3 Apr 2010

Emotions as Adaptation

Posted by jofr

Emotions are not only feelings which color our life. The appraisal function is only one side, the other side is an action tendency which prepares the body for action. Nico H. Frijda defines emotions in the following way: “Emotions are changes in readiness for action” (Frijda, 1986). He argued

“Action readiness change is the major feature of emotion; it is [..] the defining feature. The notion of ‘action readiness’ includes action tendencies and activation modes; it also includes their absence, in relational null states and deactivations. [..] Emotional experience largely consists of experienced action readiness or unreadiness: impulse to flee or strike or embrace, lack of impulse, apathy, listlessness”

They are in fact the basic control mechanism which guides the behavior of all animals, from mice to humans. There is no introductory pyschology book without a chapter on emotions. Emotions are central to our existence and accompany almost all the significant events in our lives, for example we feel proud when we receive a promotion, we become angry when we learn that we have been betrayed, we feel joy when our children have been born, and we experience grief and sadness when someone we love has died (Smith and Lazarus, 1990). Both positive and negative emotions are indeed necessary to survive. The former tell us to do the right thing (do-more-of-it), the latter protect us from doing the wrong thing (do-less-of-it).

Neural networks and their modulation through emotions are an adaptation to motile and mobile life-forms in general, which are able to move around in complex habitats and environments. Emotion and motivation are derived from lat. movere (which means ‘move’). Plants do not have nervous systems or brains. Only animals have brains, and they need emotions as the basic connection between body and mind. Emotions advise the organism to do the right things in fast changing, challenging surroundings. In the struggle to survive, emotions have an important and essential function. Certain person-environment relationships, constellations and situations trigger instantly certain states of mind, which are characterized by a certain type of action readiness, urge or impulse to do something.

Emotions control the movements and actions of the body. Without any emotions, the organism would not know what to do and what to learn. What is important and should be remembered? What is less important and should be forgotten? Emotions answer these questions. They are a bit like the voice of the genes or a built-in navigation system for the body: the genes set the goals, and the emotions tell the vehicle where to go. They enable the organism to get away from threats to its well-being while pursuing beneficial things and useful opportunities. While basic emotions are necessary to survive at all, highly differentiated emotions are an adaptation to living conditions which require a high degree of response flexibility, for example in complex social systems. The high diversity of individual emotions, both negative and positive, help the organism to respond quickly to various threats and opportunities. Self-conscious emotions like embarrassment, guilt, pride and shame occur mainly in social groups with self-conscious life-forms such as primates and humans. They must have an adaptive advantage for the survival in these groups.

Core Relational Themes

Nico Frijda distinguishes various forms of emotions in terms of distinctly different forms of action readiness (Frijda, 1986). The following table of relational action tendencies contains elementary action tendencies and activation modes which have a particular relational aim (he uses “permitting consummatory activity” instead of proximity) :

Action tendency End state Function Emotion
1. Approach Access Producing Proximity Desire
2. Avoidance Own inaccessibility Protection Fear
3. Being-with Contact, interaction Proximity Enjoyment, Confidence
4. Attending (opening) Identification Orientation Interest
5. Rejecting (closing) Removal of object Protection Disgust
6. Nonattenting No information or contact Selection Indifference
7. Agonistic Removal of obstruction Regaining control Anger
8. Interrupting Reorientation Reorientation Shock, surprise
9. Dominating Retained control Generalized control Arrogance
10. Submitting Deflected pressure Secondary control Humility, resignation
11. Deactivation (Recuperation?) Sorrow
12. Bound activation Action tendency’s end state Aim achievement Effort
13. Excitement Readiness Excitement
14. Free activation Generalized readiness Joy
15. Inactivity Recuperation Contentment
16. Inhibition Absence of response Caution Anxiety
17. Surrender Activation decrease? Activation decrease or social cohesion? (Laughter, weeping)

According to Frijda, ‘approach’ and ‘avoidance’ include all aims which establish and decrease interaction, ‘being-with’ refers to “occasion for sustained interaction – that which is sought in approach and left in avoidance”, and agonistic means active, it is the tendency to remove obstruction.

Richard S. Lazarus, who was Psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, explores the relation between emotions and adaptation in detail in his book “Emotion and Adaptation” (Lazarus, 1991) and in a chapter of Pervin’s book “Handbook of Personality” (Smith and Lazarus, 1990). Lazarus distinguishes roughly 15 between distinct emotions for which he identifies ‘core relational themes’. He argues that specific emotions are aroused if an individual perceives a particular person-environment relationship which matches one of several ‘core relational themes’ for itself. The relationship which is encoded in the ‘core relational theme’ are relationships which affect (i.e. support or impair) the well-being and welfare of an individual. In this sense specific emotions are an adaptation to certain reoccuring person-environment encounters, survival relevant conditions and situations of critical importance. This response to a core-relational theme is counteractive if the appraisal is negative, or supportive if it is positive.

Emotion Core relational theme
Anger a demeaning offense against me and mine
Anxiety facing uncertain, existential threat
Fright facing an immediate, concrete, and overwhelming physical danger
Guilt having transgressed a moral imperative
Shame having failed to live up to an ego-ideal
Sadness having experienced an irrevocable loss
Envy wanting what someone else has
Jealousy resenting a third party for loss or threat to another’s affection
Disgust taking in or being too close to an indigestible object or idea
Happiness making reasonable progress toward to realization of a goal
Pride enhancement of one’s ego-identity by taking credit for a valued object or achievement, either our own or that of someone or group with whom we identify
Relief a distressing goal-incongruent condition that has changed for the better or gone away
Hope fearing the worst but yearning for the better
Love desiring or participating in affection, usually but not necessarily reciprocated
Compassion   being moved by another’s suffering and wanting to help

He emphasizes negative emotions. They are perhaps a bit more interesting, because their purpose is harder to understand at first than those of positive emotions, who make life worth living. Perhaps they are also more diverse, while there is only one main reason for positive emotions and pleasure – perfect congruence and agreement between goals – there are many forms of disagreement and incongruence. If we consider the opposites for relief, happiness, pain/anxiety, sadness, and disgust one could add the following relational themes:

Stress a distressing goal-incongruent condition has occurred
Depression making no progress at all toward to realization of a goal
Pain impeded action, existence of existential threats
Gratitude having experienced an important assistance
Joy unimpeded action, absence of existential threats
Happiness having experienced an unexpected benefit
Appetite or Curiosity   taking in or being close to a digestible object or idea

Lazarus argues further that three basic factors or components are useful to understand the relationship and interdependencies between the various types and forms of emotions: goal relevance, goal congruence, and type of ego-involvement. He prefers to use the term “ego-identity” instead of “self”.

Goal Relevance: Excitement

The first component “goal relevance” is a necessary condition for emotions. He argues that all emotions are only possible if the situation is relevant to the personal goals of the individual. All behavior is motivated by some goal, intention, or drive. Without relevance to personal goals there is no motivation, and without motivation there is no activity. The basic emotion is excitement and arousal, the organism only cares about something if there is some kind of goal relevance for it. Nobody cares if a sack of rice has fallen over in China, but if the sack of rice would belong to you and would be the only thing you have got, you would react with very strong emotions if someone tries to topple or steal it.

The rule is simple: if there is goal relevance, then there is excitement. We chose our goals because they prevent harm or generate benefit for us. Therefore “anything that implies harm or benefit to the person can produce an emotion” (Smith and Lazarus, 1990).

Goal Congruence: DO IT, DON’T DO IT

The second component “goal congruence” decides if the excitement is pleasant (positive) or unpleasant (negative), which depends on goal congruence. If there is goal congruence (basically between the current goals of the phenotype and the goals of the genotype), then positive emotions happen. If there is goal incongruence, then negative emotions take place. Primary emotions tell an organism what to do in critical situations. They reward or punish the brain for doing the right or the wrong thing, respectively:

  • pleasure, joy: do it, genes say GO
  • distress, pain: don’t do it, genes say NO-GO

Already Cicero and Epicurus have noticed this

“every animal, as soon as it is born, seeks for pleasure, and delights in it [..], while it recoils from pain [..], and so far as possible avoids it [..] every pleasure is to be welcomed and every pain avoided. (from “De Finibus, Bonorum et Malorum”, written by Marcus Tullius Cicero in the first century)”

Negative emotions have a protective function, they prevent and impede actions which would lead to harm or damage. Positive emotions have a supportive function, they encourage actions that lead to achievement of goals which are in agreement with the goals of the genes. They help an organism in making progress toward the realization of its goals. Positive emotions are an adaptation to favorable person-environment relationships, negative emotions are an adaptation to unfavorable ones. The former allow the organism to exploit favorable situations, while the latter urge to avoid unfavorable ones.

Genes give their GO or green light for everything which is in agreement with their primary goals and their basic policies: self-maintenance (which implies survival and growth) and self-reproduction.

Goal Congruence: expect x, pursue/seek x, follow x, avoid x

Secondary emotions tell an organism how to behave in complex environments. “Do it” and “Don’t do it” commands are broken down into various cases of dangerous things that should be avoided or pursued:

  • Disgust/Distaste – do not take in indigestible objects,
    don’t eat x (prevent internal harm and poisoning)
  • Fear/Anxiety – do not come close to dangerous objects,
    keep away from x (prevent external physical harm)
  • Appetite/Taste – take in digestible objects, eat x
  • Interest/Hope – come close to beneficial objects, pursue x,
    sustain commitment to x

Stress and relief select the right level of readiness for action in general. Stress is useful for preparation, relief for recuperation:

  • Excitement/Stress – prepare for x, expect x, preparation
  • Contentment/Relief – relax, don’t expect x, recuperation

While love, hope and happiness serve to engage in promising commitments with good future expectancy, sadness serves to disengage from lost commitments with bad future expectancy (Smith and Lazarus, 1990). In arises in situations where someone experiences an irrevocable loss.

  • Love/Happiness : congruence between own goals and goals of other person, meet x, follow x, engage with x, keep close to x, make progress toward the realization of a goal
  • Hate : incongruence between own goals and goals of group member,
    expel x, break relationship with x
  • Depression/Sadness – disengage from x, break commitment to x, prevent pursuit of unachievable goals, get help and support from group

Ego-Involvement: x does y to z

Complex emotions have a social component or some form of ego-involvement, they include anger, embarrassment, guilt, pride, shame. They have strong influences and consequences on the physical health and the well-being of the individual in the group. Which emotion is created by which social actions and behavior patterns depends on various factors, accountability (where is the source? who is to blame? who is accountable for it?) and effect (where is the target/victim? who is injured or damaged by it?)

Anger arises if there are obstacles. This obstacles can be social, too, for instance if important personal goals are being threatened by unfair social behavior (which is often not directly visible or hidden), and the affected person tends to blame someone else for this offense. It expresses the belief that you should be treated better and someone else is to blame for the offense against yourself. Therefore it serves to bring unfair social behavior to light, to eliminate socially demeaning offenses, and to eliminate harm which can be blamed on someone else.

While pride expresses belief that yourself should be praised for good social behavior, because you have done better than expected or required, guilt and shame are the opposite, they express the belief that yourself should not be praised for your own social behavior. If the victim is someone else, guilt arises, if the target is yourself, shame and embarrassment appear.

Contempt arise if there is a strong incongruence between the own goals and the goals of foreign person. The opposite is awe/respect: congruence between own goals and goals of foreign person

Negative emotions with Ego-Involvement
Objective Source of harm, Accountability Target, Injury
Anger eliminate source of harm by FIGHT, reveal unfair behavior, demeaning treatment or inadequate social actions other self
Fear, Anxiety eliminate source of harm by FLIGHT, avoid potential harm, hide self other self
Shame, embarrasment hide embarrasing behavior, live up to ego-ideal self self
Guilt correct unfair social behavior, make reparation for harm to others, prevent loss of favor self other
Contempt don’t imitate x, don’t meet x, don’t learn from x other other
Positive emotions with Ego-Involvement
Objective Source of support Target
Pride take credit for achievement, show enhanced ego-identity self self
Gratitude prevent loss of favor other self
Awe imitate x, meet x, learn from x other other


The high diversity of individual emotions, both negative and positive, help the organism to respond quickly to various threats and opportunities. If an organism has a variety of differentiated emotions, it has the adaptive advantage of protection from various sources of harm and danger (fear and anxiety protect from dangerous predators, disgust protects from the risk of poisoning and infectious disease, pain protects from damaging the physical integrity, sadness motivates us to seek aid and comfort while coming to terms with out loss, depression protects from pursuing unachievable goals, stress protects in threatening situations with high risk of severe attacks). It also benefits from the support of “advisers” and “consultants” who optimize progress toward basic goal achievement (joy and pride encourage sustained commitment to beneficial goals, relief saves energy and resources, attraction to food and mates secures self-maintenance, self-conservation and self-reproduction, ..).

Emotions are an adaptation of animals to fast changing and challenging contingencies in their environment. The environment of an animal can change suddenly from peaceful and friendly to hostile and harmful. For social animals, especially humans and primates, the environment consists mainly of other animals, which can interact in various ways. In this context it is beneficial when certain agent-environment relationships, constellations and situations trigger instantly certain states of mind, which are characterized by a certain type of action readiness, urge or impulse to do something. Emotions influence strongly how agent and environment interact with each other. In this sense, they characterize different relationship changes between the goals of an agent and the environment. The various types and forms of emotions can be understood in terms of goal relevance, goal congruence, and type of ego-involvement.


Nico H. Frijda, The Emotions
Cambridge University Press, 1986

Richard S. Lazarus, Emotion and Adaptation
Oxford University Press, 1991

Craig A. Smith and Richard S. Lazarus
“Emotion and Adaptation” in Lawrence A. Pervin (Ed.)
“Handbook of Personality”, The Guilford Press, 1990

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6 Responses to “Emotions as Adaptation”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Vivian Martin. Vivian Martin said: CAS-Group Blog » Blog Archive » Emotions as Adaptation: Positive emotions are an adaptation to favorable per… http://tinyurl.com/ykzq8o6 […]

  2. […] things that feel good, and avoid those which do not. This is no accident. As we have seen earlier, emotions are adaptations that serve a fundamental purpose to our survival. They inform us about what is good for us and what […]

  3. […] drive to fulfill the underlying primary directive  which specifies the purpose of the agents. Emotions are an adaptation of goal-oriented sentient animals which try to survive in a fast changing and challenging complex […]

  4. […] physiological properties based on genetic changes which control the behavior: Emotions, Feelings, Depression, Stress, Intelligence. Physiological refers to organic or bodily processes […]

  5. […] useful to understand the excitement and the arousal in spectacular environments. To understand more complex emotions which involve the self, like anger, pride and gratitude, it is necessary to follow the individual […]

  6. […] Emotions are an adaptation of animals to solve the problem of movment in fast changing, complex and challenging environments. They tell them what to do when. The main purpose of emotions is to guarantee the fulfillment of the primary directive of the genes: to eat, survive and reproduce, thereby levering the genes into the next generation. The number of different emotions can be staggering. But if we organize them along certain dimensions and distinguish different categories, the situation becomes a bit simpler. […]


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