What Is Affect? Psychology And The Expression Of Emotions

By: Toni Hoy

Updated January 29, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC

Emotions are powerful expressions of our states of mind. We feel a wide variety of emotions consciously and unconsciously. Emotions come and go. They may be fleeting or last for hours. The experiences that we have in our daily lives certainly affect our emotions. Our emotions have a solid impact on our relationships and interactions with others. At various times, we feel that we have more control over our emotions than at other times.

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Researchers have developed various theories to help us understand our emotional states better. Their findings help clinicians to treat people with various types of emotional disorders.

What Is Affect?

Affect is a psychological term that's used in a clinical sense to describe the experience of feeling or emotion. Affect display is a related term that refers to facial expressions, voice expressions or gestures that indicate affect.

Modern psychology describes three affective domains including:

  1. Affective
  2. Behavioral
  3. Cognitive

These domains are often referred to as the ABC's of psychology.

Are Emotions And Mood The Same Thing?

It's common for people to use the words emotion and mood interchangeably. In the field of psychology, they have two very different meanings. Let's look at what separates them.

Emotion is a subjective, affective state that projects a relatively intense feeling. Typically, emotions occur in response to something we've experienced. We experience emotions on a conscious level, and they're intentional. In other words, people can make a conscious choice to feel happy, sad, excited or some other emotion.

On the other hand, mood refers to a prolonged effective state that's usually less intense than emotion. Moods don't surface in response to something we've experienced. Moods aren't intentional. Unless we're very aware and in tune with ourselves, we may not even consciously recognize our moods.

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Theories of Emotion

Research on the issue of emotions dates back to the 1800s with Charles Darwin. Affect, and emotion is complex areas of psychology and researchers continue to learn more about them.

Evolutionary Theory of Emotion

Charles Darwin was an early naturalist who suggested that emotions evolved because they were adaptive. Darwin philosophized that emotions are what allow humans and animals to survive and reproduce. For example, he felt that feeling of love and affection prompted people to look for and be attracted to mates so they could reproduce. He also suggested that fearful feelings caused people to react by fighting the source of danger or fleeing from it. Darwin's emotional theory of emotion indicates that we respond quickly to environmental stimuli which helps us improve our chances of success and survival. If we encounter an animal that is hissing, barking, spitting, and clawing, it's wise to take the hint that it's scared or defensive and is getting poised to attack.

The outward signs help us decide to leave the upset animal alone so that we will remain safe.

Cognitive Appraisal Theory or Lazarus Theory Of Emotion

One of the early pioneers in emotion research was Richard Lazarus. Lazarus theorized that people had to have a conscious thought before they could have an emotional or physiological response of some kind. Essentially, he suggested a sequence of events that consists of a stimulus of some sort, followed by a thought, which leads to one or more emotions.

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For example, let's say it's late at night and you've gone to bed. You hear a noise that sounds like a door opening, and you suddenly remember that you forgot to check all the doors to make sure they were locked before you went to bed. You suddenly feel afraid that a stranger is entering your home. Your heart begins to beat faster, your hands begin to shake, and it becomes difficult to catch your breath. You're afraid to call 9-1-1 and too afraid not to call them.

The Cannon-Bird Theory Of Emotion

According to the Cannon-Bird Theory of Emotion, physiological responses and emotional experiences happen independently of one another, but at the same time. For example, if you see a rabid dog running in your direction with teeth bared and foaming mouth, the Cannon-Bird Theory of Emotion indicates that you'd feel fear at the same time that your body goes into fight or flight response. The emotion occurs separately, but at the same time as your physiological reaction.

The James-Lange Theory Of Emotion

The James-Lange Theory of Emotion is fairly similar to the Cannon-Bird Theory of Emotion, except that the James-Lange Theory promotes the idea that emotions occur as a response from some type of physiological arousal. Using the same example as above, the sight of the rabid dog racing directly towards you would signal immediate physiological arousal causing your heart to race and your breathing to speed up. The James-Lange Theory asserts that the feelings of fear and trepidation would only appear after the physiological response occurred. This theory also suggests that different arousal patterns create different feelings.

The Schachter-Singer Two-Factor Theory Of Emotion

The Schacter-Singer Two-Factor Theory of Emotion offers a slightly different thought process that includes emotion and physiological arousal. These researchers surmised that emotions are part physiological and part cognitive. According to this theory, the physiological arousal occurs first, our brains interpret it, and the emotion follows. In keeping with our example of the rabid dog, the sight of the dog produces a sense of physiological arousal. The brain interprets the arousal as fear and produces the emotion of fear.

Facial-Feedback Theory Of Emotion

The Facial-Feedback Theory of Emotion attempts to connect facial expressions to emotions, which is a concept that Charles Darwin and William James both pointed out as a possibility. As the theory goes, physiological responses may sometimes have an impact on emotion, rather than be a result of the emotion. There is some consideration for the notion that emotions may be tied to changes in our facial muscles. If you force a smile at meeting a stranger, you may be more inclined to carry on a discussion and get to know the person better where if you project a neutral facial expression, you may be inclined to move along to someone more familiar to you.

What Do We Know About Various Types Of Emotions?

All of us experience a variety of emotions-sometimes all in the same day! Our emotions influence how we live and relate to others. During times of high emotion, sometimes we feel like our emotions are ruling us. Our emotions have a direct impact on how we make decisions and how we react and respond in various situations.

In addition to developing theories about how emotions present, researchers have also studied the different types of emotions that people experience and created theories on how to explain them.

A psychologist by the name of Paul Eckman came up with six basic emotions that he deemed all human cultures experienced universally. He identified the following emotions:

  1. Happiness
  2. Sadness
  3. Disgust
  4. Fear
  5. Surprise
  6. Anger

Later in his work, he revised his list to include pride, shame, embarrassment, and excitement.

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Of the six basic emotions, happiness is the emotion most people strive for. Since the 1960s, researchers have taken a great interest in the discipline of positive psychology. The world often tries to connect a state of happiness with attaining a certain lifestyle or acquiring material things. One thing that clinicians agree on is that happiness has a positive impact on health and that we can connect unhappiness to poor health.


Sadness is a transient emotion that comes and goes. Sad feelings are characterized by feelings of disappointment, grief, hopelessness, disinterest, and dampened the mood. People express their feelings of sadness through crying, being in a sour mood, remaining quiet, withdrawing from others, and having a general lack of energy. Prolonged or severe periods of sadness can lead to depression.


Fear is an emotion that plays a role in survival. Fear may invoke a fight, flight, or freeze response which produces physiological arousal that helps people deal with real or perceived threats of harm. Fear is closely related to anxiety which is the fear of a threat. Some people are thrill-seekers who seek out fearful experiences and seem to thrive on them.


Disgust is a sense of repulsion that can stem from an appalling taste, sight, or smell. Researchers believe that disgust evolved as a reaction to things that may harm us. Disgust can be a reaction to a physical trigger such as poor hygiene, infection, or gruesome scenes. People also experience disgust at moral issues such as criminal behaviors, distasteful behavior, and evil. Disgust is thought of as a protective response; it may help us avoid eating spoiled food or engaging in behaviors that are unhelpful.


Anger is a powerful emotion that's characterized by feeling hostile, agitated, frustrated or antagonistic. Anger, like fear, can cause a fight or flight reaction. Anger can be helpful when it brings someone to the point of problem-solving and it is a problem when it's unchecked or uncontrolled.


The surprise is an emotion that is usually fairly brief. Feelings of surprise emerge when a physiological startle response follows an unexpected event. Surprise can be positive, negative, or neutral.

While we lack clarity on the exact order and connection between the physiological responses of our emotions and the feelings that we associate with them, we all experience emotions. When the highs or lows of emotions negatively impact your home or work life, it's time to get help in regulating them. There's no better place to help you sort things out than BetterHelp.

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