Blurred Definitions of Affect and Emotion


Blurry and confusing
definitions are the stock-in-trade of psychologists, just as they are of many other
scientists. Perhaps you have noticed that I have been guilty of using the words
‘affect’ and ’emotion’ rather loosely. I’m not the only one. Similar to many
other areas of psychology, emotion researchers are far from decided and united
on where to draw the lines, and, indeed, if lines can or should be drawn at

Panksepp (2000) offers the
following delineation:

  • Emotion is the umbrella term
    for all of the behavioural, expressive, cognitive  and physiological changes that occur.
  • Affect is the conscious
    experience of an emotion.
  • Emotional affect is the
    unconscious component of emotion.
  • Non-emotional affect is rather
    a vague term that just includes everything that isn’t an emotional affect, e.g.
    nausea and pain. [I don’t agree with Panksepp here, how can pain be considered
    non ‘action-promoting’?]
Emotional affect, then, is
what Panksepp dismissively refers to as “…’spooky’ mental issues…” (Panksepp,
2000:50) and what LeDoux (1996) calls the proper and necessary subject of
emotion research.
The well-known neurologist and
emotion researcher Antonio Damasio has suggested the following taxonomy:

  • A state of emotion can be
    started and executed unconsciously.
  • A state of feeling is
  • A state of feeling made
    conscious which is the emotion and feeling made conscious (I think!)
  • Affect, then, is the conscious
    experience of emotion.
Different purposes require
different definitions and Panksepp and Damasio have different purposes for
their definitions. That said, there are considerable differences. For example,
Panksepp thinks affect is both conscious and unconscious, Damasio think it is
only conscious (or nonconscious as he writes). Panksepp thinks emotion is an
umbrella term for everything, Damasio thinks it describes only unconscious
aspects. And, as each of them is grappling with these vague concepts, just like
the rest of us, they are both correct, for their own purposes.
To take a third example,
perhaps more typical, Davidson (2003) appears to use the words ‘affect’ and
’emotion’ interchangeably.
“Sin 2: Affect is subcortical.
There is a tendency among some investigators to regard emotions as largely
subcortical and to sometimes also assume that cognitions are cortical.”
(Davidson, 2003:129, emphasis added)
Incidentally I’ll be returning
to this article to talk about the seven deadly sins of emotion researchers.
Given the state of confusion
over meaning, I’m forced to reserve judgement over the ‘correct’ definition of
affect and emotion. I’d like to go along with the dictionary definition of
‘affect’ as a “Feeling or emotion, especially as manifested by facial
expression or body language” ( but, clearly for psychologists and
those in related fields, the word’s technical usage has yet to settle down.
About the author

Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD
is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from
University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about
scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book
“Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks.

Kayode Ojo
Kayode Emmanuel Ojo is the Co-Founder and Managing Director at SHEFFA Limited. He is presently studying Computer Science at the National Open University, Victoria Island, Lagos.