La Chapelle Notre-Dame du Haut by Le Corbusier

In What is emotion? (part 1) – 4 Affective states we discussed the different affective states of emotion. In this post we’ll focus on different perspectives on emotion in the field of psychology.


When surveying emotion research in the field of psychology, one finds various traditions that hold different views on how to go about defining, studying and explaining emotions. Most contemporary emotion research has its roots in one of three major theoretical traditions: the evolutionary, the bodily-feedback or the cognitive tradition. In this section we comprehensively discuss the 3 major traditions and evaluates their possibilities for explaining how architecture elicit emotions.

1. The evolutionary perspective

The evolutionary perspective has its roots in Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. In his famous work ‘The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals‘ (1), he described emotions in the context of natural selection. His major claim is that emotions are functional for the survival of the species and the individual. When an individual is engaged in some behavioural action, an emotion will overrule this action with another action if this action ensures the safety of this individual. Or, in the words of Plutchik (2), the function of emotions is to help “organisms to deal with key survival issues posed by the environment.” An example of this process can be observed when the fire alarm is activated: everyone immediately stops whatever they’re doing and heads for the exit. In this case, fear initiates an impulse to flee in order to survive a threatening situation.

Researchers in this tradition regard the adaptive behaviour (including facial expressions and states of readiness to respond) as central to what emotions are. Plutchik (2), for example, proposed that each emotion represents a specific behaviour, which is related to one of our basic needs, such as protection (fear), reproduction (happiness), or exploration (surprise). The assumption that emotions are evolved phenomena implies that their accompanying manifestations should be universal.

The theories developed by researchers working in the evolutionary tradition provide us with a basic understanding of how emotions are elicited. These theories clearly demonstrate the role of external stimuli (such as events, objects or surroundings) in the eliciting conditions of emotions. But these theories about the basic survival emotions do not explain particular emotions, like the inspiration elicited by the design of a new museum. They also offer very few clues to explain why two people may experience completely different emotions towards the same space or building.

2. The bodily-feedback perspective

Whereas the evolutionary perspective focuses on the function of emotions, the bodily feedback perspective is primarily concerned with the emotional experience. The pioneer of this tradition, the philosopher and psychologist William James, placed the body at the centre of the emotional experience. He was convinced that the involvement of the body is essential for having emotions. In his view, the experience of an emotion is a direct result of a ‘bodily change,’ and he argued that this change is the emotion. (3, 4) From this perspective, emotions are not only the outcome of, but are also differentiated by, bodily changes. In the case of fear, for example, we first start to shiver and our pulse rises, and then we perceive these reactions as being afraid.

For an explanation of how architecture elicits emotions, the bodily-feedback tradition seems to offer only few possibilities. The reason for this lies in the fact that this theory does not explain the role of external stimuli in the elicitation of emotions. Moreover, many psychologists assert that the idea that emotions are based only on the awareness of a bodily change is too simple (e.g. Lazarus (5); Frijda (6)). Feedback from physiological responses alone will never account for all the possible emotions humans can experience.

3. The cognitive perspective

In this currently popular view, elements can be found of both the evolutionary and the bodily-feedback perspectives. The essence of this perspective is that in order to understand emotions, one must understand how people make judgements about events in their environment, for emotions are generated by judgements about the world. Magda Arnold, the pioneering psychologist of the cognitive view of emotions, argued that an emotion always involves an assessment of how an object may harm or benefit a person. (7) In the cognitive view, the process of emotions is explained by the process of appraisal. According to Arnold (7), an appraisal, “the direct, immediate sense judgement of weal or woe,” is at the heart of every emotion. Without appraisal there can be no emotion, for all emotions are initiated by an individual’s appraisal of his or her circumstances.

An important aspect of this perspective is that it holds not the event, but the meaning the individual attaches to this event, responsible for the emotion. An example would be when a friend makes a derogatory remark about you. Depending on the meaning you attach to this remark you might experience anger (i.e. “I am being insulted”), or amusement (i.e. “This is a joke!”). Positive emotions are elicited by stimuli that are appraised as beneficial, and negative emotions are elicited by stimuli that are appraised as harmful. Most contemporary researchers in the cognitive tradition of emotion hold that each emotion is elicited by a distinctive appraisal. (8)

Most promising perspective

Of the three perspectives reviewed, the most promising for explaining architectural emotions is the cognitive. Like the evolutionary perspective, it considers emotions to be instrumental (i.e. emotions establish our position vis-à-vis our environment, pulling us toward certain people, objects, actions and ideas, and pushing us away from others). However, instead of using basic survival issues to explain how emotions are elicited, it uses a broader notion of possible benefits or harms. A limitation is that, because of the central role given to cognition in the process of emotion, researchers in this tradition find it more difficult to distinguish emotions from non-emotions, e.g. ideas, attitudes or evaluation. Nevertheless, its focus on appraised meaning allows us to explain why different people may have different emotions towards the same building. Probably the ‘Basic model of emotions’ by Pieter Desmet explains best how emotions are elicited from this cognitive perspective, which we will explain in another post.

In part 3 we’ll discuss: 4 ways of emotional manifestation.

Disclaimer: This article is based on chapters 1 and 6 from the book Designing Emotions by Pieter Desmet. (9) These chapters were originally written for industrial designers and are rewritten here for our architectural approach.


  1. DARWIN, C. (1872) The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (Penguin Classics) – affiliate link
  2. PLUTCHIK, R. (1980) Emotion: A Psychoevolutionary Synthesis – affiliate link
  3. JAMES, W. (1884) What is an Emotion? – affiliate link
  4. JAMES, W. (1894) The physical basis of emotions.
  5. LAZARUS, R.S. (1991) Emotion and Adaptation – affiliate link
  6. FRIJDA, N.H. (1986) The Emotions (Studies in Emotion and Social Interaction) – affiliate link
  7. ARNOLD, M.B. (1960) Emotion & Personality Volume 1: Psychological Aspects – affiliate link
  8. ROSEMAN, I.J., SMITH, G.A. (2001) Appraisal theory: assumptions, varieties, controversies.
  9. DESMET, P. (2002) Designing Emotions

5 thoughts on “What is emotion? (part 2) – 3 Perspectives on Emotion

  1. Your explanation of the three perspectives on emotions is really clear. Thanks for that, because it really helps me understand it a bit better.

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