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May 2017
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A fast beating heart, sweaty hands, shortness of breath and shaking limbs accompanying intense feelings of fear are obvious, physiological signs of emotion.


Emotions, especially intense ones, can cause common somatic changes: the central nervous system influences facial expressions, muscle tension, the autonomic nervous system, endocrine glands, adrenaline secretion, heart rate and other visceral responses.

In this article we will try to help you understand what emotions consist of by using a cognitive-behavioural approach.

According to this approach, emotions represent a behavioural response which is deeply linked to motivations and they manifest themselves on three different levels:

  • psychological
  • behavioural
  • physiological.

However....what are the motivations for how we behave? What is an emotion? How many emotions are there? What are they?

The set of events which takes place between the appearance of the stimulus which triggers the activation of the three response systems (subjective feeling - behaviour - physiological changes)


It is thought that we can deduce the reasons why we behave in a certain, however, the same behaviour can be caused by different factors: a student can study for hours because he/she enjoys the subject, wants to please a parent or do better than his/her peers and feel important. In fact, there are various types of disagreements between what we do and what our aim is:

  • the same objective can be achieved with different behaviour;
  • different objectives can be achieved with the same behaviour;
  • behaviour can be instrumental for achieving various objectives.

To better define the motivations behind human behaviour, many theories have been developed and here we will use the most important ones: the psychoanalytical theory, the behavioural theory and the cognitive theory.

According to Freud’s psychoanalytical theory, basic human instincts are sex and aggression. The behavioural theory underlines the importance of the relationship between stimulus and response and learning in the development of one’s behaviour. The cognitive theory can be called the preferential choice theory: the decision to commit to certain activities rather than others and the level of participation given to the activities are determined by cognitive type factors. 

What is an emotion?

Although an emotion appears within the complex relationship between an individual and the environment he/she is in, it is useful, for clarification, to think of an emotion as being induced by a specific stimulus. In other words, an emotion is an example of responsive behaviour, behaviour which is triggered by something which is related to deep motivations.

An emotion can be defined as a complex chain of events which occurs between the appearance of a stimulus, which in turn triggers the onset (INPUT) and the execution of responsive behaviour.

There are three different levels or response systems through which emotions manifest themselves:

  • The first system, called the psychological system, consists of verbal reports about subjective experiences; for example, “I felt an intense feeling of anger when...”.
  • The second system, called the behavioural system, concerns the motor signs of emotions, such as avoidance, approach, attack or flight behaviour and changes in posture and facial expression.
  • The third system is the physiological system, and this mainly concerns physical changes; for instance, changes in the effectors innervated by the autonomic nervous system, changes to the heart rate, blood pressure, facial vascular perfusion (blushing), increased sweating of the hands or changes to the respiratory rhythm. All these changes are related to, and induced by, endocrine changes, for example, in the pituitary adrenocortical system (ACTH and cortisol) or adrenal medulla (adrenaline and non-adrenaline).

These three systems (psychological, behavioural, physiological) are equally important, indeed each one is closely related to the other two for an overall emotional response. In other words, the three systems interact amongst themselves, yet they are partially independent. In summary, an emotion appears to be a set of responses.

How many emotions are there and what are they? We can hypothesise that the multitude of emotional experiences we feel can be explained with a dozen primary and fundamental emotions. Plutchik suggested an effective model, which was partially verified empirically for the classification of facial expressions and there are three fundamental dimensions represented by this model: intensity, polarity and similarity.

This circle represents the similarity and polarity of the eight primary emotions. The intensity can vary on an axis that is perpendicular to the circle, for example, increasing fear can turn into terror, whilst a reduction in fear can turn into apprehension.

This model seems to be able to explain the majority of human emotions, each one of which can be considered a combination of these primary emotions. 

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