The danger of free speech does not lie in the menace of ideas, but in the menace of emotions. If words were merely logical devices, no one would fear them. But when they impinge upon a moron they set off his hormones, and so they are justifiably feared. Complete free speech, under democracy, is possible only in a foreign language.

 --H.L. Mencken, 1929

By starving emotions we become humorless, rigid and stereotyped; by repressing them we become literal, reformatory and holier-than-thou; encouraged they perfume life; discouraged, they poison it.

 --Joseph Collins

What would life be like if there was no feeling, no emotions associated with everyday experiences? What is the meaning of the "Star Trek" Spock character, the epitome of all logic and no feeling? Feelings carry with them impulses--impulses which often lead to behaviors which, in turn, often require justification. One wonders, in fact, of the percentage of behavior that derives from rational calculation versus from this spontaneous, immeasurable, impulsive quality of the human condition.

For a number of reasons, the study of emotions has become one of the hottest research areas in social psychology. Such was not always the case. As the social sciences matured in the post-war years, emotions were often regarded as some peripheral "error term" in their rational choice models of decision-making. Like body hair and finger nails, they were often seen as some legacy of our animalistic past--involving some vestigial brain circuitry that once somehow enhanced the survival chances of protohuman primates. These natural events, occurring involuntarily, supposedly remained outside of the realms of intelligence, language, culture, and of free will. They were feelings that were to be controlled if not suppressed, to be "grown out of" like the tantrums of a young child.

But these feeling states were not about to be so easily explained away. Emotions have the power to override even the most rational decisions. Studies confirmed what Plato had postulated thousands of years earlier: affect and not cognition is the major determinant of action and belief. Further, consider the affective components of the personal and social needs systems addressed elsewhere:


In The Purloined Letter Edgar Allen Poe wrote that to discover how wise, stupid, good, or evil a person is or what he might be thinking at the moment, "I fashion the expression of my face, as accurately as possible, in accordance with the expression of his, and then wait to see what thoughts or sentiments arise in my mind or heart." Recent research indicates that we are emotionally hardwired in such a way that by fashioning the correct facial expression for a particular emotion one can activate the centers of the brain and actually produce the affective state. Add to this humans' tendency to mimic others (who knows, perhaps that's why long-married spouses come to resemble each other) and we have some insight into the workings of emotional contagion.


There is evidence suggesting that EQ, emotional intelligence, and not IQ is the key to success. As can be inferred from the article on the right, EQ is what allows individuals to "successfully" anticipate and respond to others' actions--which is the essence of social life  (and why, according to sociobiologists, our brains got so large).  One wonders what the relationship is between individuals' EQ and the number of auto accidents they've been involved in.  Anyway, recognition of this self facet has given rise to the emotional literacy movement.

Online Bibliography of Emotions and Emotional Intelligence
EQ Today: Making the Most of Emotional Intelligence
"Elusive EQ" in The New Scientist
The Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations
Body, Mind & Spirit -- What's your EQ?


Given their potency in shaping (and flavoring) the relationships between self and society, it is not surprising the extent to which social institutions attempt to reinforce or reject individuals' affective states through:

Michel Foucault develops a historical shift in the technology of punishment from the body to the emotions--"the technology of the educators, the psychologists and the psychiatrists."



In the 1996 NORC General Social Survey American adults were asked of their affective states. Below is the age distribution of some of these feelings. Observe how older people are generally less likely to experience the emotional lows and highs of other age groups.

On how many days in
the past 7 days have you:
18-29 30-39 40-49 50-59 60-69  70+ 
felt ashamed of something
you'd done (%no days)
73% 72% 71% 82% 80% 83%
felt fearful about something 
that might happen to you
(% no days)
54 56 55 60 71 70
worried alot about little
things (%no days)
22 25 30 38 44 41
felt contented
(% every day)
29 29 33 39 51 51
felt anxious and tense
(% no days)
21 23 25 34 39 46
felt so restless that you
couldn't sit long in a
chair (% 4 or more days)
24 20 16 13 14 19
felt excited about or
interested in something
(% 5 or more days)
35 37 34 38 40 29
felt overjoyed about
something (% no days)
29 37 44 45 45 53

To illustrate the different emotive worlds experienced by members of various social classes, consider the table below. Observe in total that 17% of Americans felt fearful about something that might happen to them 3 or more days during the prior week. From the TOTAL row, note that females were slighly more fearful than males. From the TOTAL column observe how members of the lower class were nearly four times more likely to have been fearful than upper class members. The higher the social class, the greater the sex discrepancy in fear.


Lower 31% 31% 31%
Working 17 17 17
Middle 11 17 14
Upper 5 11 8
TOTAL 15 18 17


See a talk with Joseph Ledoux, "Parallel Memories: Putting Emotions Back into the Brain"

Thomas Scheff's homepage, with articles and book chapters

David Heise's homepage, with elaborations of his Affect Control Theory

The Science of Emotions Neurobiological research at the University of Wisconsin Madison

Donelson Forsyth's "Motivation and Emotion" page

The Institute for Rational-Emotive Therapy

Return to Social Psychology Index