Affect Definition

AffectAffect refers to the positive or negative personal reactions or feelings that we experience. Affect is often used as an umbrella term to refer to evaluations, moods, and emotions. Affect colors the way we see the world and how we feel about people, objects, and events. It also has an important impact on our social interactions, behaviors, decision making, and information processing.

Distinctions among Types of Affect

Evaluations are general positive or negative feelings in response to someone or something specific. For example, if you experience negative feelings in response to your new roommate, your evaluation of the person is based upon these feelings. Such evaluations are said to be affect based.

Moods, like evaluations, are also experienced as general positive or negative feelings; however, they are not elicited in response to anyone or anything specific. When you are in a bad mood, you are unable to identify the specific cause of your feelings. For this reason, people sometimes say that they are in a bad mood because they “woke up on the wrong side of the bed.” Moods are not directed toward a person or an object. Thus, for example, while you may have a negative reaction to your roommate, you would not have a negative mood toward your roommate. Moods are like evaluations in that they tend to be relatively long-lasting.

In contrast to both evaluations and moods, emotions are highly specific positive or negative reactions to a particular person, object, or event. Emotions tend to be experienced for relatively short periods of time and generally have shorter durations than moods or evaluations. Emotions tend to be more intense than moods and allow us to describe how feel more clearly than do moods or evaluations. That is, we can specify exactly what type of negative feelings we are experiencing. For example, if your roommate steals your book, you may say that you feel angry, rather than simply say that you feel negatively. Further, other negative emotions (e.g., sadness and fear) can be differentiated from anger by the different situations and circumstances that produced them and how they are experienced.

Relationship between Affect and Cognition

Affect is often contrasted with cognition (i.e., thoughts), but their relationship is not clear-cut. Some researchers believe that affect cannot occur without cognition preceding it, whereas others believe that affect occurs without a preceding cognitive component. Much of this debate has to do with the specific type of affect that individuals are referring to. Many scholars agree that cognition is necessary in order for emotions to be experienced, whereas cognition may not be necessary for individuals to express preferences or evaluations.

Affect can exert an influence on cognitive processes. For example, one’s affect can influence one’s tendency to use stereotypes. Individuals in happy moods are more likely to use stereotypes when forming impressions of others than are people in sad moods. Further, individuals in happy moods are less influenced by the strength of a persuasive argument than are those in sad moods. Happy moods also lead to increased helping behavior.


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