What is Affect?

Affect, also referred to as core affect, is the basic substrate  of  consciousness,  its  most  elementary constituent.  It  is  the  constant  readout  of  human feeling. Affect has a distinctive experiential quality that  does  not  consist  of  nor  require  cognition  or reflection.  It  is  an  inherent  and  necessary  ingredient  of  emotions  and  moods;  it  is  what  gives these states affective color. However, affect is not only present during emotions and moods. Rather, it  is  always  accessible  to  conscious  awareness, although its experiential nature and intensity constantly fluctuate in response to internal and external stimuli.

Emotions  and  moods  are  considerably  more complex  and  multifaceted  constructs  than  affect. For  example,  the  emotion  of  anxiety  includes, besides  unpleasant  affect,  a  redirection  of  attentional  and  cognitive  resources,  attribution  to  the eliciting stimulus (a remark by a supervisor alluding  to  possible  layoffs);  a  cognitive  appraisal  of threat (to one’s life, social status, or self-image); a pattern of physiological changes (activation of the autonomic nervous system and the main neuroendocrine stress axes); observable changes in behavior  (nervousness;  altered  voice  modulation,  facial expressions,  muscular  tics;  exaggerated  mannerisms);  characteristic  cognitions  (distractability, thoughts  of  failure  and  negative  consequences); and  coping  efforts  (a  search  for  solutions  or sources of support). Similarly, moods also include multiple components besides affect. Although this may not always be immediately apparent, moods like emotions are also about something. They follow  an  eliciting  stimulus,  although  the  stimulus might have occurred long before the mood. They also  require  a  cognitive  appraisal,  although  what is  appraised  might  be  something  as  unspecific  as one’s life overall or one’s place in the universe. In contrast,  affect  is  not  about  something—it  is  not directed at anything; it is noncognitive, and it does not require an antecedent cognitive appraisal.

Examples  of  affect  include  pleasure,  displeasure,  energy  or  vigor,  tiredness  or  fatigue,  tension  or  distress,  and  calmness  or  relaxation.  It  is important  to  recognize  that  these  affective  states may  occur  by  themselves  or  embedded  as  essential  ingredients  within  emotions  or  moods.  For example,  when  one  is  injured,  the  displeasure  of pain  is  an  affective  reaction.  It  occurs  instantaneously  and  automatically,  without  any  need  for cognitive  recognition,  evaluation,  and  interpretation. When one feels exhausted, drained of energy after a strenuous run on a hot and humid day, the sense of exhaustion is an affective state that stems directly  from  the  physiological  condition  of  the body,  without  any  need  for  cognitive  mediation. Similarly, the feelings of energy, invigoration, and revitalization  that  a  physically  fit  individual  may experience after a great workout are also affective states.

what-is-affect-sports-psychologyOn  the  other  hand,  the  fear  that  a  patient  in cardiac  rehabilitation  feels  during  the  first  exercise  session  after  a  heart  attack  is  an  emotion;  it includes affect at its core (fear is unpleasant) but it is more than that. There are memories of the heart attack,  a  fixation  on  the  somatic  sensations  elicited by exercise in search for anything suspicious, an appraisal of threat due to the severity and the unpredictability  of  the  situation,  an  accentuation of the physiological stress response to exercise, and avoidance  tendencies.  Likewise,  the  pride  experienced  by  a  formerly  sedentary  individual  after being able to walk continuously for 30 minutes is also  an  emotion;  there  is  again  affect  at  the  core (pride is pleasant), but there are several additional components. These include, for example, a cognitive  appraisal  of  achievement  (one  has  succeeded in attaining an important and challenging personal milestone)  and  characteristic  behavioral  manifestations  (smiles,  happy  vocal  expressions,  arms raised  in  celebration).  Put  differently,  when  one says “I feel great that I was able to finish my first marathon,” the “I feel great” part is a reference to affect. The “that I was able to finish . . .” part is a reference to a cognitive appraisal that qualifies this state as an emotion.

Conceptualization and Measurement of Affect

As  an  object  of  scientific  study,  affect  has  been approached  from  two  perspectives.  Some  investigators have considered each affective state as a separate  entity,  independent  of  all  others.  Examples of  this  distinct–states  or  discrete–states  approach are questionnaires that assess various assortments of states (tension, fatigue, vigor, energy, revitalization).  Such  questionnaires  are  developed  on  the basis  of  factor  analyses  followed  by  orthogonal rotations, based on the assumption that the resultant  factors  are  statistically  independent  of  one another.

A different perspective considers affective states as systematically interrelated; some states are similar  to  others,  some  are  unrelated,  and  some  are antithetical. So, since the early twentieth century, investigators  have  been  searching  for  a  core  set of dimensions that could explain these differences and  similarities  among  affective  states.  Although various   such   dimensional   models   have   been proposed,  the  first  two  dimensions  are  usually the  same.  The  first  dimension,  and  the  one  that accounts  for  a  larger  portion  of  the  variance,  is pleasure-versus-displeasure  (also  termed  affective valence or hedonic tone). The second dimension is low-versus-high perceived activation (also termed arousal).  These  two  dimensions  are  bipolar  and orthogonal to each other. So, when used in combination,  they  can  be  thought  of  as  a  Cartesian coordinate  system  in  which  one  can  place  the various  affective  states,  depending  on  the  degree of  pleasure  or  displeasure  and  perceived  activation they entail. For example, there are states that combine  pleasure  and  high  activation  (energy, vigor),  displeasure  and  high  activation  (tension, distress),  pleasure  and  low  activation  (calmness, relaxation),  and  displeasure  and  low  activation (tiredness,  boredom).  In  psychology,  this  two-dimensional model of affect is known as the affect circumplex.  Alternatively,  researchers  have  also used  a  version  of  this  coordinate  system  rotated by 45°. In that case, the dimensions extend from pleasant  high  activation  (termed  high  positive activation)  to  unpleasant  low  activation  (termed low  positive  activation)  and  from  unpleasant high  activation  (termed  high  negative  activation) to  pleasant  low  activation  (termed  low  negative activation).

Regardless of which rotational variant is used, these  dimensional  models  of  affect  can  serve  as encompassing maps of affective space. By gathering  information  about  each  respondent’s  position on  only  two  dimensions,  investigators  can  get  a meaningful  representation  of  the  respondent’s affective  state  and,  with  repeated  assessments, track  the  individual’s  movement  in  response  to experimental  manipulations,  including  sport and exercise-related stimuli.


  1. Ekkekakis, P. (2013). The measurement of affect, mood, and emotion: A guide for health-behavioral research. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Larsen, R. J., & Diener, E. (1992). Promises and problems with the circumplex model of emotion. In M. S. Clark (Ed.), Review of personality and social psychology: Emotion (Vol. 13, pp. 25–59). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
  3. Russell, J. A. (2005). Emotion in human consciousness is built on core affect. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 12(8–10), 26–42.
  4. Russell, J. A., & Feldman Barrett, L. (1999). Core affect, prototypical emotional episodes, and other things called emotion: Dissecting the elephant. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76, 805–819.


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