What are emotions, and why do we have them?

Why do we experience emotions?
Can you tell what emotion this man is experiencing? Sure you can; emotions are considered universal social cues.
Can you tell what emotion this man is experiencing? Sure you can; emotions are considered universal social cues.
© iStockphoto.com/hidesy

Emotions may signal a change in our environment, a change within us or a change in both. These signals are generally fleeting in comparison to other states of mind. As a result, emotions are distinct from moods, which can last for hours, days or even weeks. They're also distinct from personalities, the lifelong set of traits that comprise our individual, predictable reactions to situations [source: SCAS]. It would appear that the function of an emotion is to get our attention and demand a response. Psychologists have debated whether that action is an involuntary physiological reaction or the result of judgment we've made after evaluating our current situation.

But why do we experience anger from a smack on the nose or shame from stealing?

Here, the debate ends and scientific consensus emerges. Emotions are motivators. From an evolutionary standpoint, emotions are the agents of change and reaction. Disgust is a quick, nasty response that we experience when we encounter something that might make us sick. Anger quickly transitions us from a placid state to one where we're ready to fight; fear prompts us to flee from dangerous situations. Sadness, on the other hand, can generate the resolve needed to change the direction of one's life. Emotions can also motivate us to continue what we're doing; the experience of joy is a pleasurable one, and we're motivated to carry out the behavior that led to the emotion.

Coupled with our ability to empathize with others, emotions also serve to maintain social bonds. We wear emotions outwardly -- the basic emotions are all readily apparent on a person's face -- so they serve as social signals. These allow us to interact with others' needs in mind rather than our own, which is the basis of society.

There are plenty of examples of how emotions help further society. Imagine raising offspring without the emotional attachment associated with one's own children. The feeling of loneliness leads to the emotion of sadness, which prompts us to seek out the company of others. Higher, self-conscious emotions like shame prevent us from repeating behavior that is harmful to others, like stealing.

It would seem, then, that society was able to emerge as a result of our ability to experience emotions based on our interactions with others. Or did it happen the other way around? Interestingly, the social constructionist theory of emotions says that society begins to dictate the emotional response to an individual, rather than vice versa. As a person grows older, emotions develop from knee-jerk physiological reactions to predictable, conditioned responses [source: Ratner]. In this sense, the emotions of the individual are hijacked by the expectations of the society the individual lives in, making that person more suited to live peaceably in that society.

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