The Evolutionary Origins of Emotions Part 2: The Functions of Emotions

Fear, anxiety, stress, sadness and anger. An excess of these emotions impels people to seek psychological treatment.

Clients often voice their wish for less intense emotions. The presence of strong emotions can be debilitating. The presence of these emotions prompts some thoughtful people to wonder “why do emotions exist at all?”

The theory of evolution, first and most famously explained by Charles Darwin, encourages us to see widespread traits and features in the human and animal world in terms of adaption and fitness. A feature, such as the long neck of a giraffe, could be considered an “adaption” to an environment in which trees are predominately tall. In this environment, the giraffe with the longest neck may be “fitter” than its shorter necked cousins.

What about emotions? How are emotions adaptive?

Emotions have three main functions: to motivate, to communicate and to manipulate.

Each emotion motivates us toward a specific range of actions. Fear impels us to flee or freeze. Anger urges us to fight. The positive emotions, such as happiness and calmness, lead us to continue carrying out whatever action (or inaction) will maintain the state – usually activities related to winning status or resources, or toward intrinsically pleasurable activities such as food, social contact or sexual gratification.

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio tells a tragicomic story about one of his patients, who had suffered damage to an emotional processing region of his brain, in his book, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and The Human Brain. The emotionless patient is offered two different appointment times by Damasio. The patient’s rational faculties are intact, and he endlessly deliberates the pros and cons of each date. However, he is unable to be motivated to choose one of the two options due to the absence of emotional drives. Eventually, after 30 minutes, Damasio steps in to guide him to a date.

Emotions also have a social function; they help us to communicate with others. Darwin himself, as well as more recent scientists such as Paul Ekman, have demonstrated that common gestures and facial features exist for each emotion. Disgust is associated with a curling of the lips. Anger with teeth baring. Happiness with an open smile.

These displays are useful for a social animal to communicate fast messages about danger, friendliness and sexual opportunities.

But what about extremely powerful emotions? Do seemingly self-defeatingly strong emotions serve a purpose?

This is an important questions for psychologists who work daily with people with emotional disorder. It is tempting to think that these emotions are anomalies -unhelpfully exaggerated versions of normal healthy emotional responses.

Economist Robert Frank in his book Passions within Reason has a convincing evolutionary theory of “irrational” emotions. According to Frank, these emotional responses serve to convince others of how serious they are (to manipulate in other words).

Take a man with a violent temper. He might react with impulsive violence to a perceived slight. A physical fight often results in injury for both parties. If this angry man were only concerned about meeting his immediate objectives, he may tend toward a more conciliatory stance. However, beyond his immediate objectives, a violent impulsive act serves as a signal to others that he is a legitimate threat and therefore others might tend to placate him in future.

Understanding the functions of emotions is important for emotional intelligence. Although emotions can be painful, uncontrollable and dark, it is important for our wellbeing to appreciate and accept their presence.

Each emotion has a deep logic and function. Grasping the innate or learnt elements of emotions is important for good mental health. Understanding that you will never have perfect control over your emotions but appreciating their benefits and evolutionary functions can make it easier to accept their presence and to live well.

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