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What is an emotion?

A literature analysis conducted by the author (Sander, 2016) has proposed that a consensus seems to be emerging to define what is an emotion. This consensus considers at least four key criteria. 

(i) Emotions are phenomena with multiple components:

(1) the cognitive evaluation (e.g., interpreting a sentence as a compliment),
(2) the expression (e.g., smiling),
(3) the peripheral response (e.g., an increase of one’s heart rate),
(4) the action tendency (e.g., wanting to approach the person who compliments us), and
(5) the subjective feeling (e.g., feeling joy).

(ii) Emotions are a two-step process involving a trigger mechanism that produces a response. Typically, the cognitive evaluation component (appraisal) is considered to be responsible for triggering, while the other components are considered to constitute the response.

(iii) Emotions are triggered by relevant objects: All traditions of research on emotions underline the link between emotions and relevance (also known as significance or importance in a larger sense) of the triggering situation.

(iv) Emotions have a brief duration in comparison to other affective phenomena; they are typically considered to be brief episodes, in contrast to moods, preferences, affective styles, and emotional dispositions.

It thus seems that a consensual definition can be proposed: An emotion is a rapid process, focusing on an event and consists of two steps:

(1) a trigger mechanism based on the relevance of the event that shapes

(2) a response composed of multiple components (action tendencies, the reactions of the autonomic nervous system, expression, and subjective feeling).

The questions guiding conceptual and empirical studies on emotions in the affective sciences have been numerous, in particular: How are our emotions triggered? How are they expressed? How can we measure them? How can we control them? What are their functions? To what extent do other animals share them? Do they have innate dimensions? Are they determined by culture and personality? How do they develop throughout our lives? Can they be unconscious? How are they represented in the brain and in the rest of the body? Do they oppose reason? Do they reflect our values? Do they guide attention, memory, and decision-making? Are they a motor of action? Are they the foundation of moral judgment? How do we characterize emotional disorders and their links to psychopathologies such as depression, anxiety, or autism?