Affect (psychology)

Affect (psychology)

Affect refers to the experience of feeling or emotion.[1] Affect is a key part of the process of an organism's interaction with stimuli. The word also refers sometimes to affect display, which is "a facial, vocal, or gestural behavior that serves as an indicator of affect" (APA 2006).

The affective domain represents one of the three divisions described in modern psychology: the cognitive, the conative, and the affective. Classically, these divisions have also been referred to as the "ABC of psychology", in that case using the terms "affect", "behavior", and "cognition". In certain views, the conative may be considered as a part of the affective,[2] or the affective as a part of the cognitive.[3]

This article discusses theoretical perspectives, history and psychological meanings of the term, as well as distinctions between mood and emotion.


Theoretical perspective

The term "affect" can be taken to indicate an instinctual reaction to stimulation occurring before the typical cognitive processes considered necessary for the formation of a more complex emotion. Robert B. Zajonc asserts this reaction to stimuli is primary for human beings, and that it is the dominant reaction for lower organisms. Zajonc suggests affective reactions can occur without extensive perceptual and cognitive encoding, and can be made sooner and with greater confidence than cognitive judgments (Zajonc, 1980).

Many theorists (e.g., Lazarus, 1982) consider affect to be post-cognitive. That is, affect is thought to be elicited only after a certain amount of cognitive processing of information has been accomplished. In this view, an affective reaction, such as liking, disliking, evaluation, or the experience of pleasure or displeasure, is based on a prior cognitive process in which a variety of content discriminations are made and features are identified, examined for their value, and weighted for their contributions (Brewin, 1989). Some scholars (e.g., Lerner and Keltner 2000) argue that affect can be both pre- and post-cognitive, with thoughts being produced by initial emotional responses, and further affect being produced by the thoughts. In a further iteration, some scholars argue that affect is necessary to enable more rational modes of cognition (e.g., Damasio 1994).

A divergence from a narrow reinforcement model for emotion allows for other perspectives on how affect influences emotional development. Thus, temperament, cognitive development, socialization patterns, and the idiosyncrasies of one's family or subculture are mutually interactive in non-linear ways. As an example, the temperament of a highly reactive/low self-soothing infant may "disproportionately" affect the process of emotion regulation in the early months of life (Griffiths, 1997).

In the last decade, the concept has been adopted in some other disciplines in the social sciences such as Geography and Anthropology. Building largely on the work of Deleuze, the focus on affect has brought emotional and visceral concerns into conventional discourses of geopolitics, urban life and material culture, for example. Affect has also challenged methodologies of the social sciences, emphasizing somatic power over the idea of a removed objectivity, and therefore has strong ties with the contemporary non-representational theory.


A number of experiments have been conducted in the study of social and psychological affective preferences (i.e., what people like or dislike). Specific research has been done on preferences, attitudes, impression formation, and decision making. This research contrasts findings with recognition memory (old-new judgments), allowing researchers to demonstrate reliable distinctions between the two. Affect-based judgments and cognitive processes have been examined with noted differences indicated, and some argue affect and cognition are under the control of separate and partially independent systems that can influence each other in a variety of ways (Zajonc, 1980). Both affect and cognition may constitute independent sources of effects within systems of information processing. Others suggest emotion is a result of an anticipated, experienced, or imagined outcome of an adaptational transaction between organism and environment, therefore cognitive appraisal processes are keys to the development and expression of an emotion (Lazarus, 1982).

Psychometric measurement of affect

Affect has been found across cultures to comprise both positive and negative dimensions. The most commonly used measure of positive and negative affect in scholarly research is the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS).[4] The PANAS is a lexical measure developed in a North American setting and consisting of 20 single-word items, such as excited, alert, determined for positive affect, and upset, guilty, and jittery for negative affect. However, some of the PANAS items have been found either to be redundant or to have ambiguous meanings to English speakers from non-North American cultures. As a result an internationally reliable short-form, the I-PANAS-SF, has been developed and validated comprising two 5-item scales with internal reliability, cross-sample and cross-cultural factorial invariance, temporal stability, convergent and criterion-related validities.[5]

Non-conscious affect and perception

In relation to perception, a type of non-conscious affect may be separate from the cognitive processing of environmental stimuli. A monohierarchy of perception, affect and cognition considers the roles of arousal, attentional tendencies, affective primacy (Zajonc, 1980), evolutionary constraints (Shepard, 1984; 1994), and covert perception (Weiskrantz, 1997) within the sensing and processing of preferences and discriminations. Emotions are complex chains of events triggered by certain stimuli. There is no way to completely describe an emotion by knowing only some of its components. Verbal reports of feelings are often inaccurate because people may not know exactly what they feel, or they may feel several different emotions at the same time. There are also situations that arise in which individuals attempt to hide their feelings, and there are some who believe that public and private events seldom coincide exactly, and that words for feelings are generally more ambiguous than are words for objects or events. Therefore, non-conscious emotions need to be measured by measures circumventing self-report such as the Implicit Positive and Negative Affect Test (IPANAT; Quirin, Kazén, & Kuhl, 2009).

Affective responses, on the other hand, are more basic and may be less problematical in terms of assessment. Brewin has proposed two experiential processes that frame non-cognitive relations between various affective experiences: those that are prewired dispositions (i.e., non-conscious processes), able to "select from the total stimulus array those stimuli that are causally relevant, using such criteria as perceptual salience, spatiotemporal cues, and predictive value in relation to data stored in memory" (Brewin, 1989, p. 381), and those that are automatic (i.e., subconscious processes), characterized as "rapid, relatively inflexible and difficult to modify... (requiring) minimal attention to occur and... (capable of being) activated without intention or awareness" (1989 p. 381).


Arousal is a basic physiological response to the presentation of stimuli. When this occurs, a non-conscious affective process takes the form of two control mechanisms; one mobilizing and the other immobilizing. Within the human brain, the amygdala regulates an instinctual reaction initiating this arousal process, either freezing the individual or accelerating mobilization.

The arousal response is illustrated in studies focused on reward systems that control food-seeking behavior (Balleine, 2005). Researchers have focused on learning processes and modulatory processes that are present while encoding and retrieving goal values. When an organism seeks food, the anticipation of reward based on environmental events becomes another influence on food seeking that is separate from the reward of food itself. Therefore, earning the reward and anticipating the reward are separate processes and both create an excitatory influence of reward-related cues. Both processes are dissociated at the level of the amygdala and are functionally integrated within larger neural systems.

Affect and mood

Mood, like emotion, is an affective state. However, an emotion tends to have a clear focus (i.e., its cause is self-evident), while mood tends to be more unfocused and diffused. Mood, according to Batson, Shaw, and Oleson (1992), involves tone and intensity and a structured set of beliefs about general expectations of a future experience of pleasure or pain, or of positive or negative affect in the future. Unlike instant reactions that produce affect or emotion, and that change with expectations of future pleasure or pain, moods, being diffused and unfocused, and thus harder to cope with, can last for days, weeks, months, or even years (Schucman, 1975). Moods are hypothetical constructs depicting an individual's emotional state. Researchers typically infer the existence of moods from a variety of behavioral referents (Blechman, 1990).

Positive affect and negative affect (PANAS) represent independent domains of emotion in the general population, and positive affect is strongly linked to social interaction. Positive and negative daily events show independent relationships to subjective well-being, and positive affect is strongly linked to social activity. Recent research suggests that high functional support is related to higher levels of positive affect. In his work on negative affect arousal and white noise, Seidner found support for the existence of a negative affect arousal mechanism regarding the devaluation of speakers from other ethnic origins.[6] The exact process through which social support is linked to positive affect remains unclear. The process could derive from predictable, regularized social interaction, from leisure activities where the focus is on relaxation and positive mood, or from the enjoyment of shared activities.

Social interaction

Affect display is a critical facet of interpersonal communication. Evolutionary psychologists have advanced the hypothesis that hominids have evolved with sophisticated capability of reading affect displays.[7]

Emotions are portrayed as dynamic processes that mediate the individual's relation to a continually changing social environment.[8] In other words, emotions are considered to be processes of establishing, maintaining, or disrupting the relation between the organism and the environment on matters of significance to the person.[9]

Most social and psychological phenomena occur as the result of repeated interactions between multiple individuals over time. We can look at these interactions as a multiagent system—a system that contains multiple agents interacting with each other and/or with their environments over time. The outcomes of individual agents' behaviors are interdependent: Each agent’s ability to achieve its goals depends on not only what it does but also what other agents do.[10]

Emotions are one of the main sources for the interaction. Emotions of an individual influence the emotions, thoughts and behaviors of others; others' reactions can then influence their future interactions with the individual expressing the original emotion, as well as that individual's future emotions and behaviors. Emotion operates in cycles that can involve multiple people in a process of reciprocal influence.[11]

Affect, emotion, or feeling is displayed to others through facial expressions, hand gestures, posture, voice characteristics, and other physical manifestation. These affect displays vary between and within cultures and are displayed in various forms ranging from the most discrete of facial expressions to the most dramatic and prolific gestures.[12]

Observers are sensitive to agents' emotions, and are capable of recognizing the messages these emotions convey. They react to and draw inferences from an agent's emotions. We have to note that the emotion an agent displays may not be an authentic reflection of his or her actual state (See also Emotional labor).

Agents' emotions can have effects on four broad sets of factors:

  1. Emotions of other persons
  2. Inferences of other persons
  3. Behaviors of other persons
  4. Interactions and relationships between the agent and other persons.

Emotions may affect not only the person at whom the emotion was directed, but also third parties who observe an agent's emotion. Moreover, emotions can affect larger social entities such as a group or a team. Emotions are a kind of message and therefore can influence the emotions, attributions and ensuing behaviors of others, potentially evoking a feedback process to the original agent.

Agents' feelings evoke feelings in others by two suggested distinct mechanisms:

  • Emotion Contagion – people tend to automatically and unconsciously mimic non-verbal expressions.[13] Mimicking occurs also in interactions involving verbal exchanges alone.[14]
  • Emotion Interpretation – an individual may perceive an agent as feeling a particular emotion and react with complementary or situationally appropriate emotions of their own. The feelings of the others diverge from and in some way compliment the feelings of the original agent.

People may not only react emotionally, but may also draw inferences about emotive agents such as the social status or power of an emotive agent, his competence and his credibility.[15] For example, an agent presumed to be angry may also be presumed to have high power.[16]

Meanings in art

The difference between the externally observable affect and the internal mood has been implicitly accepted in art and indeed, within language itself. The word "giddy", for example, carries within it the connotation that the characterized individual may be displaying a happiness that the speaker/observer believes either insincere or short-living.[citation needed]

See also



  • APA (2006). VandenBos, Gary R., ed. APA Dictionary of Psychology Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, page 26.
  • Balliene, B. W. (2005). Dietary Influences on Obesity: Environment, Behavior and Biology. Physiology & Behavior, 86 (5), pp. 717–730
  • Batson, C.D., Shaw, L. L., Oleson, K. C. (1992). Differentiating Affect, Mood and Emotion: Toward Functionally-based Conceptual Distinctions. Emotion. Newbury Park, CA: Sage
  • Blechman, E. A. (1990). Moods, Affect, and Emotions. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: Hillsdale, NJ
  • Brewin, C. R. (1989). Cognitive Change Processes in Psychotherapy. Psychological Review, 96(45), pp. 379–394
  • Damasio, A., (1994). *Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, Putnam Publishing
  • Griffiths, P. E. (1997). What Emotions Really Are: The Problem of Psychological Categories. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago
  • Lazarus, R. S. (1982). Thoughts on the Relations between Emotions and Cognition. American Physiologist, 37(10), pp. 1019–1024
  • Lerner, J.S., and D. Keltner. (2000) Beyond valence: Toward a model of emotion-specific influences on judgement and choice. "Cognition and Emotion", 14(4), pp. 473–493
  • Nathanson, Donald L. Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self. London: W.W. Norton, 1992
  • Quirin, M., Kazén, M., & Kuhl, J. (2009). When nonsense sounds happy or helpless: The Implicit Positive and Negative Affect Test (IPANAT). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97(3), pp. 500-516
  • Schucman, H., Thetford, C. (1975). A Course in Miracle. New York: Viking Penguin
  • Shepard, R. N. (1984). Ecological Constraints on Internal Representation. Psychological Review, 91, pp. 417–447
  • Shepard, R. N. (1994). Perceptual-cognitive Universals as Reflections of the World. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 1, pp. 2–28.
  • Tolle, E. (1999). The Power of Now. Vancouver: Namaste Publishing.
  • Tolle, E. (2003). Stillness Speaks. Vancouver: Namaste Publishing
  • Weiskrantz, L. (1997). Consciousness Lost and Found. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.
  • Zajonc, R. B. (1980). Feelings and Thinking: Preferences Need No Inferences. American Psychologist, 35(2), pp. 151–175


  1. ^ See The Affective System: a webpage by Dr. William Huitt.
  2. ^ See Affective science: affective determinants include motives, attitudes, moods, and emotions.
  3. ^ See Cognition in mainstream psychology
  4. ^ Watson, D., Clark, L. A., & Tellegen, A. (1988). Development and validation of brief measures of positive and negative affect: the PANAS scales. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 1063-1070
  5. ^ Thompson, E. R. (2007). Development and validation of an internationally reliable short-form of the positive and negative affect schedule (PANAS), Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 38(2), 227-242
  6. ^ Seidner, Stanley S. (1991). Negative Affect Arousal Reactions from Mexican and Puerto Rican Respondents. Washington, D.C.: ERIC. ISBN ED346711 
  7. ^ Nesse RM (1990) - Human Nature ,Vol 1 (3)261-289
  8. ^ ‏Keltner D. & Haidt J. (1999) Social Functions of Emotions at Four Levels of Analysis ;COGNITION AND EMOTION,13(5),505-521‏
  9. ^ ‏Campos J. ,Campos R. G., Barrett, K. (1989) Emergent themes in the study of emotional development and emotion regulation, Developmental Psychology. Vol 25(3) 394-402‏
  10. ^ Smith R. & Conrey F.R. (2007) Agent-Based Modeling: A New Approach for Theory Building in Social Psychology; Personality and Social Psychology Review, 11: 87-104
  11. ^ ‏Rafaeli A. & Hareli S. (2007) Emotion cycles: On the social influence of emotion in organizations; Research in Organizational Behavior‏
  12. ^ Ekman, P. (1993). An argument for basic emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 6: 169-200
  13. ^ Hatfield, E., Cacioppo, J. T., & Rapson, R. L. 1994. Emotional contagion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  14. ^ Rafaeli, A., Cheshin, A., & Israeli, R. (2007). Anger contagion and team performance. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Academy of Management, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
  15. ^ Frijda, N.H. (1986). The emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  16. ^ Tiedens, L. (2001). Anger and advancement versus sadness and subjugation: The effect of negative emotion expression on social status conferral. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80(1): 86-94.

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