Affect display

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For more information see the related article Emotion.

In psychology, affect display or affective display is a subject's externally displayed affect. The display can be by facial, vocal, or gestural means (APA 2006, p. 26). When displayed affect is different from the subjective affect, it is incongruent affect. Some professionals[who?] use the term "affect" to mean "affect display".[1]

Affect display refers to the impetus for observable expression of emotion; for the human being that expression or feeling displayed to others through facial expressions, hand gestures, tone of voice and other emotional signs such as laughter or tears is a part of a series of non-conscious or conscious cognitive events. Many aspects of the expressions vary between and within cultures and are displayed in various forms ranging from the most discreet of facial expressions to the most dramatic and prolific gestures (Batson, 1992).

Affect display is also a critical facet of communication in the social domain. Interpersonal communication is colored by displayed affect and there are various theories on affective reactions to stimuli to include conscious and non-conscious reaction and positive or negative affect.

Theoretical perspective[edit]

Affect can be taken to indicate an instinctual reaction to stimulation occurring before the typical cognitive processes considered necessary for the formation of a more complex emotion. Robert B. Zajonc asserts that this reaction to stimuli is primary for human beings and is the dominant reaction for lower organisms. Zajonc suggests affective reactions can occur without extensive perceptual and cognitive encoding, and can be made sooner and with greater confidence than cognitive judgments (Zajonc, 1980).

Lazarus (1982) considers affect to be post-cognitive. That is, affect is elicited only after a certain amount of cognitive processing of information has been accomplished. In this view, an affective reaction, such as liking, disliking, evaluation, or the experience of pleasure or displeasure, is based on a prior cognitive process in which a variety of content discriminations are made and features are identified, examined for their value, and weighted for their contributions (Brewin, 1989).

A divergence from a narrow reinforcement model for emotion allows for other perspectives on how affect influences emotional development. Thus, temperament, cognitive development, socialization patterns, and the idiosyncrasies of one's family or subculture are mutually interactive in non-linear ways. As an example, the temperament of a highly reactive, low self-soothing infant may "disproportionately" affect the process of emotion regulation in the early months of life (Griffiths, 1997).

Non-conscious affect and perception[edit]

In relation to perception, a type of non-conscious affect may be separate from the cognitive processing of environmental stimuli. A monohierarchy of perception, affect and cognition considers the roles of arousal, attentional tendencies, affective primacy (Zajonc, 1980), evolutionary constraints (Shepard, 1984; 1994), and covert perception (Weiskrantz, 1997) within the sensing and processing of preferences and discriminations. Emotions are complex chains of events triggered by certain stimuli. There is no way to completely describe an emotion by knowing only some of its components. Verbal reports of feelings are often inaccurate because people may not know exactly what they feel, or they may feel several different emotions at the same time. There are also situations that arise in which individuals attempt to hide their feelings, and there are some who believe that public and private events seldom coincide exactly, and that words for feelings are generally more ambiguous than are words for objects or events.

Affective responses, on the other hand, are more basic and may be less problematical in terms of assessment. Brewin has proposed two experiential processes that frame non-cognitive relations between various affective experiences: those that are prewired dispositions (i.e., non-conscious processes), able to "select from the total stimulus array those stimuli that are casually relevant, using such criteria as perceptual salience, spatiotemporal cues, and predictive value in relation to data stored in memory" (Brewin, 1989, p. 381), and those that are automatic (i.e., subconscious processes), characterized as "rapid, relatively inflexible and difficult to modify... (requiring) minimal attention to occur and... (capable of being) activated without intention or awareness" (1989 p. 381).


Arousal is a basic physiological response to the presentation of stimuli. When this occurs, a non-conscious affective process takes the form of two control mechanisms; one mobilization, and the other immobilization. Within the human brain, the amygdala regulates an instinctual reaction initiating this arousal process, either freezing the individual or accelerating mobilization.

The arousal response is illustrated in studies focused on reward systems that control food-seeking behavior (Balliene, 2005). Researchers focused on learning processes and modulatory processes that are present while encoding and retrieving goal values. When an organism seeks food, the anticipation of reward based on environmental events becomes another influence on food seeking that is separate from the reward of food itself. Therefore, earning the reward and anticipating the reward are separate processes and both create an excitatory influence of reward-related cues. Both processes are dissociated at the level of the amygdala and are functionally integrated within larger neural systems.

Affect and mood[edit]

Mood, like emotion, is an affective state. However, an emotion tends to have a clear focus (i.e., a self-evident cause), while mood tends to be more unfocused and diffused. Mood, according to Batson, Shaw, and Oleson (1992), involves tone and intensity and a structured set of beliefs about general expectations of a future experience of pleasure or pain, or of positive or negative affect in the future. Unlike instant reactions that produce affect or emotion, and that change with expectations of future pleasure or pain, moods, being diffused and unfocused, and thus harder to cope with, can last for days, weeks, months, or even years (Schucman, 1975). Moods are hypothetical constructs depicting an individual's emotional state. Researchers typically infer the existence of moods from a variety of behavioral referents (Blechman, 1990).

Positive affect and negative affect represent independent domains of emotion in the general population, and positive affect is strongly linked to social interaction. Positive and negative daily events show independent relationships to subjective well-being, and positive affect is strongly linked to social activity. Recent research suggests that "high functional support is related to higher levels of positive affect" (Blechman, 1990). The exact process through which social support is linked to positive affect remains unclear. The process could derive from predictable, regularized social interaction, from leisure activities where the focus is on relaxation and positive mood, or from the enjoyment of shared activities.

Gender and affective displays[edit]

Research has indicated many differences in affective displays due to gender. Gender, as opposed to sex, is one's self-perception of being masculine or feminine (i.e., a male can perceive himself to be more feminine or a female can perceive herself to be more masculine). It can also be argued, however, that hormones (typically determined by sex) greatly affect affective displays and mood.

Reduced affect[edit]

Reduced affect display manifests as a failure to express feelings either verbally or non-verbally, especially when talking about issues that would normally be expected to engage the emotions. Expressive gestures are rare and there is little animation in facial expression or vocal inflection.[2] Reduced affect can be symptomatic of schizophrenia, Asperger syndrome, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, depersonalization disorder,[3][4][5] or brain damage.[6] It may also be a side effect of certain medications (e.g., antipsychotics).[7] Individuals with blunted or flat affect show different regional brain activity when compared with healthy individuals.

Affect and the present moment[edit]

In the book, Stillness Speaks, Eckhart focuses on self-awareness and the perception of the present that leads to a cognitive, conscious affective state of the human condition. This present-moment consciousness of affect includes various stimuli processed within the framework of cultures, organizations, and environments, all of which contribute toward the development of the emotional state of the human organism (Tolle, 1999, 2003).

Meanings in art[edit]

The difference between the externally observable affect and the internal mood has been implicitly accepted in art and indeed, within language itself. The word "giddy," for example, carries within it the connotation that the characterized individual may be displaying a happiness that the speaker/observer believes either insincere or short-living.

Strategic display[edit]

Emotions can be displayed in order to elicit desired behaviors from others.

According to the appraisal theory of emotions, the experience of emotions is preceded by an evaluation of an object of significance to that individual. When individuals are seen to display emotions, it serves as a signal to others of an event important to that individual.[8][9] Thus, deliberately altering the emotion display toward an object could be used make the targets of the strategic emotion think and behave in ways that benefit the original expresser. For example, people attempt to hide their expressions during a poker game in order to avoid giving away information to the other players, i.e., keep a poker face.

People have been known to display positive emotions in various settings. Service workers often engage in emotional labor, a strive to maintain positive emotional expressions despite difficulties in working conditions or rude customers, in order to conform to organizational rules. Such strategic displays are not always effective, since if they are detected, lower customer satisfaction results.[10]

Perhaps the most notable attempt to feign negative emotion could be seen with Nixon’s madman theory. Nixon's administration attempted to make the leaders of other countries think Nixon was mad, and that his behavior was irrational and volatile. Fearing an unpredictable American response, leaders of hostile Communist Bloc nations would avoid provoking the United States.[11] This diplomatic strategy was not ultimately successful.

The effectiveness of the strategic display depends on the ability of the expresser to remain undetected. It may be a risky strategy since if detected, the person's original intent could be discovered, undermining the future relationship with the target.[12]


Psychologists consider affective processes to be the basis of feelings and emotions. Feelings are the result of affect, arousal, cognition, and perception in the present moment and within the social environment for human beings.

Affect is considered by some social scientists and psychologists to be a critical building block of feelings and emotions in both conscious and non-conscious states. Some argue that affect is pre-cognitive and some contend that affect is post-cognitive, based on likes, dislikes, preferences, and sensation. Affect is also a factor in emotional development, mood, arousal, and consideration of the present moment.

The influence of affect on human behavior ranges from primal, instinctual reaction and arousal to post-cognitive consideration of one's own mortality and mood. This elemental, sensory building block of emotion plays a critical role in the human communicative processes within the social and psychological domains.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Archived July 18, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.‹The template Wayback is being considered for merging.› 
  2. ^ Liddle, Peter F. (2007). "Schizophrenia: the clinical picture". In Stein, George; Wilkinson, Greg. Seminars in General Adult Psychiatry. London: Royal College of Psychiatrists. pp. 167–86. ISBN 978-1-904671-44-2. 
  3. ^ Ackner B. (1954): Depersonalisation: I. Aetiology and phenomenology. In: Journal of Mental Science, vol. 100, p. 838–853.
  4. ^ Saperstein J.L. (1949): Phenomena of depersonalization. In: The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, vol. 110, p. 236–251.
  5. ^ Sierra M., Berrios G.E. (2001): The Phenomenological Stability of Depersonalization: Comparing the Old with the New. In: The Journal of Nervous and Mental Diseases, vol. 189, p. 629–636
  6. ^ Sue, David; Sue, Diane M. (2012). "Mental Status Exam". Foundations of Counseling and Psychotherapy: Evidence-Based Practices for a Diverse Society. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons. pp. 64–6. ISBN 978-1-118-54210-1. 
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  8. ^ Parkinson, Brian; Gwenda (2012). "Worry spreads: Interpersonal transfer of problem-related anxiety". Cognition & Emotion. 26 (3): 462–479. doi:10.1080/02699931.2011.651101. 
  9. ^ Schlicht, Erik; Shimojo, Camerer; Battaglia, Nakayama (2010). Rustichini, Aldo, ed. "Human Wagering Behavior Depends on Opponents' Faces". PLoS ONE. 5 (7): e11663. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0011663. PMC 2908123free to read. PMID 20657772. 
  10. ^ Groth, Markus; Hennig-Thurau, Walsh (2009). "Customer reactions to emotional labor: The roles of employee acting strategies and customer detection accuracy" (PDF). Academy of Management Journal. 52 (5): 958. doi:10.5465/AMJ.2009.44634116. 
  11. ^ Haldeman, H. R. (1978). The Ends of Power. Times Books. p. 122. 
  12. ^ Van Kleef, Gerben; De Dreu (2010). "Longer-term consequences of anger expression in negotiation: Retaliation or spillover?". Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 46 (5): 753. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2010.03.013. 
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