Do ’emotions’ exist? Or, abstraction for a certain purpose

Last week, I was in a seminar that discussed emotion theory, and the discussion helped me change my mind.

Since 2014, when I really started reading emotion theories and developing my own idea of the affective system, I have doubted the existence of ’emotion’. I first encountered the idea in article by James Russell[1], who argued against the basic/discrete emotion theories that those are only a matter of perception, as the mind categorizes similar experiences under the same label, regardless of whether they are actually produced in the same way. The problem is, the different instances of a particular discrete emotion, say ‘fear’, do not show coherent patterns of emotion components (the signals by which we study emotions, such as psychophysiological responses and behavioral tendencies). If we cannot find coherent patterns, what basis do we have to call a particular set of experiences with the same name? We tend to categorize all kinds of things in a quick-and-dirty way that works as long as we don’t start philosophizing about what things really are: strawberries are not actually berries while bananas and eggplants are – but this does not matter the least unless we are academics specializing in botanics.

But I am an academic specializing in emotions (or something like it), so it makes a lot of difference what, exactly, I am investigating, how they should be categorized, and how do they work. Does categorizing certain experiences as emotions actually help the investigations, or does it simply lead astray, like the layperson’s conception of ‘berries’? Russell made a powerful argument:

As an analogy, consider the constellations we see in the sky. When we perceive the Big Dipper, we perceive real features: the stars comprising the Big Dipper are real and the pattern among the stars is real in the sense that the stars are really positioned in the universe such that they form a certain geometric pattern when viewed from earth. But stellar constellations, contrary to the beliefs held in many traditional cultures, are not interesting scientific entities. The Big Dipper does not explain the presence of the stars or the pattern among those stars. Constellations are not part of the causal story of astronomy. There is no use in asking for an astronomical account of why the Big Dipper exists or why it is structured the way it is. Astronomy long ago abandoned questions such as: What is a constellation? How many constellations are there? What are they? How were they generated? How does one constellation differ from another? What are their effects/functions?  ([1] p. 1276)

There is a difference between scientific entities and how the layperson calls things. If ‘fear’ and ’emotion’ are not useful for science, they should be discarded as scientific terms. Emotions do not really exist [2], and we are actually investigating something else (I call them ‘affective processes’, but more about that in some other post). A similar idea has been repeated by many scholars (e.g. Lisa Barrett [2], but also non-constructionists, like neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux [3] who is sometimes considered as a basic emotion theorist, and philosopher Peter Zachar [4]), and some emotions researchers have been trying to seriously fight for the idea that we should not call the whatever-we-are-studying ’emotions’. I agreed, until the seminar.

It was actually one of the “there are no emotions” -arguments that changed my mind. They were arguing that instead of emotions, we are actually studying the components themselves – the psychophysiological signals, the behavioral tendencies etc. – and how they relate to each other. True, but this seems unnecessarily cumbersome. For a researcher studying, for example, the link between emotions and moral judgment [5], it is not all psychophysiological signals and behavioral tendencies that are relevant, but only those that are related to emotion. Clearly there is some kind of clustering in what kind of psychophysiological signals and behavioral tendencies are considered emotional [6] – even if ’emotion’, in a strict sense, does not exist. In this, emotions are more like berries than constellations: for instance, culturally, strawberries are considered as berries so an abstraction that it is a berry is more useful for studying how, say, people use them in recipes.

This is what I understood – and it seems so obvious in hindsight, that I’m sure that most non-emotion researchers reading this will roll their eyes and say “are they this distanced from the reality?”, but while this is not exactly a groundbreaking philosophical invention, it is important to understand it intuitively. So, as the saying goes:

All models are wrong, but some are useful. (attributed to George Box)

The addition should be: useful for certain purposes. Of course emotions don’t exist, strictly speaking, but neither do memories, or attitudes, or attention, or any mental phenomena (or ‘behavioral tendencies’ or ‘psychophysiological responses’ for that matter) – they are all pragmatic categorizations that get too fuzzy on a more precise level. The “emotions don’t exist” crowd is correct, but don’t help, because they miss the larger point that ’emotion’ might still be scientifically useful for certain purposes, for investigations on certain level. And while their message is probably mostly correct – that in most cases where ’emotion’ is used, it probably would make more sense to talk about the components – the broader message should not be “emotions don’t exist”, but “make sure that the abstraction you are using is actually useful on your level of scrutiny”.

[1] Russell, J. A. (2009). Emotion, core affect, and psychological construction. Cognition & Emotion, 23(7), 1259–1283.

[2] Or, as Barrett says, they don’t hold any explanatory power – but in this case it’s the same thing. Barrett, L. F. (2006). Are Emotions Natural Kinds? Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1(1), 28–58.

[3] LeDoux, J. E. (2014). Comment: What’s Basic About the Brain Mechanisms of Emotion? Emotion Review, 6(4), 318–320.

[4] edit: Zachar, P. (2010). Has there been Conceptual Progress in The Science of Emotion ? Emotion Review, 2(4), 381–382.

originally I referred to Nesse, but the point is clearer with Zachar:

Nesse, R. M. (2014). Comment: A General “Theory of Emotion” Is Neither Necessary nor Possible. Emotion Review, 6(4), 320–322.

[5] And there are links, even if it’s not clear what emotions are. Avramova, Y. R., & Inbar, Y. (2013). Emotion and moral judgment. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science, 4(2), 169–178.

[6] Mauss, I. B., & Robinson, M. D. (2009). Measures of emotion: A review. Cognition & Emotion, 23(2), 209–237.


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