From the Theory of Emotion to Misattribution of Emotion

Basically there are two theories on emotion. The first can be traced back to Charles Darwin who believed that there are eight or nine basic emotions, which are inborn syndromes of feeling and behaviour. Theorists following in Darwin’s footsteps focus on the facial expression as well as the voluntary muscle patterns to identify different types of emotions.

The second theory can be traced back to William James, who believed that emotion is dimensional in structure. Modern theorists argue that the physiological arousal underlying emotional experiences combine with the cognitive assessment of the meaning of the experience, which means that the number of emotions experienced is only limited by the ability to be cognisant of the nuances of meaning in any situation that has elicited arousal. Dimensional theorists focus on the role of the sympathetic nervous system arousal and hormonal changes or states of cortical arousal. Those who adhere to the dimensional model are interested in the interrelationship between emotion and cognition. The theory on depression (see Beck), is based on the assumption that cognition precedes emotional states. To treat depression, therefore, a therapist assists a client to identify and challenge distortions in thinking. Others believe that emotional states precede cognition and behaviour, and therefore they treat mood disorders with pharmacological interventions.

“…human emotion is a motivation-laden feeling resulting jointly from shifts in arousal and from the meaning attached to those arousal shifts” (Dienstbier, 1984, p. 486).

The motivational quality of the feeling of emotion leads to either avoiding (the stimuli is unpleasant) or pursuing (the experience is perceived as pleasant).

Based on a series of studies, Dienstbier came to the conclusion that “one’s interpretation of the meaning of emotional arousal moderates the effectiveness of the arousal in facilitating resistance to temptation (i.e when emotional symptoms are misattributed to e.g. a placebo pill, participants were more likely to cheat on a vocabulary test). The studies suggested that the meaning people give to their emotional response is crucial in self-control.

Based on the above described findings, one cannot deny that people do misattribute emotions based on their perceptions. Secondly, the researchers who conducted studies on this topic more than 30 years ago found that it was relatively easy to manipulate participants in the meaning they attached to their emotions.

This might mean that if somebody is experiencing anxiety, they may misattribute the emotions, perceived as arousal, to being around a person who has been expressing an interest in the target. If this target keeps on misattributing the emotions as sexual arousal and interpreting it as being in-love, having a crush or falling for someone, they are more likely to engage in Extra Dyadic Sex (sex outside the marriage or common-law relationship). If the person to which the affection is misattributed is aware of the reactions of their target person, they can easily use this anxiety (arousal) to keep the liaison going. In short, those after social status gain (aka gold-diggers) can easily manipulate the attributions of emotions of a naïve target.

Also see the following site, as the phenomenon can also be used to strengthen your relationship (last paragraph).



Dienstbier, R.A. (1984). The role of emotion in social moralisation. Emotions, Cognition, and Behaviour, p 484-514.

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