Emotion is a central feature of many sporting events. Athletes, as well as supporters, can experience many emotions, including joy, sadness, anger, fear, anxiety, shame or guilt, and pride. Most emotion theorists argue that emotions have the power to motivate and regulate cognitions and behaviors in sport. To understand the antecedents, experience, and consequences of emotions, theorists have attempted to classify emotions into various categories. One central question is whether some emotions should be considered basic. That is, are some emotions fundamental to human experience? To answer this question, it is important to consider the criteria to identify such basic emotions, the functions of basic emotions, and whether basic emotions be modified by social learning.
The discussion about basic emotions is challenging because there is much disagreement among emotion theorists on many critical issues. Some theorists believe basic emotions are linked to evolutionary development (phylogeny), whereas others hold that emotions are social constructions and reflect only social learning through shared experiences across cultures and the past history of the per- son (ontogeny). These views, of course, influence the criteria used to identify basic emotions. There are others, however, who reject the notion of basic emotions all together. Rather than address all these competing perspectives, this entry will attempt to capture the key features of basic emotions that are common to several prominent theorists, such as Paul Ekman, Robert Levenson, Robert Plutchik, and Carroll Izard. For alternative views, the reader is directed to publications by Andrew Ortony and Terence Turner, and by Jesse Prinz.
Criteria for Basic Emotions
Basic emotion theorists tend to agree on a number of central criteria for basic emotions: They have been shaped by evolutionary history; they are associated with subcortical brain structures; they are triggered by prototypical evolutionary meaningful stimuli; they have a rapid onset with limited higher order cognitive involvement; they have potentially adaptive functions based on evolutionary needs; and they have specific neural, expressive, and physiological mechanisms. For example, Robert Levenson has argued that for emotions to be considered basic, they must meet three general criteria. First, basic emotions have distinct behavioral, expressive, and physiological responses. Second, basic emotions are hardwired in the brain, although the emotion systems are plastic, such that learning over the lifespan may modify and enhance the emotional response. Third, basic emotions have specific functionality, in that each emotion is triggered by an affect program that rapidly recognizes a survival-critical situation and produces an action to enhance survival. Paul Ekman, a leading figure on basic emotion theory and research, has identified numerous criteria that are generally consistent with Levenson’s three general criteria. The criteria for basic emotions according to Ekman include distinctive universal signals, distinctive physiology, automatic appraisals, distinctive universals in antecedent events, presence in other primates, capable of quick onset, brief duration, unbidden occurrence, distinctive thought memories and images, and distinctive subjective experiences.
Identifying which specific emotions are basic is challenging because not all the criteria are readily testable in humans; nor do theorists agree on all criteria. Thus, it is not surprising the number of emotions and specific emotions identified by various theorists ranges greatly, and theorists may even add or delete emotions from their lists over time. Carroll Izard identified seven basic or primary emotions, for example, whereas Paul Ekman identified six basic emotions in 1972 (but expanded his list to 15 emotions in 1999). Overall, there seem to be five discrete emotions—fear, happiness and joy, sadness, anger, and disgust—that most theorists agree upon and include on their lists of basic emotions. Other commonly identified basic emotions are contempt, surprise, and interest. Ekman makes the argument that each basic emotion term should be viewed as being part of a basic emotion family; thus there are many emotions that could be considered basic in his view. For example, sadness would include terms such as distress and anguish within its emotion family.
Do Basic Emotions Have Adaptive Motivational Features in Sport?
To determine whether basic emotions have adaptive motivational features in sport, we need to con- sider if the behavioral and physiological responses associated with each emotion can be regulated by higher order cognitions and whether social learning can modify the antecedent triggers and behavioral responses. Most emotion theorists believe that the emotion process can be modified by social learning and can be regulated by higher order cognitive functioning. Carroll Izard suggests that basic or primary emotions are only present in infants and that most emotional experience in youth and adults is governed by emotional schema involving an interface between emotion and cognitive brain structures. Others such as Ekman believe that basic emotions exist across the lifespan but are modified by the life experiences of the person. He believes that learning can change aspects of the emotion process like antecedent triggers and behavioral expression, and that cognition helps regulate the emotion response. Ekman, however, believes that such learning would be biologically primed by the basic emotions. Fear, for example, should be triggered by prototypical stimuli that result in rapid automatic appraisal and trigger an evolutionary response—specific facial expression, high physiological arousal, blood shunting away from hand and toward legs, urge to flee. Through experience and observations, athletes can learn that certain situations, such as falling off a gymnastic beam, facing large and powerful opponents, skiing icy steep slopes with surrounding cliffs, or trying to hit a 95 mph fastball are dangerous. These stimuli can become incorporated into the evolutionary affect program as prototypical events for fear, although the way in which this occurs is not clear. Thus, these stimuli can rapidly trigger a fear response. The interface of the basic emotion system with higher level cognitive systems, however, can either enhance or inhibit the emotion response. The fear emotion can activate fear-related memories and learned behaviors, thus increasing the strength of the fear response. Conversely, higher order cognitions can also activate a number of potential coping strategies that help regulate the fear response as well as formulate solutions to manage the situation. It should be noted that the fear response may not be maladaptive, especially if it causes ath- letes to flee or avoid a situation that exceeds their resources and endangers their lives.
Basic emotions may have constructive and destructive functions in sport. Emotions can influence short-term individual performance, as well as persistence and engagement over time. Basic emotions can be rapidly triggered with minimal aware- ness, so specific emotional responses might interfere with effective performance through disruptive effects on physiological, motoric, and cognitive functioning. Moreover, the basic emotion response may overwhelm higher order cognitive functioning when a situation is extreme. The inability to override or reduce the responses to specific basic emotions may even cause the athlete to attack opponents, coaches, officials, or even fans. The news is replete with many examples of athletes losing emotional control. On the other hand, basic emotion responses may facilitate performance under some conditions when the behavioral and physiological responses augment the necessary resources needed for success. Motivational research also suggests that participation in sport is facilitated by positive emotions, such as happiness, joy, and enjoyment. Many motivational models used in sport consider the impact of basic emotions, such as happiness and sadness, along with related emotional states, such as enjoyment and interest.
Basic emotions are also important in social functioning in sport because they can signal significant information to others. Repeated expression of basic emotions, such as happiness, joy, and anger, in specific sport situations, allows others to under- stand what sport situations are important. Social functioning in sport also depends on the ability to recognize basic emotions in others such as team- mates, opponents, coaches, and fans. For example, when an athlete is angry, with corresponding facial and bodily (and maybe voice) expression signals, others are alerted to not only the potential reasons for the anger but also to potential consequences. Others begin to regulate their behavior in response to the anger. Athletes can, however, learn to inhibit signals, as the demonstration of specific emotions may not be socially appropriate or may interfere with sport performance. Athletes can also learn to send false signals. German sport researcher Dieter Hackfort has written about how athletes show, hide, or fake emotions for multiple reasons, such as to influence officials and fans, deceive or irritate opponents, and motivate teammates.
Research, as well as anecdotal evidence in sport, generally supports the basic tenets associated with basic emotions. Happiness and joy are associated with the attainment of important goals and the demonstration of competence. When happy, athletes are more likely to smile and embrace significant others. Loss is more likely to lead to sad- ness, with tell-tale facial expressions, occasional crying, initial behavioral isolation, and the urge to seek comfort from others. Anger is generated by the frustration of important goals. Expressions include flushed face, furled brow, lips curled back to expose teeth, increased heart rate and blood pressure, and the urge to attack. Fear is triggered by the appraisal of impending danger related to physical or psychological harm. Athletes are more likely to behaviorally freeze and tremble or engage in disengagement (flight) behaviors. Obvious physical reactions also can include increased respiration and perspiration, combined with facial expressions of eyes open, eyebrows raised, and mouth slightly open. In extreme cases of fear, bowel and bladder emptying may occur. For the last of the commonly agreed upon basic emotions (i.e., disgust), there is neither much empirical research nor much anecdotal evidence in sport.
Although basic emotions are likely to be hard- wired, there is no doubt that social learning and culture (and sporting culture) has a large impact on the appraisal and expression of basic emotions. Anger is a classic example. Anger is not always triggered by goal frustration that threatens the self either psychologically or physically but can also involve rapid evaluation of whether the offending other is violating normative rules and has control over the offending behavior. For example, an athlete may feel anger toward an opponent who appears to be cheating and violating the normative rules of the game. Even if the initial neural or physiological components of anger are initiated, the expression can also be modulated by higher cognitive processes. These cognitions can include evaluation of who was to blame (self: internalized anger; other: externalized anger), coping potential (what actions are possible?), and acceptable actions (determined by general and sport culture). The influence of higher order cognitions in the basic emotion process helps to explain individual differences as well as differences across sports. These higher order cognitions explain why an athlete may try to ignore the cheating opponent’s behavior, or may instead tell the coach or the referee about the opponent’s apparent cheating, resisting the urge to directly attack the opponent.
The study of basic emotions is full of controversy. For those who support the existence of basic emotions, there is a general consensus that they are rooted in evolutionary history, are associated with subcortical brain structures, and have important motivational functions. Basic emotional processes are influenced over the lifespan by social learning, with higher order cognitions influencing emotional response and emotional regulation. Basic emotions can facilitate or hinder performance and social functioning in sport. Athletes can learn to regulate the expression of basic emotions, but such regulation can be overwhelmed in extreme situations. Understanding how social learning is integrated into the brain mechanisms regulating basic emotion has critical implication for emotional regulation interventions.
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