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.


  1. Hi E,
    This is interesting and thank you for directing me here. Rather than hog the the thread on Reconcile for life I thought I would post here.

    Firstly, when I read your post the other day and you were referring to pushing a boulder uphill it made me really sad. Pushing a boulder uphill is such a relentless task. You can hardly rest, you need momentum and it is a bloody hard job and what is more there is no relief.
    In a marathon you can stop and have a drink, have a chat, take a small break or just do whatever because i feel there is no finish line in this except death ( His…. if he stuffs up!)

    Do you feel like this every day?

    I found the post on misattribution of emotions making me think about issues especially when in relation to illicit sex. I think my therapist threw that me but now I can see the whole issue a bit more in depth. I also think I disagree with my therapist.
    One thing in the further reading that hit home for me was William James saying if you decide to whistle as you walk past a graveyard you will not be that sad.
    First you have to be aware that something potentially sad is coming up and then you have to think and make a decision as to how to confront the issue. There is a lot of logical thinking in this. My H with the mental emotional age of a five year old was unable to look past what he felt he needed to make him happy. I think he saw secrets, lust, attention as a big deal of excitement in his perceived mundane life.

    I have to make an effort every single day to be aware that I have a heavy heart and great sadness over what he did to us and I try very hard to make a choice to look for the things that make me happy. In this I suspect there is gratitude ( for H making an effort, no matter how lame) as well as a search for looking for the good in every situation.
    OK it does not work all the time and every so often I get stuck on something like a trigger and it just wont let up at which point poor old H is going to get it but it helps me and maybe reassures me when these events happen. I look at these events as part of the whole healing process as they are times where we just sit and talk for hours and he is learning more about empathy and I am learning more about expressing my pain.

    My sister said to be not too long ago how happy she is to live such a charmed life compared to my life of infidelity and pain ! Do you know what ? All the crap that has happened to me I would still rather be me and H with a better understanding of life and a better understanding of each other and a closeness that surviving a trauma like this has influenced our relationship.

    Thanks for listening E.
    Take care.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi LAA,

      Thank you for responding. You say so many very important things. The part that I found was the best indicator that you both are healing is that you can express your pain and you receive empathy. This means that your H is getting it and wants to feel your pain.

      Many people living the “charmed life” are living in denial. One day they wake up…

      Take care,

      Liked by 1 person

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