The basics of emotion cognition

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It is clear that emotion and cognition are intimately intertwined and that emotion and motivation are also connected. It is difficult to understand emotion without considering cognition. Imagine that you have just woken up on the morning when you are due to have root canal surgery. You have not experienced this before but many of your friends have and they all speak of it, wincing with expressions of mild horror. You get up and find that you are very tense, so much so that breakfast is an impossibility. Even coffee is hard to take and only seems to make matters worse. This experience builds up until you are sitting in the dentist's chair waiting for the onslaught.

Clearly, this is an example of anxiety and one that is shared by many people, and it seems equally clear to understand. However, consider the elements that go to make up the reaction. It is your beliefs or knowledge about the nature of root canal operations that lead to the anxiety. You have considered what is to come and judged how it is likely to affect you. The result is anxiety. The emotional reaction has followed on the heels of cognitions in the form of beliefs and knowledge. If you had already experienced a root canal procedure and found that it was easy and painless, then your beliefs would be different and you would not be anxious.

As much as any other psychologist it was Stanley Schachter (1964), throughout the 1960s, who made it clear that there is an intimate connection between emotion and cognition. His two-factor theory was very straightforward. A necessary part of emotion is arousal of the sympathetic nervous system. In other words, emotion cannot occur without this arousal. However, these states of arousal differ from one situation to the next, so we interpret the arousal according to our beliefs, knowledge or expectations about the situation. So, our experience of emotion, according to this view, depends on both physiological arousal and cognition. Going back to your impending root canal procedure, both the arousal and the beliefs are easy to see.

Schachter and others conducted many studies to test this theory. Although many of the studies were ingenious, they did not prove that emotion necessarily depends on arousal and cognition. For example, it is possible to induce arousal through cognition, say, by reflecting on what your reactionary father said to you last time you spoke to him. Or it is possible to produce a sort of physiological tranquillisation cognitively, by imagining a quiet country place when you feel anxious. This is all part of emotion regulation, to be discussed in the next chapter.

While it is clear that arousal and cognition can and do combine in emotion, exactly how is not yet known. Think of this problem. If cognitions are used to label arousal and so lead to subjective feelings, these links must be learned. If we have to know something about the world before being able to label our feelings about it, then how can the young child feel anything before knowing the label for that feeling? Of course, young children do have emotional experiences. Indeed, very young children often seem to have very little else.

There are many ways in which cognitions might be linked to emotion. For example, our memories have emotional aspects that colour our present reactions. If, on the last three occasions that we went to a party, we had an unpleasant time, the next invitation to a party is likely to lead to a negative reaction, or our emotions might affect our cognitions. For example, if you have just fallen in love, with all the attendant emotional turmoil, this colours most of your thoughts. Or if you have just had an inordinately frustrating day at work and this has left you feeling constantly irritable, this will influence the way in which you think about things throughout the evening.

However, the main way in which cognitions and emotions are linked is through appraisals. When anything happens, we evaluate what it means for us, its significance to us - this is an emotional appraisal, or an appraisal that leads to an emotional reaction. These appraisals are believed to help us in making fine distinctions about our emotional experiences or in determining the extent or the intensity of the emotion. For example, seeing a $100 note on the pavement would produce a very different emotional reaction from seeing the same note in a pool of vomit. Or being told off privately for a work mistake that should have been avoided would produce a very different appraisal than being condemned publicly.

Some psychologists believe similar emotional experiences and expressions follow similar appraisals and also that each emotional experience is unique because each appraisal is unique. This might sound convincing, but what happens if a person does not have the cognitive capacity to make a particular type of appraisal? Are they able to experience the emotion? For example, knowledge of art presumably allows finer appreciations of works of art. Without such knowledge, would a person's emotional reactions to the work be different?

For psychologists who are concerned with such matters, a key issue has been whether or not cognitive appraisal is necessary to emotion. There are (at least) two sides to the matter - appraisals always precede emotion, and cognition and emotion are independent (although often related). If you are standing waiting to pay in a cafeteria with a laden tray and someone crashes into you from behind, sending everything flying, your reaction is likely to be instantaneous and to occur without apparent thought. But it might be argued that you have made an instant, very primitive appraisal. Also, it is obvious that some cognitions occur unconsciously and that some emotions occur without conscious involvement. This makes the issue even more complex.

In the end, there is a very complex interplay between emotions and cognitions. Compare the instant reaction to a sudden loud sound in the night and the complex mixture of thoughts and feelings you have if your fiancée has just ended the relationship. Compare jumping out of the way in the road as the brakes squeal behind you with the appraisals that you make when a member of your family has died. The links between emotion and appraisal go in both directions and become very intricate. They are always intertwined, but whether or not they are necessary to each other is another matter.

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Getting to Know Anxiety

Getting to Know Anxiety

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