Emotion In Cognition Research Paper

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A view held by influential philosophers in the eighteenth century, and inherited by psychologists in the nineteenth century, was that mental life could be separated into three mental faculties: conation (will and action), cognition (thinking and knowing), and affect (emotion). In the twentieth century this distinction was reflected in two movements that each gave priority to one of these faculties: behaviorism to conation, cognitive psychology to cognition. In both affect was neglected. Recently it has become clear that neither conation nor cognition can be understood without understanding the influences of affect.

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In this research paper the following is assumed: emotion (affect) and cognition can be distinguished for purposes of analysis, though in practice they are seldom separate. Emotion is often used as a superordinate category that includes both specific emotions such as happiness and anger as well as moods such as anxiety. Specific emotions are typically elicited by events, and usually have known objects: for instance one becomes angry at a particular person for a known reason. Moods are longer lasting and may be objectless (free floating) but their underlying mechanisms are the same as those of specific emotions. Cognition, which includes both conscious and unconscious processes, is the representation and use of knowledge in language, thinking, remembering, attending, perceiving, and the like. To understand emotion in cognition we can ask, therefore, how a specific emotion such as anger affects reasoning, how the fear-based mood of anxiety affects attention, and so forth.

1. The Idea That Emotions Interfere With Rational Cognition

Emotion has often been regarded as antipathetic to cognition as in the cliched adage ‘the heart versus the head,’ as if emotions were storms that blow the ship of selfhood from its rationally calculated course.

In the Western intellectual tradition, suspicion of emotions was perhaps most clearly articulated by Darwin (1872), who argued that emotional expressions are actions that occur whether or not they are any use. He included the bristling of hairs when angry or frightened, and the curling of a lip on one side of the mouth in contempt which he thought was a vestige of baring the teeth in snarling preparation to bite. Had he been writing today, he would have pointed to the smiles and gestures people make when they speak on the telephone. For Darwin, emotional expressions were those actions that derive from our evolution as beasts, or from our individual development from infancy. They are leftovers from earlier times, which cannot be inhibited by taking thought: behavioral equivalents of the appendix in our digestive system which in distant ancestors had a function but which, in adult humans, has a function no longer. The implication is that such expressions, and by implication the emotions themselves, have a regrettable influence on adult cognition. In a notebook Darwin wrote: ‘Our descent, then, is the origin of our evil passions!!—The Devil under form of baboon is our grandfather.’ Although he would never have published this sentiment, the argument in his 1872 book is consonant with it. The atavistic quality Darwin ascribed to emotional expressions gave biological credence to a distrust of emotions as enemies of reason that had been voiced by Plato, then nurtured by the Stoics and many subsequent thinkers.

2. Functional Conceptions Of Emotion

There is, however, another line of argument. It is that emotions are the essential guides of cognition. In Western thought, the line derives from Aristotle, who argued that emotions are evaluations: beliefs about what we value. This is the view that has prevailed in modern cognitive psychology. So an emotion is a psychological process that mediates between goals (valued concerns) and events. It is typically elicited by an appraisal of an event in the world that affects an important goal or concern (see e.g., Oatley and Jenkins 1996).

Aristotle’s main treatment of emotions is in his book Rhetoric, which is not so much about persuading people by sly means, as about reaching useful conclusions socially when no exact demonstration of the correct course of action can be made. If there were an exact demonstration—an unequivocal argument on some matter—says Aristotle, we should follow it. But without such a demonstration, there must be discussion, as occurs for instance in a law court or in politics. Now emotions become essential. They are aroused in people who listen to the case on this side and that. ‘The emotions,’ said Aristotle, ‘are all those feelings that so change [people] as to affect their judgements, and are also attended by pain or pleasure. Such are anger, pity, fear, and the like, with their opposites.’

Most problems of practical human life have no fully rational solutions. Therefore different people need to represent different points of view, including their emotional implications. This occurred recently in political and media discussions of the Yugoslavian conflict: on one side the tragic fate of Kosovan refugees, on the other the terrifying effects of bombing on civilians. In such discussions, conclusions are reached that are not ideal, but are better than those reached without considering emotional implications or without thinking in a dialogical way.

Since the advent of cognitive science in the late 1950s, psychological conceptions of thinking have been dominated by the idea of search across a space of possibilities. In chess, for instance, one searches ahead across moves and their continuations. In reasoning, one searches across manipulations of a problem to reach a solution. But, as quickly became clear, most search spaces for real problems quickly become indefinitely large, so they elude simple search processes. Research attention was then drawn to heuristics that help to prune search trees.

Following especially from a paper of Simon (1967), emotions came to be seen as heuristics of this kind. Simon’s argument was that although, at that time, computer processes ran without interference until they terminated, in any realistic example of cognition every possibility cannot be foreseen, and so unexpected events occur. A system is therefore needed to interrupt ongoing processes, so that a more urgent process can take control. Such a system corresponds with what we think of as emotion: the process of managing cognition in environments which, like the ones we live in, are never fully predictable.

2.1 Three Classes Of Problem For Human Rationality

Simon stressed the unpredictability that derives from limitations of resources, but really the problem is more extensive. Outcomes of actions are not fully predictable for three classes of reasons. First, there is indeed the issue of resources: human mental models are always incomplete and often incorrect; time, movement, strength, etc. are also always limited. Hence the unexpected often occurs. Second, goals are often multiple and sometimes incommensurable, as is made clear every time the career aspirations of a politician are threatened by media exposure of questionable sexual goals. Moreover, even where goals are commensurable, as for instance when mediated by money, there is no principled way of deciding whether to maximize gains or minimize losses. Third, the human biological arrangement is to offset limitations of resources (the first point) by distributing cognition and action among several agents. This has allowed a huge net gain in the possibilities of agency as compared with what could be accomplished by the individual, as may be seen in the products of human culture. But the arrangement introduces a new domain of unpredictability because our knowledge of beliefs and plans of other agents with whom we interact is also limited. In general, then, although we should strive for rationality, fully rational thought and action in most of life is impossible.

A solution to these three classes of problems has derived from evolution: the system of human emotions as heuristics that manage priorities of action in environments that are never certain, when there are multiple goals, and when we interact with other people.

2.2 Definition Of Emotion

A working definition of emotion is due to Frijda (1986): an emotion occurs when an event is appraised as relevant to a goal. It is a form of readiness approximately appropriate to the event that elicited it. It gives priority to some goals rather than others, and an urge towards action of a certain kind. It is often accompanied by distinctive types of thought, expression, and physiological response, and it can interrupt, or compete with, alternative courses of action. An example: imagine you are reading quietly at home when the phone rings with news of an accident to a close friend. You experience a hollow feeling in the stomach, and in anxiety you put all thoughts of reading aside. Mental processing is switched to the urgent concern for your friend, and you make plans about what you might do to help.

2.3 Emotions And Optimization Of Cognitive Processing

Darwin’s book on Expression can be read as a treatise on optimization of behavioral mechanisms that were each adapted to a particular environment at a particular phase of evolution or development. Behavioral mechanisms are acquired by accretion, and in general these mechanisms cannot be deleted. Any mechanism, then, may or may not be useful in future environments, and may or may not be adaptable to new purposes. Darwin saw that the adaptations of evolutionary change have occurred in a piecemeal fashion, over extended periods. His principal concern was to argue against the idea that humans are perfect creations, so he emphasized aspects of behavior that in adult human life are imperfectly adapted. A century later, the argument for evolution had been won. Simon accepted it, saw the optimization problem more generally, and recognized the functional place of emotions within it.

Emotions, on this view, are not antipathetic to cognition; they are its managers within a system of only-partly-adapted cognitive-behavioral mechanisms that operate in a world where perfect solutions are rare. Emotions are not especially enemies of rationality. Rather, human rationality is like an archipelago in a huge and changing sea. We can rationally choose to take the shortest route to some destination, rather than setting off in the opposite direction. As self-interested economic agents we can rationally choose the lowest price for a product. As friends, we can rationally do what we have promised, knowing that someone depends on us. But the sea of ignorance of the exact effects of our actions is large. Emotions are heuristics that bridge across the straits between the islands of what we know rationally how to do.

3. Experimental Studies Of Effects Of Emotions On Cognition

Since the 1970s, experimental studies of effects of emotions have been made in increasing numbers. A pioneer was Isen who induced mild happiness in people by testing a skill and telling them they had done well, or by giving them small gifts, or by having them watch comedy films. She found several types of effect. As compared with people in neutral moods, those made happy (a) were more cooperative for instance in making larger donations to charity and in helping strangers, (b) did better in some intellectual tasks such as creative problem solving, and (c) recalled happy rather than unhappy memories. One of Isen’s most striking studies (Isen et al. 1987) was to have subjects watch a funny or a neutral film. She then asked them individually to solve a problem: to use only a box of tacks, a book of matches, and a candle, to fix the candle to a corkboard wall and light it. Less than 20 percent of subjects who watched the neutral film solved the task, but in one experiment 75 percent and in another experiment 58 percent of subjects made happy by the funny film solved the problem within 10 minutes. The tacks did not work to pin the candle directly to the wall. The solution was to empty the box of tacks, pin the box to the wall, and use it to hold the candle. Happiness, therefore, made cognition more flexible. In terms of optimization, happiness minimizes issues of safety (which are maximized by fear and anxiety), and it improves the search for unusual associations.

At about the same time Bower (1981) was experimenting with inducing emotions by hypnosis. In one experiment, he asked subjects to recall incidents from their childhood, moving haphazardly around their memory for 10 minutes and briefly describing each incident they recalled. Next day he asked them to classify the recalled incidents as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. On the following day, he induced either a happy or sad mood, and asked the subjects to recall again the incidents they had recalled previously and later categorized. He found that subjects who were put into a happy mood recalled substantially more incidents they had classed as pleasant compared with unpleasant. Subjects in a sad mood remembered slightly more of the unpleasant than the pleasant incidents.

Explanations for this type of phenomenon have shifted. Bower at first thought that the explanation was of state dependency: incidents of any arbitrary kind that are memorized in one mood state are more available for recall when the same mood state recurs. Results of many studies now imply an explanation called mood congruence: autobiographical incidents with a particular emotional meaning to the subject are more available to recall when that same emotion recurs.

Effects of the mood of anxiety have also been studied. Whereas sadness has large effects on memory, anxiety has its largest effects on attention. A typical effect is shown in the so-called Stroop task in which words are printed in different colored inks. In Stroop’s original task, people were asked to look at words such as ‘red,’ ‘yellow,’ and ‘blue,’ and to name the color of the ink in which each was printed. People were significantly slowed wherever a word, e.g., ‘red,’ was different from the color in which it is printed, e.g., in yellow ink. The explanation is that attention required for the task of naming the ink colors is captured by the meanings of the words. In the emotional Stroop task, the words are not of colors but they are emotionally significant: words like ‘cancer,’ ‘robbery,’ and so forth. Where such words have special emotional significance for subjects, attention is captured, and such subjects are slowed in saying the ink color of the words. For instance, Foa et al. (1991) found that people who had been victims of rape were slowed in saying the ink colors of words related to rape compared with ink colors of words that were not so related. In general, methods such as this have indicated that people who are anxious attend selectively to issues of their anxious concern.

Many other laboratory findings and principles have been established. Emotion has also been shown to affect perception, categorization, and the representation of knowledge. Perhaps most widely it has been shown to affect tasks that involve reasoning and social judgements (Forgas 2000). Principles include the finding that happy emotions tend to make for cognition that uses short cuts or schematic solutions, whereas negative emotions tend to make for more careful, step-by-step, processing (Schwarz and Bless 1991). In terms of maximization and minimization, in environments that are experienced as safe and friendly, cognitive processes are switched to maximizing gains according to current goals, to cooperative plans, or to assimilating new information to current knowledge structures. Negative emotions signal that something has gone wrong in progress toward a goal. Processing is switched so that schemata can accommodate, and careful attention is given to events of the environment, and to consistency of internal models.

It is clear that the relations among emotions and cognition need to be understood at several different levels of processing (Teasdale 1999). It is also clear that interactions between emotion and cognition can be approached using experimental methods in brain sciences as well as in psychology. For instance, it has been found that people with lesions of the prefrontal region have experimentally demonstrable defects in emotional processing; they also show impairments in social planning as it affects friendships, employment, and the making of social arrangements (Damasio 1994). Although this association between emotion and social planning is consistent with much cognitive research on emotions, neurological findings such as this have been influential in enabling acceptance of emotions as guides of cognition rather than disturbers of rationality.

4. Research In Psychiatric Epidemiology

Though experimental studies in this area are robust, many of them neglect people’s most pressing emotional concerns. This domain has, however, been explored in studies of people’s cognitive-affective responses to emotionally important events and problems in their lives. Perhaps most significant in this area has been the finding by Brown and Harris (1978) of how clinical depression is typically caused. When people become depressed, they experience a range of cognitive changes, and typically come to regard life as hopeless and unsustainable, so that they cannot cope with daily tasks, and contemplate giving up life altogether. The immediate causes of such breakdowns are severely adverse events such as bereavement from loved spouses, children, or parents, or severe protracted difficulties such as marital conflict, or unemployment and consequent lack of income.

Comparably, people become clinically anxious in response to severe threats to their way of life and to their systems of previous belief. Although this is true for many kinds of clinical anxiety states, most striking in this regard is the syndrome of post-traumatic stress disorder, in which people who suffer war or civil disaster, have their lives and value systems upturned. Such people’s cognitive systems switch chronically to states of hypervigilance, accompanied by vivid memory flashbacks to the disaster that occurred.

Cross-connections between experimental studies and research in psychiatry have been made (see, e.g., Power and Dalgleish 1997). For instance, depressed people have been found to suffer biases of memory towards recalling incidents of loss and defeat, and people who are clinically anxious show biases of attention that can be demonstrated on tasks such as the emotional Stroop test (see, e.g., Mathews 1993).

5. Conclusion

For a long time cognition was studied as if it involved merely the impartial representation and use of knowledge. But emotions are, as Aristotle argued, evaluations that mediate between concerns and the events that impinge on knowledge. They are guides of cognition, selecting among beliefs, arranging priorities among goals, directing attention, biasing access to remembered material, and providing heuristics that influence reasoning, judgement, and planning.


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