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Purpose of Emotions


Explanations > Emotions > Purpose of Emotions

Motivation | Internal signals | Social signals Positive and negative emotionsSo what


What is the purpose of emotions? What do they do for us? They certainly have a significant effect on us, but what is it all for?


First of all, motivation are 'e-motions'. They act to motivate us. Without emotions we would probably not do very much and hence would not survive - at least in the evolved form we are in now.

Motivations are felt in the body. Our muscles tense or relax. Our blood vessels dilate or contract. When we feel emotionally, we also feel physically. Our emotions can thus make us feel uncomfortable or comfortable, sending us signals to do something urgently or to stay in our comfortable state.

Internal signals

Internally, for example when we are trying to make understand something or make a decision, we use our emotions to deduce whether what we have concluded is a good idea. Self-Perception Theory and the Cognitive Appraisal Theories of Emotion explain how we deduce our emotions by watching ourselves.

When we think about something that contradicts our values, our emotions will tell us that it is bad. When we think about something that could hurt us, our emotions will tell us that this is not a good idea. Just by imagining what might happen, our emotions are still triggered and hence let us make better decisions.

Social signals

We generally wear our hearts on our sleeves as our inner emotions are displayed on our outer bodies. Our faces, in particular, have around 90 muscles, 30 of which have the sole purpose of signaling emotion to other people.

Signals are generally very useful, as they help others decide how to behave towards us. If someone is looking angry, then attacking them is probably not a good idea. If they are looking afraid then you could attack them or you could help them and thus earn their gratitude.

So what?

You can use emotions to motivate people. Connect good emotions with what you want them to do, and bad emotions with what is not wanted.

Respond to the signals you see in other people. Also notice how what you do affects those emotions, thus connecting what you do with a real inner effect on them.

Also watch your own emotions. They are signals that tell you something about what is happening in the inner you. This can be very useful as we often do not realize what is going on in that deep, dark subconscious inside of us.

Positive and negative emotions

There are more negative emotions than positive emotions. We can feel fear, anger, shame, hate, and yet beyond a basic happiness and joy, there are few other positive feelings.

A reason for this is because most emotions are designed to keep us alive. They signal warnings and prompt us to act, from running away to avoiding others to fighting back.

See also

Lazarus, R. and Lazarus, B. (1994), Passion and Reason, Oxford University Press, New York

R. Plutchik & H. Kellerman (Eds.) (1980), Emotion: Theory, research, and experience: Vol. 1. Theories of emotion (pp. 3-33). New York: Academic

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