Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Emotions: A Virtual Roundtable

Agneta Fischer, Ross Buck, Ursula Hess, Rolf Reber, Martijn van Zomeren

Over the next six weeks, five Cambridge University Press authors will be participating in a virtual roundtable discussion on the subject of emotions.


Can you explain some of the major recent developments in the field of emotions and psychology?


Rolf Reber, author of Critical Feeling: How to Use Feelings Strategically

Ross Buck, author of Emotion: A Biosocial Synthesis

Ursula Hess and Agneta Fischer, authors of Emotional Mimicry in Social Context:

Martijn Van Zomeren, author of From Self to Social Relationships: An Essentially Relational Perspective on Social 

In our first week, we ask the experts to explain some of the major recent developments in the field of emotions and psychology.

Rolf Reber:

While early research focused on basic emotions like joy, sadness, fear, anger, or disgust, more recent research focused on more complex emotions, like embarrassment, awe, or being moved. Another discussion has revolved around the question whether emotions could be unconscious. When it comes to methods, increasing computational power enables researchers to perform data analyses that were cumbersome two decades ago. This means that researchers can conduct studies with more sophisticated designs than earlier research, and they can run bigger studies. Finally, brain imaging methods have been widely used also in emotion research. However, as I’ll outline in the answer to the next question of this virtual roundtable, beyond localizing emotions, they most often did not provide insights more than could be gained by using the behavioural methods from traditional psychology.

Ross Buck:

There have been major recent developments in the ability to observe responses and behaviors associated with emotions, including advancements in the ability to measure and manipulate neurochemical systems associated with subjectively experienced affective qualia, and the ability to measure nonverbal display behaviors. The former includes:

(1) Powerful advancements in brain imaging and manipulation: to identify areas active in emotion (fMRI); to identify areas of brain lesions so that they can be related to symptoms of brain damage; to actively disrupt/enhance brain activity experimentally through transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS); to image and manipulate gene systems.

(2) Advancements in understanding effects of psychoactive molecules associated with specific affective qualia involving depression, anxiety, euphoria, pleasure, empathy, attachment, limerance, etc. These are often peptides [opiates, oxytocin (OT), vasopressin (AVP), cholecystokinin (CCK), diazepam binding inhibitors (DBI), corticotropin releasing hormone (CRH), and many others]. They are associated on one hand with specific genes, which assemble peptides within the neuron cell body, and specific reported affects in human beings, so that literally affects are voices of the genes.

(3)  Advancements in manipulating affective experience and expression in powerful double-blind studies presenting active molecules such at OT versus placebos in nasal sprays and observing resulting display behaviors (self reported affect, facial display, spatial behaviors, interpersonal synchrony, etc.).

The second sort of development involves nonverbal display behaviors, which are now open to investigation, observation, measurement, and computer-aided analysis by inexpensive but increasingly sophisticated digital media recorders that can unobtrusively capture subtle nuances of spontaneous behavior in low light conditions.

Ursula Hess, Agneta Fischer

In Psychology at large, emotions have become a hot topic in the recent decades.  Different theories have been developed on the nature of emotions, either focussing on the elicitation of emotions and the major determinants of emotions (e.g., appraisal theories) or the function of emotions (motivational and functional theories of emotion). Other lines of research have focussed on how emotions or affect influence cognitive processes like memory, judgments, estimations, or attention. An important part of all emotion research is on the determinants and effects of emotion regulation, emotion sharing and emotion expression. Various researchers have investigated the effects of emotion expressions on others, on relationships, or on one’s own health.

All this research on affect and emotion can be characterized by two developments. First, whereas emotion research used to study affect more generally, namely distinguishing positive and negative valence and high and low arousal, recent research has also focussed on discrete emotions, such as envy, admiration, guilt, regret, shame, pride, Schadenfreude and so on. The results of these studies show that whereas some effects are more general across negative emotions, other effects are emotion-specific.  A second development is the role of context, and the fact that many effects depend on the goal of the interaction, the nature of the emotion, and the identity of the interaction. For example, the effect of an anger expression is not always to back off, but depends on who is expressing the anger, whether the anger seems justified or not, and what the target expects that happens when he responds with anger.

Martijn Van Zomeren:

I think it is becoming more and more clear that it is hard to understand emotions without taking into account the social relationships in which individuals and their emotions are embedded. As I explain in my new book From Self to Social Relationships: An Essentially Relational Perspective on Social Motivation, the typical focus of theory and research on emotions is on the individual. This makes a lot of sense, at first glance; after all, “I” experience anger, fear, guilt and the like. But that “I” does not exist in a social vacuum — often anger, fear, and guilt are evoked by others. Indeed, recent theory and research suggests that “I” can also feel anger, fear, and guilt on behalf of others and even groups (e.g., my nation, my favourite soccer team). Thus, emotions have strong relational underpinnings, which fits with an analysis of human beings as relational beings, and with social motivation based in relationship regulation. Much of what we want is embedded in relationships, be they communal, authority, exchange, or market-like relationships. Of course a focus on individuals in the field of emotions and psychology is important — but too strong such a focus may lead psychologists to miss out on the essential stuff people are made of.


Next week, the authors will discuss what role the brain plays in understanding emotions.

About The Authors

Agneta Fischer

Agneta Fischer graduated in theoretical psychology at Leiden University (cum laude) and obtained her PhD on a dissertation entitled 'Emotion Scripts' at the same University in 1991...

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Ross Buck

Ross Buck is Professor of Communication Sciences and Psychology at the University of Connecticut....

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Ursula Hess

Ursula Hess is Professor of Psychology at the Humboldt University, Berlin. She received her PhD in psychology from Dartmouth College and is a Fellow at the Association for Psycholo...

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Rolf Reber

Rolf Reber is Professor of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Oslo and Adjunct Professor in the Department of Education at the University of Bergen, Norway. With his colleag...

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Martijn van Zomeren

Martijn van Zomeren is Associate Professor in the Department of Social Psychology at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. In 2009 he was awarded a prestigious VENI grant f...

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