Prototype views of emotion concepts

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Chapter 5 endnote 12, from How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett.
Some context is:

Where emotion is concerned, people seem to have an easy time describing prototypical features of a given emotion category. [...] J. A. Russell, for example, has a prototype view of emotion concepts (Russell 1991b)

The psychologist Jim Russell, who has studied affect and children's emotion concepts, and who has a psychological construction theory of emotion,[1] also formulated a prototype view of emotion concepts.[2]

Within the classical view of emotion, the emotion “families” proposed by basic emotion theory[3] could be said to fit a prototype-like view of emotion concepts, because they describe a best instance of each category and allow for instances within that category to vary from one another in a limited way. However, the classical view still implies that every instance of an emotion category such as fear — yours, mine, and everyone else’s — varies around one supposed “best instance” that is either stored in the brain or is easily created by summarizing examples in the brain. Certain classical appraisal theories of emotion also fit a prototype approach to emotion concepts.[4][5]

Emotion prototypes make intuitive sense. They satisfy a common-sense intuition that each emotion has a core “script,” like a miniature play, while acknowledging the variation in how emotions are felt and expressed. People also can easily describe prototypes.[2][6]  Let’s give it a try with “Sadness,” listing its features, causes, and consequences:[6]

  • Expressive features: frowning or pouting; slumped, drooping posture; crying; moping or being moody; talking in a low, monotonous or slow tone of voice; listlessness.
  • Causes: blaming oneself; loss of a relationship; separation; rejection, exclusion, or disapproval.
  • Consequences: feeling powerless; tired, run-down, low in energy; hopeless about the future; feeling empathy for someone else who is hurt; thinking negatively; avoiding social contact.

Most people find this quick and easy to do, which is quite intriguing because scientists have never empirically discovered this or any other emotion prototype (i.e., fingerprint), as I explain throughout How Emotions are Made.

It’s conceivable that emotion prototypes do exist in nature, which is why you and I do have these representations stored in our heads. If this is true, then scientists just need better experiments and experimental tools to uncover them. But let’s face it: scientists have been searching for the physical fingerprints of emotions, in one form or another, for over a century. If emotions are so crucial to our survival, then their fingerprints should not be that difficult to see when placed under the lens of scientific scrutiny.

I am suggesting that I was able to list the features of sadness above because I have many individual instances of sadness that my brain can construct (based on my past experiences), and my brain was able to pick and choose across these instances on demand to produce a momentary representation that serves like a prototype in this particular instance. We know that people can construct such summaries from the Posner and Keele (1968) "random dots" experiment in the book (figure 5-2) and from the clever experiments conducted by the cognitive psychologist Larry Barsalou (discussed in chapter 5).

Any time people describe the typical or most frequent features of an emotion (how does it feel, how do you act, how do you express the emotion, what caused it, what situations does it occur in, what consequences does it have), they are constructing that answer on the spot, using bits and pieces of the past (i.e., memory). We can call that construction a belief, a theory, a stereotype, or a prototype. It is not necessarily an accurate summary of the entire category (of all the past instances). This is what your brain does, in fact, when you answer questions on a survey or questionnaire such as, “In general, how satisfied are you with your life?” “Over the past two weeks, how angry have you felt?” “Compared to other people, do you sleep/eat/drink/socialize more or less?”[7][8] This observation is what leads us to dynamic, goal-based concepts in chapter 5.


Notes on the Notes

  1. Russell, James A. 2003. "Core affect and the psychological construction of emotion." Psychological Review 110 (1): 145.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Russell, James A. 1991. "In defense of a prototype approach to emotion concepts." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 60 (1): 37-47.
  3. Ekman, Paul, and Daniel Cordaro. 2011. "What is meant by calling emotions basic." Emotion Review 3, (4): 364-370.
  4. Roseman, Ira J. 2011. "Emotional behaviors, emotivational goals, emotion strategies: Multiple levels of organization integrate variable and consistent responses." Emotion Review 3 (4): 434-443.
  5. Scherer 2009 [full reference to be provided]
  6. 6.0 6.1 Shaver, Phillip, Judith Schwartz, Donald Kirson, and Cary O'connor. 1987. "Emotion knowledge: further exploration of a prototype approach." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 52 (6): 1061-1086.
  7. Clore and Robinson 2002 [full reference to be provided]
  8. Barrett, Lisa Feldman. 1997. "The relationships among momentary emotion experiences, personality descriptions, and retrospective ratings of emotion." Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 23 (10): 1100-1110.