience positive emotions over time and across situations.  Whereas an individual high in Neuroticism tends to experience negative emotions across situations and over time.  Thus, our personality traits could cause the AMOUNT of an emotion we experience or HOW FREQUENTLY we experience an emotion.  Another way to view the relationship between a personality trait and an emotion is to consider how the personality traits lowers the threshold to experience certain emotions (Frijda, 1994).  For instance, someone high in Neuroticism has a lower threshold for negative emotions, which means when an eliciting event occurs, such as a bad grade, it’s going to be easier for them to experience negative emotions.  Conversely, an Extravert would have a low threshold for positive emotions, such that when an eliciting event occurs, such as a good grade, it’s going to be easier for them to experience positive emotions.  Keep in mind Extraverts and Neurotics are not going around constantly experiencing positive or negative emotions.  An event still has to cause the experience of the emotions.



A mood is a generalized feeling state that lasts for a long period of time (i.e., hours, days, weeks).  The eliciting event of the mood is unidentifiable.  Many researchers believe moods are caused by physiological cycles and drives or environmental changes that occur at a nonconscious level (meaning people are not aware that these changes cause a mood).  People can identify the eliciting event of their emotion, but cannot identify the eliciting event of their mood.  Moods are not accompanied by changes in behavior, such as changes in facial expression, vocal tone, or approach/avoidance behavior.  In contrast, basic emotions researchers believe that emotions are accompanied by specific and clear changes in the face, in the voice, and in approach/avoidance behavior. These behaviors changes are unique to an emotion (the facial change for anger would look different than the facial change for fear).  Moods appear to be a general or global feeling, whereas emotions represent a more specific feeling.  For instance, people describe moods in broad terms such as “irritated, cranky, or feeling down.”  Whereas, people use specific emotion terms to describe their emotional states, such as “anger, sadness, and disgust.”  Thus, people may have greater difficulty identifying the feelings associated with a mood, possibly because the eliciting event of the mood is unclear.

Moods may cause emotions

Although moods and emotions are separate constructs, they still may have a causal relationship with each other. Similar to personality traits (see below), moods can make it easier to experience an emotion that is similar to the valence (positivity or negativity) of the mood.  For instance, if we are in a good mood, we might be more likely to experience positive emotions such as joy and contentment.  Similarly, if we are in a bad mood, we might be more likely to experience negative emotions such as anger or sadness.  Because the mood changes our baseline to positive or negative, this mood essentially lowers the threshold to experience emotions similar in valence.  In this same vein, experiencing a prolonged mood could make it harder for people to regulate or control their emotions.  For instance, an individual in an irritable mood would have more difficulty suppressing or hiding sad facial expressions toward a friend who lost her dog.

Emotions may cause moods

In turn, experiencing the same emotion in quick succession could cause a prolonged mood.  Dense emotional experiences occur when an eliciting event continues to elicit a specific emotion at very high levels of arousal with little time in between the eliciting events.  In a dense emotional episode, people experience an intense emotion repeatedly, which in turn causes a positive or negative mood.  For instance, if peers bully a child over and over at recess, these quick insults could cause a prolonged negative mood in the child.


Affective Disorders

A major difference between emotions, moods, and affective disorders is the length of time each construct lasts.  Emotions last for seconds up to a few minutes, moods last for hours or days, and affective disorders last for weeks or months.


Identify the Construct!

Below are two interactive activities that require you to drag the appropriate type of construct into the drop boxes next to items that may or may not be an emotion. If you think the item listed is an emotion, drag the text that says “Emotion” into the drop box to the right of the item. Likewise for a personality trait, a mood, an affective disorder, or a drive item listed.


Below are two H5P activities that require the user to drag a yes or no label into the drop box corresponding with the term next to it to answer the question “Is this an emotion”? The drop boxes are labeled with the term in the name for easy identification. For example: the drop box for the term “feeling pleasant” is labeled “Feeling pleasant drop box”. “feeling pleasant” is the term the user is to assess as an emotion or not. drag the yes text box or the no text box into the “feeling pleasant” drop box to answer.


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