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Affect theory

Affect theory organizes affects (i.e., emotions, or subjectively experienced feelings) into discrete categories and connects each one with its typical response. For example, the affect joy is observed through the display of smiling. These affects can be identified through immediate facial reactions that people have to a stimulus, typically well before they could process any real response to the stimulus.

The list of affects does not seem to be complete however. One affect which seems to be missing from the list is humor. This affect also has highly characteristic facial expressions.[original research?] Humor seems to be a response to a conflict between negative and positive affects [1] such as fear and enjoyment, which results in spasmodic contractions of parts of the body, mainly in the stomach and diaphragm area, as well as contractions in the upper cheek muscles. Further affects which seem to be missing include relief and confusion.

Affect theory is attributed to psychologist Silvan Tomkins and is introduced in the first two volumes of his book Affect Imagery Consciousness. The word affect, as used in Tomkins theory, specifically refers to the "biological portion of emotion"; that is, it refers to "hard-wired, preprogrammed, genetically transmitted mechanisms that exist in each of us", which, when triggered, precipitate a "known pattern of biological events".[2] However, it is also acknowledged that, in adults, the affective experience is a result of both the innate mechanism and a "complex matrix of nested and interacting ideo-affective formations."[3]

The nine affects

These are the nine affects, listed with a low/high intensity label for each affect and accompanied by its biological expression:[4]


  • Enjoyment/Joy (reaction to success / impulse to share) — smiling, lips wide and out
  • Interest/Excitement (reaction to new situation / impulse to attend) — eyebrows down, eyes tracking, eyes looking, closer listening


  • Surprise/Startle (reaction to sudden change / resets impulses)— eyebrows up, eyes blinking


  • Anger/Rage (reaction to threat / impulse to attack) — frowning, a clenched jaw, a red face
  • Disgust (reaction to bad taste / impulse to discard) — the lower lip raised and protruded, head forward and down
  • Dissmell (reaction to bad smell / impulse to avoid - similar to distaste) — upper lip raised, head pulled back
  • Distress/Anguish (reaction to loss / impulse to mourn) — crying, rhythmic sobbing, arched eyebrows, mouth lowered
  • Fear/Terror (reaction to danger / impulse to run or hide) — a frozen stare, a pale face, coldness, sweat, erect hair
  • Shame/Humiliation (reaction to failure / impulse to review behaviour) — eyes lowered, the head down and averted, blushing


Prescriptive implications

The nine affects can be used as a blueprint for optimal mental health. According to Tomkins, optimal mental health requires the maximization of positive affect and the minimization of negative affect.[5] Affect should also be properly expressed so to make the identification of affect possible.[6]

Affect theory can also be used as a blueprint for intimate relationships. Kelly describes relationships as agreements to mutually work toward maximizing positive affect and minimizing negative affect.[7] Like the "optimal mental health" blueprint, this blueprint requires members of the relationship to express affect to one another in order to identify progress.

Descriptive implications

These blueprints can also describe natural and implicit goals. For example, Donald Nathanson uses the "affect" to create a narrative for one of his patients:[6]

I suspect that the reason he refuses to watch movies is the sturdy fear of enmeshment in the affect depicted on the screen; the affect mutualization for which most of us frequent the movie theater is only another source of discomfort for him. ... His refusal to risk the range of positive and negative affect associated with sexuality robs any possible relationship of one of its best opportunities to work on the first two rules of either the Kelly or the Tomkins blueprint. Thus, his problems with intimacy may be understood in one aspect as an overly substantial empathic wall, and in another aspect as a purely internal problem with the expression and management of his own affect.

Tomkins states that "Christianity became a powerful universal religion in part because of its more general solution to the problem of anger, violence, and suffering versus love, enjoyment, and peace.".[8]

Affect theory is also referenced heavily in Tomkins's script theory.

Adoption of affect theory

Affect theory has not yet gained widespread recognition in psychology, and its use in individual psychotherapy remains limited. It has gained some standing in psychoanalytic theory, particularly through the work of Eve Sedgwick and Lauren Berlant. The findings from a study on negative affect arousal and white noise by Stanley S. Seidner "support the existence of a negative affect arousal mechanism through observations regarding the devaluation of speakers from other Spanish ethnic origins".[9]

Interpersonal extension of affect theory

Affect theory has been incorporated into couples therapy.[10][11] Two characteristics of affects have powerful implications for intimate relationships:

  1. According to Tomkins, a central characteristic of affects is affective resonance, which refers to a person's tendency to resonate and experience the same affect in response to viewing a display of that affect by another person, sometimes thought to be "contagion". Affective resonance is considered to be the original basis for all human communication (before there were words, there was a smile and a nod).
  2. Also according to Tomkins, affects provide a sense of urgency to the less powerful drives. Thus, affects are powerful sources of motivation. In Tomkins' words, affects make good things better and bad things worse.

This nonverbal mode of conveying feelings and influence is held to play a central role in intimate relationships. The Emotional Safety model of couples therapy seeks to identify the affective messages that occur within the couple's emotional relationship (the partners' feelings about themselves, each other, and their relationship); most importantly, messages regarding (a) the security of the attachment and (b) how each individual is valued.

See also


  1. ^ McGraw, A. P. et al. (August 31, 2012), Too close for comfort, or too far to care? Finding humor in distant tragedies and close mishaps., Psychological Science, ISSN 1467-9280 
  2. ^ Nathanson, Donald L. (1992), Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self (Chapter 2), New York: W.W. Norton, ISBN 0-393-03097-0 
  3. ^ Nathanson, Donald L. (March 15, 1998). "From Empathy to Community". The Annual of Psychoanalysis (Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis) 25. Retrieved November 10, 2014. 
  4. ^ Nathanson, Donald L. (1992), Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self, New York: W.W. Norton, ISBN 0-393-03097-0 
  5. ^ Tomkins, Silvan S. (1962), Affect Imagery Consciousness: The Positive Affects (Vol. 1, ch. 9), New York: Springer, ISBN 0-8261-0442-8 
  6. ^ a b Nathanson, Donald L. (1997). "A Goal is an Image" (PDF). Bulletin of the Tomkins Institute 4: 1–4. 
  7. ^ Kelly, VC (1996), "Affect and the redefinition of intimacy", in Nathanson, DL, Knowing feeling: Affect, script, and psychotherapy, New York: W.W. Norton, pp. 55–104 
  8. ^ Tomkins, Silvan S. (1991), Affect Imagery Consciousness: Anger and Fear (Vol. 3), New York: Springer, ISBN 0-8261-0543-2 
  9. ^ Seidner, Stanley S. (1991), <span />"Negative Affect Arousal Reactions from Mexican and Puerto Rican Respondents"<span />, Washington, D.C.: ERIC 
  10. ^ Catherall, Don R. (2007). Emotional Safety: Viewing Couples Through the Lens of Affect. New York: Routledge, ISBN 0-415-95451-7
  11. ^ Kelly, Vernon C. (2012). The Art of Intimacy and the Hidden Challenge of Shame. Rockland, Maine: Maine Authors Publishing.

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