Source: likemike (on flickr)

In a previous post – How to design atmospheres attuned to the concerns of the user? – we talked about emotions and how architecture can influence the emotional state of a person. In this post we’ll explain what emotion actually is.

The word ‘emotion’ is often applied to a wide variety of phenomena, such as passions, sentiments, temperament, and moods. Although these words are regularly used interchangeably, they do in fact refer to specific and different experiential phenomena, called affective states. Below we will describe 4 different affective states: emotions, moods, emotional traits and sentiments.

“Almost everyone except the psychologist knows what an emotion is” (1)

– YOUNG, P.T. (1973) Feeling and emotion


Affective states

1. Emotions
Emotions are intentional because they imply and involve a relation between the person experiencing them and a particular event, object or surrounding: one is afraid of something, proud of something, in love with something and so on. (2) In addition, people are usually able to identify the subject of their emotion. (3) We know who we love, and we know with whom we are angry. Besides being object-related, emotions are acute, and exist only for a relatively short period of time. Usually, the duration of an emotion is limited to seconds, or minutes at most. (4) The cause that elicits an emotion (the stimulus) can be an event in the environment (e.g. someone calling our name, catching sight of a building), or some change within us, such as thoughts or memories. (4) Like Zumthor described here:

”There was a time when I experienced architecture without thinking about it. Sometimes I can almost feel a particular door handle in my hand, a piece of metal shaped like the back of a spoon. I used to take hold of it when I went into my aunt’s garden. That door handle still seems to me like a special sign of entry into a world of different moods and smells. I remember the sound of the gravel under my feet, the soft gleam of the waxed oak staircase, I can hear the heavy front door closing behind me as I walk along the dark corridor and enter the kitchen, the only really brightly lit room in the house.
[…] Memories like these contain the deepest architectural experience that I know. They are the reservoirs of the architectural atmospheres and images which I explore in my work as an architect.” (5)

– ZUMTHOR, P. (2005) Thinking Architecture

In some particular cases a person may be unaware of the cause of their emotion. They might be angry with their wife or husband without knowing the precise cause of the anger, or fascinated by a specific space without knowing the reason for its fascination.

2. Moods
Moods tend to have a relatively long-term character. One can be sad or cheerful for several hours or even for several days. Nevertheless moods, like emotions, are acute states that are limited in time. The main difference between moods and emotions is that moods are essentially non-intentional (e.g. one is not sad or cheerful at something). Moods are not directed at a particular subject but rather at the surroundings in general or, in the words of Frijda (2), at “the world as a whole.” Whereas emotions are usually elicited by an explicit cause (e.g. some event), moods have combined causes (e.g. “It is raining”, “I didn’t sleep well”, “Someone has finished the coffee!”). Consequently, we are generally unable to specify the cause of a particular mood. (4) A person is sometimes not even aware of being in a certain mood (e.g. if we are grumpy in the morning we usually only realize it when someone else tells us).

3. Emotional traits
Emotional traits can be interpreted as moods that are characteristic for a certain person: one can have a cheerful or a gloomy character. (6) Moods and emotional traits are distinguished by their duration: while everyone has a grumpy mood from time to time, not everyone has a grumpy character. Moods and emotional traits are sometimes confusing because the same words are often used to express traits as well as moods (e.g. ‘this is a cheerful person’ versus ‘this person is cheerful today’). Emotional traits are, like moods, non-intentional because they are not directed at a specific subject but at the world in general.

4. Sentiments
Like emotional traits, sentiments are dispositional states that may persist throughout a lifetime. The main difference between sentiments and emotional traits is that, like emotions, sentiments involve a person-subject relationship. Our sentiments are our likes and dislikes, or our attitudes towards particular architecture or events. (7) Some examples of sentiments are “I am afraid of dogs” or “I love ice-cream”. These examples illustrate that sentiments can easily be confused with emotions. Nevertheless, according to Frijda (2), being afraid of dogs (sentiment) and being frightened by a dog (emotion), are essentially different states. Naturally, we also have sentiments regarding architecture, such as a dispositional love for sustainable architecture, or a dispositional dislike for blob architecture.

In our posts, the word emotional state (or affective state) is used to comprise all these phenomena.

Architectural atmospheres elicit certain emotions, mostly unconsciously, which will influence our emotional state. These emotions can be a mix of different emotions or even contrasting emotions.

In part 2 we’ll discuss: 3 perspectives on emotion from the field of psychology.

Disclaimer: This article is based on chapters 1 and 6 from the book Designing Emotions by Pieter Desmet. (8) These chapters were originally written for industrial designers and are rewritten here for our architectural approach.

What is your most emotional architectural experience?

Tell us about your experiences, like the example from Zumthor earlier in this post. Also if you have any other comments, questions or ideas  – please let us know.


  1. YOUNG, P.T. (1973) Feeling and emotion.
  2. FRIJDA, N.H. (1994) Varieties of affect: emotions and episodes, moods, and sentiments.
  3. EKMAN, P. & DAVIDSON, R.J. (1994) The Nature of Emotion: Fundamental Questions (Series in Affective Science) – affiliate link
  4. EKMAN, P. (1994) Moods, emotions and traits, from The Nature of Emotion: Fundamental Questions (Series in Affective Science) – affiliate link
  5. ZUMTHOR, P. (2006) Thinking Architecture (p.7-8) – affiliate link
  6. WATSON, D. & CLARCK, L.A. (1994) Emotions, moods, traits and temperaments: conceptual distinctions and empirical findings
  7. FRIJDA, N.H. (1986) The Emotions (Studies in Emotion and Social Interaction) – affiliate link
  8. DESMET, P. (2002) Designing Emotions.

3 thoughts on “What is emotion? (part 1) – 4 Affective states

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