By Categories: Ethics

Note:- Emotional Intelligence can not be understood without understanding emotion. And emotion is a psychological state. Thus, although we are discussing an ethics topic here, we will take help of psychology subject to understand it better. In Part-I, we will be dealing with What is emotion ?, which is an important  pre-cursor to understand emotional intelligence.


One of the most important and fundamental aspects of the human experience is our capacity to experience emotions. Without this, our existence would be unidimensional and nowhere as rich and vibrant as it is. We experience joy and pleasure when we achieve something, become sad when we lose, or get angry or frustrated when things don’t turn out the way we want it. But what exactly is this emotion, what does it consist of, how does it affect our thinking and other aspects of our life?

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Defining emotions and agreeing upon a framework to understand them is a challenging task. Complex concepts such as these lie somewhere at the intersection of philosophy, psychology and neuroscience. Thus, there are numerous theories and frameworks within which emotions can be understood. In this Unit, we will focus on principles that are accepted across disciplines and are based on current evidence from the scientific community.


What is an emotion? It appears too simplistic to the common people to define it. Common emotions experienced are joy, happiness, anger, sadness, jealousy, love and so on. We eat good food and feel contented. We see a good movie and feel happy. We spend time with loved ones and feel loved. We lose a game and feel sad.

Emotion is a complex chain of loosely connected events that begins with a stimulus and includes feelings, psychological changes, impulses to action and specific goal directed behaviour.

Woodworth defines emotion as a stirred-up state of an organism that appears as feelings to the individual himself and as a disturbed muscular and glandular activity to an external observer.

Morris, states that emotion is a complex affective experience that involves diffuse physiological changes and can be expressed overtly in characteristic behavior patterns. Thus, emotions are experienced in response to a particular internal or external event.

A response of this kind involves physical arousal in the body- heart rate, blood pressure, perspiration, release of hormones etc. Secondly, a motivation to take action is activated- seeking things and activities that provide pleasure and avoiding those that give rise to pain or unpleasantness.

Thirdly, emotions arise out of our sensations, perceptions and thoughts related to objects, persons and situations. It depends on how do we perceive something, think about it and interpret it.

Fourthly, emotions vary in their intensity, for example, happiness can be experienced as pleasant and contented at the lower end of the continuum whereas excited and thrilled at the higher end of the continuum. Similarly being irritated and upset are the milder forms of anger whereas furious and enraged are high intensity anger feelings.

Emotions can be desirable or undesirable to an individual, depending on whether the said event is perceived as ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ or performs an adaptive function for an individual. They are responsible for driving a range of human behaviours such as attacking, fleeing, self- defence, forming relationships, reproducing etc.

However, some of these functions may translate into negative consequences such as ‘freezing’on stage, intense expressions of anger, unwarranted aggression etc. Regardless of whether the consequences are positive or negative, emotions create significant impact when they arise and adapting to our environment demands that we understand and express emotions appropriately.

Emotion vs Feelings

Emotions are not the same as feelings, even though we may use both the terms similarly. The term feeling is used to refer to a person’s private emotional experience or self- perception of a specific emotion. When an event occurs, one first responds automatically at a physical level even without awareness (emotion) and then registers or evaluates this (feeling).

For example, when one sees a snake nearby, their heartbeat, breathing, perspiration (physiological arousal) might increase immediately, causing the action of running away. Only later might one realise that the feeling they experienced was fear. Feelings are created by emotions. Thus, although we may use the terms emotion and feeling interchangeably in our daily lives, they differ considerably from each other.

Emotion vs Mood

Another related concept is mood. While emotions last for short periods of time and arise in response to a particular event, moods are of lower intensity, generally last for longer periods of time, even days and may not necessarily be associated with a certain, immediate event or cause.

While emotions are directed at something or someone (e.g. you are angry at your brother or you are frustrated about waiting in line), moods can arise for no apparent reason, such as waking up irritable one morning without anything unpleasant having occurred the previous day. Nevertheless, moods are important because they too influence our actions. For example, wanting to socialise more with friends when in a good mood and avoiding social situations when feeling low over the weekend.

Functions of Emotions

Emotions matter. They provide information to us and serve certain purpose. They became part of the human experience and have continued to remain so because of the functions they perform. Each function is associated with a certain utility or role.

Intrapersonal functions: This domain refers to the functions that emotions serve within individuals. They help one guide behaviour and make decisions, so that we can survive as well as function as human beings. For instance, they inform us when to fight and when to leave a dangerous situation. Feeling respect for oneself encourages one to care and look after oneself. Happiness promotes creative thinking and expands our focus to allow new ideas and small details to be noticed. Even mild sadness contributes to more realistic thinking and improves judgment by encouraging us to scan information more carefully and thoroughly.

Interpersonal functions: These functions are performed by emotions between individuals. The act of expressing emotions serves as an indication or signal to others about how one might feel about them or the relationship, what one’s intentions might be and what one’s needs might be.

Displaying a positive facial expression such as a smile usually encourages other people to approach us. Showing sadness may stimulate others to show empathy or sympathy. Emotional expression is thus an important communication and relationship management tool.

In fact, as early as 1872, Darwin identified that emotional communication aids the survival of the human species by enabling the reading of signs of impending aggression in others or warning others of a threat by displaying fear.

Social and cultural functions: This dimension has to do with how emotions contribute to the construction and maintenance of societies and cultures. Emotions such as trust often act as a social glue that keeps groups together. Cohesive groups in turn form societies and evolve their own distinct cultures.

On their part, cultural codes inform individuals and groups about specific display rules that exist for emotional expression. For example, men are often conditioned to only display certain emotions such as anger and aggression, while showing “softer” emotions such as sadness is discouraged in eastern cultures. Certain work places are driven by unspoken rules about whether certain emotions such as affection are appropriate for display in work related contexts.


Emotions can be viewed as having five components.

1. Affective: also referred to as a conscious, subjective feeling. Individuals monitor their internal, felt states and recognise what they are feeling.

2. Cognitive: involves describing or assigning meaning to the emotion. Thus, thinking about a feeling is very different from the actual feeling. Individuals try to understand the reason behind why something is happening and try to judge how an event might impact them.

3. Physiologic: bodily reactions such as palms sweating upon feeling anxious.

4. Motivational: Going toward or away from an action or person. This component is also referred to as action tendencies, which refers to specific actions that the individual takes that may be voluntary or involuntary. For example, moving one’s hand away from a hot pan is an involuntary action, while going on an early morning run despite feeling tired is a voluntary action. Each emotion may be associated with a particular action tendency

5. Expressive: Displaying emotions through facial expressions such as smiling, crying, frowning or body movements such as throwing a vase when angry to communicate emotions to others.


Emotions are also commonly classified as primary and secondary. Primary emotions are those that are basic and universal in the sense that they are “hard- wired”, automatic and experienced in all cultures and social contexts. They are thought to have evolved so as to aid our survival as a species.

Robert Plutchik, identified eight of these- fear, surprise, sadness, disgust, anger, anticipation, joy and trust and represented them in the form of a colour wheel. Each of these emotions vary in intensity and show up as layers. For example, the primary emotion of fear may be called apprehension when it is at a very low intensity and terror when it is at its highest intensity. The core emotion remains the same i.e. fear. Combinations and layers of primary emotions may give rise to more complex emotions. These are called secondary emotions and may be culture specific.

Plutchik’s Emotion Wheel

The colour families in the figure indicate similar emotions. Darker shades indicate greater intensity. The spaces between emotions indicate combined emotions that emergence from the merging of primary emotions. In the above representation, contempt can be a combination of anger and disgust. Optimism can be seen as the combination of serenity and interest. In addition, some emotions can exist as opposites of each other: sadness is the opposite of joy, trust and disgust lie at opposing ends, as do fear and anger. The wheel above indicates that different emotion words can be used to express different intensities of the same family of emotions. The emotions in the central circle of the wheel are at the highest level of intensity; rage, vigilance, ecstasy, admiration, terror, amazement, grief, and loathing. As one moves outwards in the wheel, the emotional intensity decreases anger is less intense than rage and annoyance is even milder.


Emotions do not remain static and can transition or evolve into others over time. For example, one may be angry about a fight with a close family member at first. Over a day, this can turn into sadness, even if nothing seemingly changes in the situation.


Recall a recent time when you were feeling happy and content. What was your view of the world during the time you were in this mood? Now try and remember a time when you were feeling upset and angry at something. How did you view the world during this time? It is likely that your perception of the world (including the people in it) was different during both these phases and influenced by whichever emotions were dominant at the time. Chances are that you also behaved differently towards other people as a consequence.

Emotions, thinking and behaviour are inextricably linked. The relationship between them can best be explained through contemporary models of emotion.

Imagine that your friend suddenly shouts at you. This is an emotional stimulus and encountering it may make you interpret or judge the outburst as “my friend is angry with me” or “my friend is rude”. Depending on what you think about the stimulus, you will experience a feeling. Subsequently, some form of adaptive behaviour will follow. If your interpretation of the situation is that is your friend is angry with you, you might feel confused and ask them why they are angry. If you think that your friend is being rude, you might experience anger and shout back at them too and thus your behaviour may look very different.

This process of assigning meaning to an event and our reaction to it is called appraisal. A cognitive appraisal is, therefore an evaluation or interpretation of the personal meaning of certain circumstances that results in an emotion

Specific appraisals usually give rise to particular emotions and influence their intensity and quality as well. For example, an appraisal of “I desire something that someone else has”, goes along with the emotion of envy. “I have been treated well by another” creates the experience of gratitude.

According to Gross and Deutschendorf , changing one’s interpretation of an event can prevent the experience of feeling drained and guard against overwhelming emotions. For instance, in the above example, by changing your appraisal to “she doesn’t mean it”, you could easily brush- off her behaviour and get on with your day.

Appraisals, therefore, have the power to impact our reactions to the daily experiences of emotions, especially those that are unpleasant and stressful. By changing our own appraisals, we may be able to protect ourselves from stress and promote our well- being, even if we cannot control external situations or other people.

In addition, because of differences in how a situation or event may be appraised, the same situation may give rise to different behaviour on the part of individuals. Infact, the same person may also react differently to the same situation at different times.

However, it is important to keep in mind that while emotions have the potential to energise us to act, whether action is actually taken depends on more than just emotions. Situational context, the object at which emotion is directed, anticipation and judgment of possible consequences of actions and past experiences, culture and gender all determine behavior.

For example, people from western cultures feel comfortable expressing anger more openly than those from eastern cultures, where showing anger in the presence of others is regarded in a more negative light because of the importance assigned to maintenance of relationships.

Gender differences notwithstanding, men and women may be similar in their subjective experiences of emotions but express them very differently due to the differences in how they are conditioned to show their emotions.

Women are generally more comfortable showing vulnerability through the expression of sadness while men are raised not to cry easily and instead are more accepting and expressive of anger and aggression.


Emotions are complex states that are difficult to define but also fundamental to our experiences. Without their existence, our individual, interpersonal and cultural existence would be meaningless. Emotional complexity arises out of multiple components that comprise emotional experience- subjective feelings, interpretations, physiological/ bodily changes, action tendencies and expression.

As human beings, we share certain basic or primary emotions, while more complex, secondary emotions may be learnt and expressed as combinations of primary emotions. While emotions may ready us for action, they do not directly cause behaviour. How we think about an emotional event determines which emotion is felt, what action is taken and how the emotion is eventually expressed.

These dynamics add considerable richness to our individual and social lives and allow us to adapt to situational demands. Understanding and changing our appraisal of an experience can empower us to change our reactions and gain better control of our emotions.


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