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Affect and Emotional Development

Functionalist Perspectives, Emotions as Discrete States, Process Viewpoints, Emotional Milestones, Emotions and Learning

Affect is a general term that encompasses mood and emotions. Mood is a feeling state that extends over a protracted period of time and is not about any particular object. An emotion is generally considered a transient feeling state that is usually about one particular object. Beyond these generalities, the definition of emotions and their development depends on whether one takes a functional perspective, a process viewpoint, or considers emotions to be discrete biophysiological states.

Functionalist Perspectives

From a functionalist perspective, an emotion entails a readiness to adjust one's relationship to the environment with respect to something that is of importance to the person. The adjustment can be one of maintenance or change. Hence, this approach emphasizes the idea that emotions function to focus action that achieves personal goals. In doing so, emotions exert bidirectional influences on cognitive processing, social interaction, and physical experience. In addition, emotions play an important role in the emergence of self-awareness, because the interest and excitement that infants display when interacting with novel objects helps them develop a sense of self-efficacy. Within the functionalist approach, development entails the progressive ability to regulate emotions according to the demands of the physical and social worlds. In addition, children are socialized into knowing the appropriateness of different emotional displays in the culture in which they grow up. Concurrent to this, development also increases the range of responses that a person is able to mount to environmental changes, resulting in the emergence of families of emotions with differing nuances, which are centered on the commonly recognized emotions, such as joy, sadness, shame, and pride. Each family of emotions provides a range of behavior-regulatory, social-regulatory, and internal-regulatory functions for the person as well as action tendencies that match situational demands. Although functional theorists include many components in the generation of particular families of emotions–for example, concerns, cognitive appraisals, bodily reactions, and action tendencies–they emphasize that these components are organized around functional significances for the person. These theorists would also be careful to differentiate between different nuances of a particular emotion, such as discriminating between the fear of being robbed and the fear of dying from cancer, although these nuances may belong to the same emotion family. Hence, according to functional theorists, emotional processes are evoked with reference to motives and concerns of the developing person and as such undergo quantitative and qualitative change in development.

Emotions as Discrete States

From this perspective, emotions are viewed as patterns of configurations in the brain, accompanied by particular neurochemical processes that result in subjectively experienced feeling states, which are accompanied by automatic changes in bodily function as well as changes in behavior. These nonreducible affective states are taken to be distinguishable from each other, giving rise to the distinct basic emotions of happiness, interest, surprise, fear, anger, sadness, and disgust. Evidence for such a position is accumulating more from a cognitive neuroscience direction, which emphasizes the central circuitry of different emotional states, than from a search for unique configurations of autonomic nervous system arousal in peripheral bodily processes. Thus, the amygdala has been found to be important in the experience of fear and the left prefrontal cortex is associated with positive emotions while the right prefrontal cortex seems to be implicated in negative affect and withdrawal. In accordance with the assumption that the basic emotions are innate to all humans, discrete-state theorists posit a maturational timetable for their emergence, which can be observed through the initial occurrences of their expression in infants: Happiness, interest, sadness, and anger emerge from the first weeks to the fourth month of life, while fear begins to emerge only between the seventh and ninth months. In addition, the discrete-state view assumes the evolutionarily adaptive functionality of the basic emotions, that is, their provision of adaptive value for the organism. For example, happiness would motivate repeated encounters with a particular situation, interest would motivate exploratory behavior, and fear would motivate avoidant responses. Because they are deemed nonreducible states, these basic emotions do not undergo transformation in development. Development mainly entails the formation of links between emotion and cognition so that affective–cognitive structures are fashioned according to learning in new situations. In this way, new emotional experiences that are dependent on cognition can emerge, for example shame and pride, although these are not defined as new emotions but rather new couplings between thought and emotion. In addition, cognitive development will also give rise to new abilities to understand and self-regulate the basic emotions.

Process Viewpoints

Although neither disclaiming the functional utility of emotions nor their grounding in feeling states, process views of the emotions and emotional development focus on how the different components that make up an emotional experience interact in order for the subjective sense of the emotion to emerge. Process viewpoints are also known as systems perspectives, and their defining feature is that they do not privilege any one component of the emotional process, instead focusing on how emotions emerge from the self-organizing tendencies of interacting components. These components include felt experiences, cognitive appraisals, motivations, functions, and control elements. The number of ways in which these interacting components can coalesce to give rise to an emotional experience is assumed to be infinitely large. On the other hand, normal develop-mental trajectories result in a finite number of stable emotional patterns that are called attractors. It is these attractors that are commonly recognized and labeled with the terms that have become familiar, such as happiness, anger, surprise, and disgust. However, the infinite possibilities of combinations allow for infinitely different nuances of particular emotions to emerge as well as leaving open the possibility that new emotions may arise. Development in this type of paradigm allows for an open system of transformations, which can include both qualitative and quantitative change. From a dynamic systems perspective, cognitive and emotional systems continuously interact throughout development, giving rise to emotional interpretations that are similar to the affective–cognitive structures proposed by the discrete-state theorists. These emotional interpretations are situation specific, complex, and provide the bases of the self and personality. Examples include anxiety, pride, and humiliation. In common with functionalist and discrete-state theorists, systems theorists maintain that emotions serve adaptive functions for the person, especially in social contexts.

Emotional Milestones

No matter to which paradigm one subscribes, there have been research findings that document emotional milestones in expressiveness and understanding that are generally agreed on, although individual differences exist. Right from birth until about six months of age, infants display signs that indicate the presence of all the basic emotions. In this period the social smile and laughter appear, the infant appears happier when interacting with familiar people, and emotional expressions are related to social events. In terms of understanding, the infant seems to come into the world already able to be receptive to the subjective states in other people, being able to match the feeling tone of caregivers in face-to-face communication. Between seven and twelve months, negative emotions such as fear and anger become more prominent in parallel to an increasing fear of strangers. Concurrently, the infant begins to use the primary caregiver as a secure base for exploration while becoming more able to self-regulate his or her emotions. In this period social referencing develops, that is, the infant checks the emotional display/reaction of the caregiver to obtain guidance on how to act. In the second year of life, the self-conscious emotions (including pride, shame, guilt, envy, and embarrassment) emerge. In tandem, empathy with others' emotions begins to be displayed while an understanding of the difference between one's own and another person's emotions appears, a sort of emotional decentration. As cognitive development accelerates between the ages of three and six, the child also develops increasing linkages between cognition and emotion, which give rise to better emotional self-regulation, to the extent that a positive emotional display can be achieved without a concomitant positive feeling state. The increasing affective–cognitive links also foster a better understanding and interpretation of the emotional displays of others. After age six until about age eleven, emotional development involves the integration of the self-conscious emotions with a developing moral code, emotional self-regulation becomes more internalized and situation specific, and the ability to conform to the rules of emotional display improves. Emotional understanding also expands to take in multiple sources of information when interpreting the emotions of others and the realization that emotional displays may be deceptive. Naturally, further development is a lifetime affair.

Emotions and Learning

There is recent evidence to show that emotional understanding in children relates positively to adaptive social behavior and negatively to measures of internalizing behavior that may index feelings of anxiety, depression, and loneliness. Furthermore, emotion knowledge has also been found to mediate the effect of verbal ability on academic competence. The ability to detect and react to emotion cues seems to be important to the maintenance of rapport between teachers and peers in school. This would encourage closer and more effective educational interchanges with teachers as well as guard against the morale decrements that accompany poor relations with peers.


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