What are emotions, and why do we have them? | HowStuffWorks - Deepstash





Deepstash brings you key ideas from the most inspiring articles like this one:

Read more efficiently

Save what inspires you

Remember anything

What are emotions, and why do we have them? | HowStuffWorks



What are emotions, and why do we have them? | HowStuffWorks


  1. HowStuffWorks
  2. Science
  3. Life Science
  4. Inside the Mind
  5. Emotions

What are emotions, and why do we have them?

Josh Clark
In just a moment, a physical affront to the face can elicit the emotional response of anger. See more in the
emotion photo gallery

If you're ever hit in the nose hard enough to make your eyes water, you may also notice that your skin will grow hot, your mouth will go a bit dry and your pulse will become elevated. You'll find that your head begins to swim with a strong desire to hit something in return, possibly to shout while you do. Eventually, you'll find that you've overcome this sudden influx of physical and mental stimuli. What you've just experienced -- the basic emotion of anger -- has passed.

Why a slight impact to the nose leads to a series of physiological and mental changes has long been a matter of speculation, but most psychologists agree that a basic emotion like anger exists as an evolutionary trigger. We humans -- and most other animals -- appear to be equipped with a set of predictable responses to situations. We call these the basic emotions: anger,

, surprise, disgust, joy and sadness, as described in the 1970s by anthropologist Paul Eckman [source:
Changing Minds



Over time, this list of basic emotions has been added to, subtracted from and reshaped based on the idea that human emotions are universal. This notion suggests that for any given situation, like being hit in the nose, any individual in any culture would experience something like anger. This view of emotions as largely objective is widely accepted, although there is an emerging school of thought that believes emotions to be far more subjective: Rather than six or 11 basic emotions, there is an emotion for every possible human experience [source:


Under almost every explanation of emotions is the premise that they're a naturally-occurring response to a situation. Whether this response is the result of our own evaluation or an automatic one remains to be seen. In the field of

, the view of the nature of emotions can be divided into two camps: Emotions are either the result of a judgment of any current situation or a perception of changes taking place within our bodies [source:
]. In other words, when we experience disgust, it could be the result of a judgment about how we feel when we see vomit. Under the other view, we experience disgust because our body undergoes physiological changes like queasiness and increased skin temperature at the sight of vomit.

Over time, research has also separated other emotions that most in the scientific community believe are only experienced by humans and some other primates. These higher or moral emotions are based on self-awareness, self-consciousness and ability to empathize with others [source:

Heery, et al
]. The moral emotions are pride, guilt, embarrassment and shame [source:

Like basic emotions,

moral emotions
have accompanying physiological changes associated with them. But they diverge from basic emotions in that they tend to emerge after self-reflection, and they support the theory that emotions are results of judgments, rather than simply involuntary reactions to a stimulus.

Whether discussing the origin or nature of basic or higher emotions, one question remains: Why do we experience them in the first place?


Why do we experience emotions?

Can you tell what emotion this man is experiencing? Sure you can; emotions are considered universal social cues.

Emotions may signal a change in our environment, a change within us or a change in both. These signals are generally fleeting in comparison to other states of mind. As a result, emotions are distinct from moods, which can last for hours, days or even weeks. They're also distinct from personalities, the lifelong set of traits that comprise our individual, predictable reactions to situations [source:

]. It would appear that the function of an emotion is to get our attention and demand a response. Psychologists have debated whether that action is an involuntary physiological reaction or the result of judgment we've made after evaluating our current situation.

But why do we experience anger from a smack on the nose or shame from stealing?



Here, the debate ends and scientific consensus emerges. Emotions are motivators. From an evolutionary standpoint, emotions are the agents of change and reaction. Disgust is a quick, nasty response that we experience when we encounter something that might make us sick.

quickly transitions us from a placid state to one where we're ready to fight; fear prompts us to flee from dangerous situations. Sadness, on the other hand, can generate the resolve needed to change the direction of one's life. Emotions can also motivate us to continue what we're doing; the experience of joy is a pleasurable one, and we're motivated to carry out the behavior that led to the emotion.

Coupled with our ability to empathize with others, emotions also serve to

maintain social bonds
. We wear emotions outwardly -- the basic emotions are all readily apparent on a person's face -- so they serve as social signals. These allow us to interact with others' needs in mind rather than our own, which is the basis of society.

There are plenty of examples of how emotions help further society. Imagine raising offspring without the emotional attachment associated with one's own children. The feeling of loneliness leads to the emotion of sadness, which prompts us to seek out the company of others. Higher, self-conscious emotions like shame prevent us from repeating behavior that is harmful to others, like stealing.

It would seem, then, that society was able to emerge as a result of our ability to experience emotions based on our interactions with others. Or did it happen the other way around? Interestingly, the social constructionist theory of emotions says that society begins to dictate the emotional response to an individual, rather than vice versa. As a person grows older, emotions develop from knee-jerk physiological reactions to predictable, conditioned responses [source:

]. In this sense, the emotions of the individual are hijacked by the expectations of the society the individual lives in, making that person more suited to live peaceably in that society.


Lots More Information

Related Articles


  • Changing Minds. "List of emotions." Accessed August 24, 2010. http://changingminds.org/explanations/emotions/basic%20emotions.htm
  • Changing Minds. "Purpose of emotions." Accessed August 23, 2010. http://changingminds.org/explanations/emotions/emotion_purpose.htm
  • Eckman, Paul. "Basic emotions." In Dalgleish, T. and Power, M., eds. "Handbook of Cognition and Emotion." Sussex. John Wiley and Sons, Ltd. 1999.
  • Heery, Erin A., et al. "Making sense of self-conscious emotion: linking theory of mind and emotion in children with autism." Emotion. 2003. http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~keltner/publications/heerey.emotion.2003.pdf
  • Penn Arts and Sciences. "Food for thought: Paul Rozin's research and teaching at Penn." University of Pennsylvania. Fall 1997.http://www.sas.upenn.edu/sasalum/newsltr/fall97/rozin.html
  • Ratner, Carl. "A social constructionist critique of naturalistic theories of emotion." Journal of Mind and Behavior. 1989.http://www.sonic.net/~cr2/emotions.htm
  • Simons, Ilana, Ph.D. "The four moral emotions." Psychology Today. November 15, 2009.                                         http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-literary-mind/200911/the-four-moral-emotions
  • Simons, Ilana, Ph.D. "Why do we have emotions?" Psychology Today. November 14, 2009. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-literary-mind/200911/why-do-we-have-emotions
  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. "Emotion." February 3, 2003. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/emotion/#5
  • Swiss Center for Affective Sciences. "What are affects and emotions?" Accessed August 23, 2010. http://www.affective-sciences.org/emotion-details
  • Thagard, Paul. "What are emotions?" Psychology Today. April 15, 2010. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/hot-thought/201004/what-are-emotions

Citation & Date


Related Content

Can You Die of Boredom?
Why Do People Lie About Things That Are Easily Disproved?
Trouble Remembering? Tell Your Friends to Take a Hike







  • About
  • Podcasts
  • Privacy Policy
  • Ad Choices
  • Terms
  • Sitemap
  • Careers
  • Contact Us
  • Help
  • Reprints
  • Do Not Sell My Info


Get the best of HowStuffWorks by email!

Keep up to date on: Latest Buzz · Stuff Shows & Podcasts · Tours · Weird & Wacky

Sign Up

Copyright © 2020 HowStuffWorks, a division of

InfoSpace Holdings, LLC
, a
System1 Company

Privacy Choices

We use cookies to personalise content and ads, to provide social media features and to analyse our traffic. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners who may combine it with other information that you’ve provided to them or that they’ve collected from your use of their services. You consent to our cookies if you continue to use our website.


Information that may be used

  • Type of browser and its settings
  • Information about the device's operating system
  • Cookie information
  • Information about other identifiers assigned to the device
  • The IP address from which the device accesses a client's website or mobile application
  • Information about the user's activity on that device, including web pages and mobile apps visited or used
  • Information about the geographic location of the device when it accesses a website or mobile application


Key Ideas

Save all ideas

Emotions: A Primer

Emotions: A Primer

Basic emotions like anger, surprise, disgust, joy, fear and sadness are thought to be universal, and a naturally-occuring reflexive response to a given situation, event or circumstance.




Kinds Of Emotions

  • In Psychology, emotions can be either the result of an experience of a situation, or a certain perception of changes that occur within our bodies.
  • There are higher emotions like ...



Reasons We Experience Emotions

Emotions are a basic response to change, both internal and external, sometimes simultaneously. While our mood lasts for hours or even days, emotions are fleeting, like waves.




The Good Side Of Having Emotions

Emotions help us stay on our path, and also maintain our social bonds. They serve as social signals to others, as the basic emotions are visible on our faces, at least for the majo...




Naming Hurricanes

Naming Hurricanes

Hurricanes used to be tagged with random numbers, sometimes latitude and longitude numbers, and other times they were named after the place where they came ashore.

Now, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) coordinates with the National Hurricane Center and give every tropical cyclone (hurricanes and typhoons) short, simple names.

Why hurricanes have names

Names are easier to remember than numbers and technical terms. It is easier for the media to report on, and for people to pay attention to, than if a hurricane was named, for example, Hurrican Two.

  • The names come in alphabetical order from a set of six lists.
  • The names used in 2020 (Arthur, Bertha, Cristobal, etc.) will come around again in 2026.
  • The letters beginning with Q, U, X, Y, Z are omitted.
  • If forecasters run out of the alphabet, they turn to the Greek alphabet.
  • If a storm was particularly devastating, then those names are retired, such as Hurrican Andrew, Hugo, and Katrina.

The placebo effect

The placebo effect

The placebo effect happens when a person takes medication that he thinks will help, but the medication has not been proven to be effective for the specific condition.

Placebos work in about 30 percent of patients. Some placebos contain no active ingredient. Other placebos do have active ingredients but aren't proven to work on the patient's particular condition. There are even placebos in the form of surgery, injections, and other types of medical therapies.

The subject-expectancy effect

When people know what the result of taking a pill is supposed to be, they might unconsciously change their reaction to cause that result or report that result has taken place even if it hasn't.

However, studies show that a placebo doesn't trick the brain - the brain reacts differently to a drug than a placebo. A 2004 study showed that the expectation of pain relief causes the brain's relief system to activate.

Placebos in research

Placebos are often used in clinical drug trials to determine how well a potential medicine will work.

  • There are two different groups of subjects in a placebo-controlled trial - one receives the experimental drug and the other the placebo. Neither researchers nor subjects know which group is receiving the real drug or the placebo.
  • Some researchers are questioning the placebo-controlled trial. Not everyone thinks a drug is ineffective if the placebo performs better.
  • Other critics of the placebo-controlled trial state it's wrong to attribute all positive outcomes to the placebo because many illnesses can resolve without any treatment.
  • When a patient takes a placebo and experiences adverse side effects, it's called a nocebo effect. Patients taking active drugs have also been known to have side effects that can't be directly attributed to the drug.

2 more ideas