Emotions are central to our daily lives and are the focus of research within many disciplines such as psychology, economy, cognitive sciences, and philosophy. In order to understand a little bit more about emotions, I will focus in one of the most famous emotions, an emotion that often appears in the academic literature and that we have all experienced: fear.
One probable reason for the general interest in fear is that it is one the most universal emotions. For instance, in comparison to emotions such as Schadenfreude, the type of malicious pleasure derived from other people’s misfortune, fear seems to be present in every culture in the world. Paul Ekman, a renowned psychologist who studied the universality of emotions and their relation to facial expression, concluded that:
Not just those [reserachers] who were attempting to find evidence of universality have found such evidence, but so too have those who were attempting to challenge it. While the evidence is strong for fear, anger, disgust, sadness surprise and happiness, there is still question about contempt, shame, and interest. (Ekman, 1989, p. 154)
Moreover, there are many situations where we experience fear. You could be afraid, for example, when someone is trying to harm you. You could also be afraid when you see a little mouse in your kitchen, when you watch a horror film, etc. Interestingly, one of the most common examples in the academic literature is to be afraid of a bear —that said, I do not think most people have been in a situation where they were actually afraid of one. Since fear is a widespread emotion that we can experience in many different circumstances, what is the common factor among all of them?
William James proposed one well-known theory of emotion during the 19th century. Broadly, he considered that emotions, including fear, were merely the perception of a physiological change; that is, “we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble, and [it is] not that we cry, strike, or tremble, because we are sorry, angry, or fearful, as the case may be” (James 1884, 190, my italics). According to James to be afraid is to perceive that you are trembling.
However, James’s proposal has not convinced everyone. His proposal that each emotion is merely a perception of a change in bodily state suggested to some that there is one single distinct bodily state for each single distinct emotion. This one-to-one correspondence between unique emotions and unique bodily changes seemed incorrect to, for example, Stanley Schacter and Jerome Singer (1962). They develop an experiment in order to show that different emotions can share the exact same bodily state. They hypothesized that if subjects were injected with the same stimulant, these subjects would perceive the same bodily changes and yet they could have very different emotions. This would show, against James, that merely perceiving a bodily change does not guarantee having a distinct emotion.
Subjects in their experiment were injected with epinephrine, a stimulant also known as adrenalin. Adrenalin, among other effects, increases the heartbeat and the blood circulation. After the injection, they put the subjects in two different environments; subjects in a room with someone acting aggressively described what they felt as anger, whereas people in a room with someone being silly described the experience as euphoria. That is to say, subjects who presumably experienced the same bodily changes reported different emotions. From this, Schater and Singer concluded that emotions cannot merely be the perception of a change in bodily state and that James’s theory is incorrect. If emotions are not the mere perception of a change in bodily state, fear cannot be the mere fact that we perceive that we tremble—or that we perceive any other bodily change. What could be missing?
In more recent theories of emotion it has been emphasized that we also have to account for the representational content of emotions, that is, what our emotions are about. If we want to explain fear, for example, we have to explain what fear is specifically about; one could argue that what is common to all cases of fear is that they are experiences about something scary.
What is it for something to be scary? Is something scary because it makes us feel fear? This sounds clearly circular and not very insightful, i.e., we cannot explain fear in terms having an experience about something scary and then explain scary in terms of what experiences of fear are about. In order to solve this, Jesse Prinz (2004) proposes that emotions, at least some of them, are about “relational themes”.
What is the relational theme of fear? “Fear, for example, may represent the property of being dangerous. Being dangerous, like being poisonous, is a representational property, and a relative property.” (Prinz, 2004, p 64) This means that the experience of fear is not about something being scary, it as about something being dangerous. Moreover, the fact that you have an experience about something being dangerous, does not imply that the thing your experience is about is actually dangerous.
Let’s go back to the previous examples of fear to make this clearer. When you are afraid of someone, your experience is about this person being dangerous and this person could be in fact dangerous. However, you can also be afraid of things that are not in fact dangerous; when you are afraid of a little mouse or a fictional character in a movie, you are afraid because your experience is about a mouse or a film character being dangerous, even if they are not really so. Finally, in the famous academic example of fearing a bear, we can explain that if you ever encounter one and experienced fear, this is because your experience is about a bear being dangerous —whether the bear is hungry in the forest, and it is in fact dangerous, or if it is well fed in a zoo cage, and it isn’t really dangerous.
Ekman, P., (1989), “The Argument and Evidence About Universals in Facial Expressions of Emotion”, in Handbook of Social Psychophysiology, H. Wagner & A. Manstead (Eds.), Chichester: John Wiley, Ltd., 1989, Pp. 143-164.
Prinz, J., (2004), Gut reactions: a perceptual theory of emotions, Oxford : Oxford University Press.
William, J., (1884), “What is an Emotion?”, Mind, 9: 188–205.