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Related Topics
Emotions and LifeReview - Emotions and Life
Perspectives from Psychology, Biology, and Evolution
by Robert Plutchik
American Psychological Association, 2002
Review by Alex Sager
Dec 17th 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 51)

Emotions have recently become a prominent topic, with popular books like Emotional Intelligence, Descartes' Error and The Emotional Brain climbing bestseller lists.  There is new, exciting research in psychology, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, philosophy and even artificial intelligence. Unfortunately, the investigation of the emotions is divided into different camps, often with very different aims and methods. While evolutionary, neurological, therapeutic and developmental approaches, to mention only a few important research areas, don't necessarily conflict, they are not integrated in any obvious way. There is no standard reference for someone who's interested in mastering the fundamental research on emotion. The Handbook of Emotions, edited by Michael Lewis and Jeannette Haviland-Jones, comes close, with excellent articles by experts in different areas, but is geared more towards specialists than undergraduates or the merely curious.

The current state of emotion research is reflected by university psychology departments, which rarely have a course devoted purely to the emotions. Rather, the subject is grouped under developmental psychology, abnormal psychology, neuroscience and other sub-disciplines. This may change given the increasing prominence of the subject and there is a need for a standard textbook. Robert Plutchik, professor emeritus at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, has been publishing research on the emotions since the 1950s and is an excellent candidate.

The text, as its title suggests, takes an evolutionary perspective, where emotions perform biological functions that contribute to reproduction and survival. Plutchik divides the book into twelve sections, including a historical chapter, chapters on emotion and cognition, language and emotion, measuring emotions, and various theories of emotion. Other chapters include emotional development, emotions and evolution, emotion and communication and a chapter on what brain research tells us about emotion. Finally, there are two chapters dedicated to specific emotions, one concerning love and sadness and the other anger and aggression.

The text is clearly written, if a little dry, and provides a useful introduction to the topics it discusses. But writing a textbook, especially a pioneering one, is a thankless task and experts in each area of emotion theory will probably have their reservations. I have some doubts about the text's organization, which sometimes seems a little arbitrary.

For example, if, as Plutchik writes, "emotions are best understood in an evolutionary framework (p.xviii)," why is the chapter on emotions and evolution almost 200 pages into the book? It would make more sense to place it towards the beginning, relating later chapters back to this basic, evolutionary perspective. Perhaps this reflects the state of the subject, where there isn't a universally accepted theory or set of theories, but is nonetheless puzzling.

There is a general lack of unity in the text, where topics could be combined and certain amount of repetition could have been avoided.  Do the language of emotions and the study of facial expressions really deserve the same space as theories of emotions or emotions and the brain? Parts of "The Language of Emotions" could have been incorporated into chapters about methods for investigating emotion. The theory that emotions can be distributed on a circumplex, depending on how closely they are related, would fit nicely in the chapter on theories of emotions. This is also true of many of the theories of emotion presented by prominent neurophysiologists in the chapter "Emotions and the Brain".

Similarly, it would have made sense to include facial expressions in the chapter on emotion and communication. I suspect the reason for its isolation is largely the historical role Darwin, Paul Ekman and others have played, especially in the controversy concerning the universality of certain human emotions. Facial expressions have received a great deal of discussion because they have commonly been invoked to claim that there is a strong, innate component to human emotions, instead of being somehow "socially constructed."

The degree to which emotions are socially constructed (if at all) is a topic I believe warrants discussion. In philosophy, at least, the extent to which emotions can differ between cultures is a controversial topic. The Japanese have an emotion called amae which involves a gratifying sense of dependence on a person or institution and New Guinean's Gururumba have an emotion translated as "being a wild pig", where men go on  rampages, looting and attacking bystanders. This had led some theorists to suggest that at least many human emotions and the specific forms they take have a powerful cultural component.

Plutchik's text -- rightly, in my opinion -- supports a strong biological basis for human emotions, but it would be valuable to see how he addresses these issues. Many philosophers pay insufficient attention to the empirical literature, but it is true that emotional _expression varies wildly between cultures. Does this reflect cultural relativism concerning emotion or is it merely about "display rules" governed by norms that dictate when it is appropriate to express emotions? If we give an evolutionary account of basic emotions, we still need to explain how they develop into fully fledged human emotions, taking on a variety of objects and provoking to some extent culturally relative patterns of behavior.

The text tends to avoid addressing specifically human emotions. Plutchik often prefers to focus on animal studies, perhaps because they are better established. This lack of focus on human emotions is particularly evident in the chapter on emotional development, which focuses almost entirely on infants and the challenge of inferring their emotions. When it does discuss toddlers -- there is no mention of older children -- it is to only mention their ability to identify emotions. Rather oddly, there is no mention of social emotions like empathy, guilt and shame. In fact, the only reference in the book to empathy is made about a bonobo. The index contains no entries for guilt or shame, though they both are mentioned in the context of the language and theories of emotion. In fact, if we rely on the index, social emotions receive one reference, where they are defined in a sentence, never to be heard from again. Failing to devote space to social emotions neglects a good deal of work in developmental psychology about prosocial emotions and moral development.

One final comment: it would be useful to have a glossary of terms at the end of the book and a list of recommended, relatively non-technical readings for each chapter.

Despite these concerns, Emotions and Life provides a useful introduction to the emotions and will be of interest to people looking for an overview of a blossoming field.

 

 © 2003 Alex Sager

Alex Sager writes about himself:

I'm a philosopher and writer, married to a Mexican lawyer.I am currently doing a Ph.D. in philosophy at L'Université de Montréal. In my thesis I am proposing a model of our moral psychology combining the insights of cognitive science, developmental psychology, evolutionary psychology and other disciplines. I believe that most philosophers are still using psychology from the 18th century, ignoring many of the recent scientific advances, and suggest that there is evidence our minds contain a number of innate, distinct faculties that allow us to make moral judgments in different domains.


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