An emotion is avalenced experience that is felt with some degree of intensity, involves a person's interpretation of the immediate situation, and is accompanied by learned and unlearned physical responses. Emotions are transitory states, and they have five characteristics. First, emotions are experiences, not specific behaviors or thoughts. Although thoughts can sometimes lead to emotions, and behaviors can sometimes be caused by emotions, an emotion is a personal experience. Second, an emotional experience has "valence," meaning that the emotion has a positive or negative quality. Because emotions have valence, they often motivate people toward action. People tend to seek activities, situations, and people that enhance their experience of positive emotional states, and they tend to avoid situations that are connected with the experience of negative emotions.
Third, emotions involve cognitive appraisals. That is, one's interpretation of the immediate situation influences which emotion is experienced. For example, a child may experience either joy or fear when being chased, depending on whether the child interprets the chase as playful or dangerous. Fourth, emotions involve physical responses. Physical responses may be internal, such as changes in heart rate, blood pressure, or respiration (called visceral responses); physical responses can also be external, such as facial expressions. In addition, the bodily responses that characterize emotions are partly reflexive (unlearned) and partly learned. An increase in heart rate is a reflexive response that accompanies intense fear. That which a person fears, however, and his or her accompanying bodily response may be the product of learning; crying when afraid is an emotional expression that is subject to learning experiences. Fifth, emotions can vary in intensity: Anger can become rage, amusement can become joy, and fear can be heightened to a state of terror.
Psychologist Robert Plutchik contends that there are eight innate, primary emotions: joy, anticipation, anger, disgust, sadness, surprise, fear, and acceptance. Like the colors of a color wheel, primary emotions can combine to produce secondary emotions: surprise plus sadness can produce disappointment; anger plus disgust can produce contempt; and fear plus surprise can produce awe. Because each primary emotion can vary in intensity, and each level of intensity for one emotion can combine with some other level of intensity of another emotion, the total number of possible emotions runs to the hundreds. Although many psychologists agree that there exist primary emotions, there is no way that a person could distinguish such a large number of personal emotional experiences. Moreover, psychologists have not even attempted to measure such an unwieldy array of secondary emotions.
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