Chapter 4: Emotion, Motivation and Human Potential

Emotion and Human Potential


Human behavior flows from three main sources: desire, emotion, and knowledge.



The Importance of Emotion and Motivation


Chapter 4 is the third and last chapter in the Mostly Heredity section. In the biological psychology chapter, we emphasized the genetic evolution of the human nervous system, particularly the brain. In the following chapter, we considered how our nervous system transmits and interprets sensory information, relaying it to parts of the body capable of responding. The structure of our sense organs determined the raw sensory information which (with the exception of pain) was integrated and interpreted by the brain. Wundt and the structural psychologists considered sensations, images, and emotions to be the fundamental elements of conscious experience. Aristotle’s five senses (vision, hearing, taste, smell, and touch) respond to stimuli originating outside our bodies. The balance and muscle tension senses respond to stimuli originating from within our bodies. The current chapter addresses the sources of internal stimulation which determine our emotions. This stimulation motivates us to respond to our basic and higher human needs. Something has to make us want to eat, survive, and reproduce. Something must drive us to understand and transform our world and create things of beauty. As was true with respect to human perception, bottom-up and top-down processes are involved. There are biological sub-cortical underpinnings of our emotions and motivations which may then be influenced by higher-level, experientially-influenced cognitive processing.


Instincts as Explanation of Behavior

As described in Chapter 1, psychology studies the how heredity (nature) and experience (nurture) influence the behavior of individual animals, including humans. The early psychologists (Wundt, 1873; James, 1890) attributed much of human behavior, including emotions and motives, to heredity in the form of instincts. McDougall (1908) listed 18 instincts including those related to the bottom of Maslow’s human needs pyramid. Soon others began to expand the list. The term instinct became a pseudo-explanation for practically all behavior. Why do humans create things? Because of the creativity instinct. Why do humans speak? Because of the language instinct, etc., etc. A psychological explanation requires describing the specific genetic and/or experiential variables influencing a specific behavior. It is not sufficient to simply name a new instinct.

Many different definitions of the term instinct exist in dictionaries and textbooks. Combining the basic elements of these, an instinct is an unlearned, complex, stereotyped behavior, characteristic of all the members of a species. The word complex is included to exclude simple reflexes such as rooting and sucking in human infants or eye blinks and knee jerks in adults. Stereotyped behavior appears the same across different individuals within a species. For example, the web building of particular types of spiders, or the nest building of particular types of birds, appear remarkably similar. If we restrict the term instinct to behaviors fitting these criteria, one would be hard pressed to find a single example in adult humans. For example, how does one reconcile a maternal instinct with the fact that some traditional nomadic tribes engage in infanticide when an additional newborn cannot be carried on foraging trips (Diamond, 2012, 177-179). Tragically, in modern times it is not unheard of that a mother abandons or abuses her child. Much complex human behavior is taught in school and is not “unlearned.” Despite these and other strong arguments for abandoning instincts as explanations for complex human behavior (Herrnstein, 1972; Lehrman, 1953), the term persists. For example, the recently proposed “language instinct” (Pinker, 1994) fails to specify the specific human DNA (see Figure 1.2) or parts of the brain (see Figure 2.2) involved in the acquisition of speech or other forms of language (e.g., American Sign Language). The term instinct does not specify, and perhaps denies, the important role experience plays. The language we speak (or read, or write, or sign, etc.) is obviously influenced by where we are born and grow up. In Chapter 6, we will discuss the importance of the learning experiences involved in language acquisition.


Darwin followed up The Origin of the Species with two other enormously influential and controversial books; The Descent of Man, and selection in relation to sex (1871), and The Expression of the emotions in man and animals (1872). These two works placed our understanding of human biology and psychology within the context of the rest of the animal kingdom. The first book distinguished between natural selection based upon inheritance of traits increasing the likelihood of survival and natural selection based on traits increasing the likelihood of mating. If a species were to survive, it was not enough for individuals to eat and avoid predators; some must also reproduce. We will consider the biology and psychology of sex later in this chapter. At this time, we will examine the important role emotions play in enriching our lives and influencing our survival as individuals and a species.

Darwin was a keen observer of nature. He concluded the facial expressions of different individuals reporting the same emotion were similar. He also thought there were similarities in the facial expressions of humans and other animals expressing the same emotion. He reasoned that emotions must be universally adaptive for them to have survived across different species of animals. Evidence in support of Darwin’s belief in the universality of human facial expressions was obtained for the seven different emotions shown in Figure 4.1 (Ekman and Friesen, 1971).  Can you guess when the woman in the picture felt happy, sad, contempt, fear, disgust, anger and surprise?


Figure 4.1 Universal facial expressions for seven emotions.


There was great consistency across many literate and non-literate cultures in labeling the emotions shown in photographs depicting these seven emotions. Consistent with Darwin, Ekman (1993) also noted the similarity of the facial expressions of humans and other primates. Evolutionary psychologists have suggested that the universality of facial expressions for different emotions facilitates social learning. For example, a child (or monkey) could learn to fear an object by observing the facial expression of a parent. Ekman has since expanded his list of basic emotions to several others that were not as clearly differentiated with facial expressions. These included amusement, contempt, contentment, embarrassment, excitement, guilt, pride in achievement, relief, satisfaction, sensory pleasure, and shame (Ekman, 1999).

Biology, Thought, Emotion, and Behavior

Since its beginnings, the discipline of psychology has struggled with the relationship between human biology, thought, feeling, and behavior. As described in Chapter 1, human thoughts and feelings are not observable by others. The best we can do to study covert behavior is to obtain self-reports or make inferences based upon observable behavior.

For centuries, philosophers debated the roles played by reason and emotion in human behavior. Plato described the human being as being torn in different directions by two horses! Sigmund Freud, an extremely influential physician (he would currently be considered a psychiatrist), developed an elaborate personality theory based upon observations of his clients (Freud, 1922, 1923). He described the human condition as a conflict between basic needs and drives and the demands of one’s conscience.

Freudian, like Darwinian Theory, was enormously influential and controversial from its inception. The portrayal of the human condition as the struggle between temptation (sometimes portrayed as a devil on one shoulder) and conscience (an angel on the other shoulder) captured the imagination of the public and creative writers. However, the theory was developed and assessed tangentially to the science of psychology. For this reason, there has been confusion regarding how to interpret the theory’s implications or the effectiveness of its applications. To the extent that the theory generates testable hypotheses, it is appropriate to consider the results and implications of the evidence obtained. The Freudian theory of personality will be considered in Chapter 9 and his approach to abnormal psychology and psychotherapy in Chapters 11 and 12.

Traditionally, we consider human behavior to be influenced by emotion, reason, or both. Scherer (2005) listed five components of emotions including: a biological response; cognitive appraisal; motivational arousal; changes in facial and vocal expression; and subjective feeling. The behavioral components in Scherer’s list can be observed and measured, however the cognitive and feeling components cannot. The inferential nature of studying emotions sometimes leads to a “which came first, the chicken or the egg” problem.

Early in the history of psychology, William James made the counter-intuitive proposal that we label our emotions based upon our biological and behavioral reactions to stimuli rather than the other way around. In his words, “we feel sad because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble, and not that we cry, strike, nor tremble because we are sorry, angry, or fearful, as the case may be” (James, 1884). This position was also being proposed at the same time by Carl Lange (a Danish psychologist), and since been labeled the “James-Lange theory of emotion.”

Walter Cannon (1927) argued that our emotional reactions occur too quickly and are too similar across different emotions to be the result of biological or behavioral responses. Phillip Bard (1928) obtained biological evidence consistent with this argument. He demonstrated that most sensory, motor, and internal autonomic stimulation first passed through the thalamus prior to higher-level processing in the brain. This suggests that autonomic arousal and our emotional response occur at the same time in reaction to an emotion-eliciting external stimulus. This position is called the “Cannon-Bard theory of emotion.”

In Chapter 11 (Social Psychology), we will describe attribution theory (Kelly, 1967). Here, we consider the two-factor theory of emotion, one of its important applications. This theory proposes that human emotions are based on a combination of bottom-up and top-down processing. The first stage consists of an emotion-eliciting stimulus resulting in a general state of autonomic arousal. The person then examines the environmental circumstances, attributing the arousal to a specific cause. The attribution then determines the label we apply to what we are experiencing.  Schachter and Singer (1962) conducted an important experiment evaluating two-factor theory. College students were told they were receiving an injection to test their eyesight. Actually they were injected with epinephrine (adrenaline), a drug causing autonomic arousal. Some students were in the presence of a confederate (i.e., a person involved in the experimental manipulation) who acted in a euphoric (i.e., extremely happy) manner and others were in the presence of a confederate who acted angry. Students interpreted their feelings based upon the confederate to whom they were exposed, consistent with two-factor theory.  These different emotional theories are described in the following video.


Watch the following video explaining different theories of emotion:



Figure 4.1  “Seven universal emotions” by Lydia Icerko is licensed under CC BY 3.0




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Psychology by Jeffrey C. Levy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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