Conceptual act model of emotion

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The conceptual act model of emotion is a recent psychological constructivist view on the experience of emotion.[1] This model was proposed by Lisa Feldman Barrett to rectify the "emotion paradox",[1] which has perplexed emotion researchers for decades.

The emotion paradox is as follows. People have vivid and intense experiences of emotion in day-to-day life: they report seeing emotions like "anger", "sadness", and "happiness" in others, and they report experiencing "anger", "sadness" and so on themselves. Nevertheless, psychophysiological and neuroscientific evidence has failed to yield consistent support for the existence of such discrete categories of experience.[2] Instead, the empirical evidence suggests that what exists in the brain and body is affect.[3][4]

Despite this evidence, most other theories of emotion assume that emotions are genetically endowed, not learned, and are produced by dedicated circuits in the brain: an anger circuit, a fear circuit, and so on. This point of view is very much in line with common-sense conceptions of emotion. The conceptual act model of emotion calls this assumption into question. It suggests that these emotions (often called "basic emotions"[5]) are not biologically hardwired, but instead are phenomena that emerge in consciousness "in the moment" from two more fundamental entities: core affect and categorization.

Core affect[edit]

Core affect is a neurophysiological state characterized along two dimensions:[6]

  • Pleasure vs. displeasure, measured along a continuous scale from positive to negative.
  • High arousal vs. low arousal, measured along a continuous scale between these endpoints.

According to the conceptual act model, emotion is generated when a person categorizes his/her core affective state using knowledge about emotion. This theory combines elements of linguistic relativity and affective neuroscience.

The term "core affect" was first used in print by Russell and Barrett in 1999 in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology[7] where it is used to refer to the affective feelings that are part of every conscious state (as discussed by Wundt in his 1889 System der Philosophie).[8] The term "core affect" also appears to have been used as a phrase that relates to neuropsychological understanding of behavior as a morbid affect at the roots of any type of human behavior.[9]

The conceptualization of affect[edit]

The conceptual act model of emotion posits that the experience of emotion is analogous to the experience of color. People experience colors as discrete categories: blue, red, yellow, and so on. The physics of color, however, is actually continuous, with wavelengths measured in nanometers along a scale from ultraviolet to infrared. When a person experiences an object as "blue", she is using her knowledge of color to give this wavelength a label.[10] And in fact, people experience a whole range of wavelengths as "blue".

Likewise, emotions are commonly thought of as discrete and distinct—fear, anger, happiness—while core affect is continuous. The conceptual act model suggests that at a given moment, people categorize and apply a label to their current feeling of affect (or core affective state), using their knowledge of emotions, just as they experience and label colors. This process instantiates the experience of "having an emotion".

For example, if someone is experiencing negative affect and sees a snake, he would categorize (and experience) his affective state as "fear", in essence generating an instance of fear. In contrast, a "basic emotions" researcher would say that seeing the snake triggers a dedicated "fear circuit" in the brain.


  1. ^ a b Barrett, L. F. (2006). "Solving the emotion paradox: Categorization and the experience of emotion". Personality and Social Psychology Review. 10: 20–46. doi:10.1207/s15327957pspr1001_2. 
  2. ^ Barrett, L. F., Lindquist, K., Bliss-Moreau, E., Duncan, S., Gendron, M., Mize, J., & Brennan, L. (in press). Of mice and men: Natural kinds of emotion in the mammalian brain? Perspectives on Psychological Science.
  3. ^ Barrett, L. F. (2006). "Emotions as natural kinds?". Perspectives on Psychological Science. 1: 28–58. doi:10.1111/j.1745-6916.2006.00003.x. 
  4. ^ Barrett, L. F.; Wager, T. (2006). "The structure of emotion: Evidence from the neuroimaging of emotion". Current Directions in Psychological Science. 15: 79–85. doi:10.1111/j.0963-7214.2006.00411.x. 
  5. ^ Ekman, P. (1972). Universals and cultural differences in facial expressions of emotion. In J. Cole (Ed.), Nebraska Symposium on Motivation 1971, (Vol. 19, pp. 207-283). Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
  6. ^ Russell, J. A.; Barrett, L. F. (1999). "Core affect, prototypical emotional episodes, and other things called emotion: Dissecting the elephant". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 76 (5): 805–819. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.76.5.805. PMID 10353204. 
  7. ^ Russell, James A.; Barrett, Lisa Feldman (1999). "Core affect, prototypical emotional episodes, and other things called emotion: Dissecting the elephant" (PDF). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 76 (5): 805–819. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.76.5.805. PMID 10353204. 
  8. ^ Wundt, Wilhelm Max (1889). System der Philosophie (in German). Leipzig, Germany: Engelmann. 
  9. ^ Segarra, Efrain (June 1983). "A Neuropsychological of Human Behavior and Therapeutic Change". University of Massachusetts Amherst. 
  10. ^ Davidoff, J (2001). "Language and perceptual categorization". Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 5: 382–387. doi:10.1016/s1364-6613(00)01726-5.