A Functional Theory of the Emotions [with discussion by Hughes, McMullen, Cannon, and Wilm]

D. T. Howard
Northwestern University

The first unambiguous statement of a functional theory of the emotions with which I am acquainted was made by John Dewey in two articles appearing in the Psychological Review in 1894 and 1895.[1] In 1895 S. F. McLennan advanced a similar theory as an independent discovery.[2] Although the functional theory has had some currency in recent times, it has not, I am convinced, attracted the attention to which by reason of merit it is entitled. I propose in this paper: (1) to restate the theory in its most elementary form; (2) to develop certain of its implications; and (3) to suggest how, following the lead of this theory, we may discover an experimental approach to the study of the emotions that holds promise of profitable development.

First, then, to state the theory. I am going to borrow for this purpose the language of J. R. Kantor, who, in the second volume of his Principles of Psychology,[3] gives us an excellent presentation of the functional theory exclusively, of course, in terms of behavior. I would not be understood to subscribe unreservedly to all that Kantor has to say about the emotions, but his identification of the emotional states seems to me essentially sound.

"Emotional behavior," he tells us, "consists essentially of interruptive forms of action stimulated by rapidly changing circumstances and in all cases involves various slight or intense general organic and visceral processes.

"Probably the most obvious observation made in studying emotional conduct is that the primary occurrences in such action are the confusion and excitement which disrupt the behavior that ordinarily takes place when the emotion-exciting stimulus appears. When we attempt to describe the specific characteristics of an emotional act we are profoundly impressed with this condition of disrupting chaos and inhibition of action. We may look upon the emotional person as one who is practically paralyzed for a moment; he appears to undergo a dissociation of his reaction systems, so that he remains powerless and helpless until his responses are reconstituted. This reconstitution may be superficially described as it refocussing of the person toward some definite object. Essentially, emotional conduct is a momentary condition of ‘no response,’ since there appears to be a

(141) complete cessation of all directed responses to surrounding conditions. In point of fact, it is this disruptive chaos which definitely distinguishes the milder emotional activities from the numerous classes of affective or feeling behavior to which they otherwise display a striking resemblance.

In detail, it might be pointed out that emotional conduct consists of a definite type of failure to perform an expected form of adjustment or adaptation upon the basis of surrounding conditions and the individual's reactional biography or previous behavior history. Whenever it is possible for the person to make the expected or necessary response to the stimulating condition, there is no emotional disturbance."

Now a theory of this type, presupposing as it does an organism in process of adapting, and a stasis or disruption of the adjustment activities as the occasion of emotion, is intelligible only in the light of evolutionary conceptions. The organism, an individual entity, must be able to adapt itself to the changing circumstances of its environment if it is to preserve its integrity of life and action. We find, accordingly, that organisms which survive and prosper and secure for themselves the fullest range of action and mastery are quick and discriminating in their adaptive reactions, resourceful in the face of difficulties. So much is elementary. But the theory has still another implication which is too often neglected. A distinction is to be made between two types of adaptive reaction. There is a form of organic adaptation—brought to its highest perfection in the social bees and ants—which is reflex, routine, automatic, or predetermined by habit patterns in the nervous system. There is another kind of adaptive reaction that is plastic, built up to meet the peculiar requirements of novel situations, essentially creative and spontaneous. No psychologist may call himself a functionalist who has not grasped the reality and the significance of the latter form of adaptive reaction.

Dewey first insisted upon this distinction, and its implications have been developed by many of his colleagues. Permit me to quote briefly from the writings of B. H. Bode.

"Is that noise, for example, a horse in the street, or is it the rain on the roof? What we find in such a situation is not a paralysis of activity, but a redirection. The incompatibility of responses is purely relative. There is indeed a mutual inhibition of the reponses for hoof-beats and rain, respectively, in the sense that neither has undisputed possession of the field; but this very inhibition sets free the process of attention, in which the various responses participate and cooperate. There is no static balancing of forces, but rather a process in which the conflict is simply a condition for an activity of a different kind. If I am near a window facing the street, my eye turns thither for a clue; if the appeal to vision be eliminated, the eye becomes unseeing and cooperates with the ear by excluding all that is irrelevant to the matter in hand. In this process the nervous system functions as a unit, with reference to the task of determining the source and character of the sound. This task or problem dominates the situation. A voice in an adjoining room may break in, but only as something to be ignored and shut out; whereas a voice in the street may become all-absorbing as possibly indicating

(142) the driver of the hypothetical horse. That is, the reason why the conflict of responses does not end in a deadlock, but in a redirection, is that a certain selectiveness of response comes into play."

When the individual confronts a situation to which lie is not habituated, to which no pre-organized response is forthcoming, the internal conflict or disequilibrium that results immediately arouses a secondary, indirect process by which the stimulus is reconstituted, the disorganization overcome, and a response prepared that is suited to the occasion. Such secondary, reconstitutive activities are what we know in humans as mental, conscious, or attentive processes; they are non-habitual, creative, emergent. In calling these processes secondary, I mean that they involve the preparation and guidance of reactions, and do not themselves involve direct responses to stimuli. Perhaps, also, the statement that they occur upon occasion of the failure of automatic and habitual responses may mislead some into sup-posing a real disjunction between the secondary and primary activities of the organism. It is probable, on the contrary, that the secondary processes are constantly operative, in waking life, to maintain the organism's equilibrium of action. For the secondary or conscious processes are just the equilibrium-maintaining activity of the organism itself.

The functional theory would hold, then, that emotion occurs upon the occasion of the disruption of these secondary, reconstitutive activities. A conflict is set up with which the equilibrium-maintaining process is unable to cope, and unity of thought and action is lost. Let me illustrate. I, a greenhorn, walk one bright and balmy day through the woods and suddenly meet with a large grizzly bear. The perception of the bear begets, first of all, an impulsion towards response. But, as common sense has it, I "do not know what to do"—I have no habitual modes of response to uncaged grizzlies. The organism is thrown out of equilibrium. A secondary process of adjustment starts up, but explodes under the impact of conflicting reaction tendencies. A disruption occurs—I "go to pieces," "lose my head," and am "unable to pull myself together" or "collect" myself, and stand trembling and helpless with fright. But old Leatherstocking, an experienced woodsman, meeting a grizzly under similar circumstances, calmly sizes up the situation, and reacts effectively. He is so habituated, and has such resources in the way of response patterns, as to be able to devise a new mode of response, if old ones will not serve, to meet the needs of the situation.

All of the grosser emotions can obviously be similarly described. Rage, for instance, is a state of disruption. The individual "flies

( 143) to pieces," quite literally. He finds himself in a situation to which he cannot adapt himself effectually, which baffles his efforts at control. His mental processes disintegrate under the effort to secure adjustment. In the resultant state of confusion reflex or habitual responses, under the impact of accumulated energy, may fly loose and get out of control—too often with disastrous results, as every prize fighter knows. Anger is thus a sign of failure, an evidence of maladjustment.

In the disruptive state called emotional the victim can be said, in one sense, "not to know what to do." The bear is too much for him. He has no ready-made responses to draw upon, and too little resource in the way of reaction patterns to enable a reconstitutive process to build up an appropriate response. From another point of view the victim can be said to think of too many things to do. For, upon sight of the bear, he tends simultaneously to yell, to climb a tree, to run away, to throw a stone, to grasp a club, and what not. All of these impulses seek motor expression, get jammed in the process, and the result is a state of discoordination. Accompanying this disruptive condition we have those strange visceral and vegetative phenomena commonly recognized as characteristic of the emotional condition. I will not attempt any account of them, since they have been described by many competent investigators.

Some years ago, in an effort to make an objective experimental study of the mental processes, I constructed a rather elaborate apparatus and designed a series of studies from which we secured some results that seemed to us highly interesting. Some of them were not at all anticipated. It was my desire to create for the subject problematical combinations of stimuli, to which he could not have been accustomed by practice, and to which he could not respond in habitual modes. The subject was to react to visual stimuli by palling levers and pushing pedals. He sat on a stool before the apparatus. At the level of his hands were five long levers, numbered from left to right, 1-2-3-4-5. His feet rested each on a pedal, the left pedal designated A, the right B. In a slot before him, in large type, appeared combinations of the signals —B-4-1-2, A-5-B-4-3-1, and the like. He was to respond by manipulating--all at once—the designated levers and pedals. Immediately upon the completion of a correct response a new signal appeared in the slot, and it was the subject's task to react to a series of 24 such signals in the shortest possible time. The reaction apparatus had one notable advantage: it called for extended visible bodily movements, which could be very readily observed and studied.

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In this experiment we have an individual confronted by novel stimuli, and can observe him in the act of reconstituting the stimuli preparatory to making his responses. The mental process, at the perceptual level, of course, is rendered amenable to analysis. The secondary process of reconstitution is visible in the tentative, groping movements of the hands, in the movements of the eyes, in the play of the musculature of the body, in the movements of the lips, and in the furrowing of the brow. It is as if the coordinating activity—which we so often think of as confined to the brain alone, although it never is so confined—had been suddenly projected into the whole organism, and there enlarged upon, as the activities of amoeba are magnified under a microscope., This experiment, properly conducted, will convince the most skeptical that our mental processes are activities of a secondary and in-direct type, involving a discriminative reaction upon the stimulus, an inner process of coordination, and the preparation of an adequate response. The preparation of responses, the building-up of the reactions that are to emerge, can be seen as actual operations. The results of our principal studies by my colleagues, Miss Phyllis Bartelme and Professor S. N. Stevens, have not yet been published, but I am hopeful that Professor Stevens' report may soon be in print.

We made one discovery that came as a surprise to us, for it was found that the subject of the experiment frequently lost co-ordination completely under the stress of the conditions imposed on him. The preparatory process would get under way—and suddenly disintegrate. It is the kind of thing that often happens to people when learning to drive automobiles. The individual "gets rattled," "loses command of himself," and works his controls at random, in a flurry of blind excitement. We observed many instances of such loss of control, in our experiments, before it occurred to us that these states were emotional in character. We had unwittingly verified the functional theory of the emotions.

I do not propose to magnify the importance of the emotional states thus produced. The states which we observed were transient—the individual soon recovered his poise. None the less they had all the characteristics, objectively and introspectively considered, of true emotions.. The signs of anger, embarrassment, and frustration were unmistakable. We are now trying to develop the reaction experiment with the specific object of inducing emotional states that can be observed, and have good reason to expect success. Every experimentalist knows that it is difficult to produce genuinely emotional states in the laboratory subject. The reaction method here suggested may prove a valuable instrument of

( 145) research. I would anticipate two conditions as essential in the use of the method: (1) the reaction must be highly complex; (2) it must be performed under high pressure.

I am not prepared to report on the results of our studies of the emotions, for these were tentative and preliminary in character. But I would like to touch upon the theoretical implications of certain of our more assured observations, since they bear strongly upon our whole doctrine of the emotional states. In this discussion we turn to the introspective part of our studies, for we have not hesitated to ask our subjects for observations on what they them-selves did and what they experienced. I must first acquaint you, then, with what we called the "blur"—for lack of a better name.

It has been said that the mental processes are reconstructive, having the function of reconstituting stimuli and preparing responses. It was our expectation, therefore, that the conflict or uncertainty visible in the subject's movements would be experienced by him as a vagueness or haziness on the side of the senses. The stimulus as it first appears is unclear and inadequate; the motor reactions incipiently started are confused. In what form was this uncertainty actually experienced by our subjects? We found that it appeared in a variety of forms—which we called "blurs." Many observers reported kinaesthetic blurs—actually experienced in arms and body. Some reported concrete visual fogs or hazes. Let me quote some rather unusual reports of this kind. "There was a definite grayness before me," one subject reports, "as I sought to discover the stimulus. The stimulus seemed to clear up through this gray haze, each part becoming definitely meaningful." Again: "Even those first stimuli, simple as they were, just worried me; that is the only word I can use for it. Why, I could not always see the signals, and I was looking right at them. They come and go just as though they possessed some freak capacity."These are instances of actual visual blurs, reported by competent observers. We had many observations on kinaesthetic birrs, which were frequent and typical. Other blurs might be called intellectual, since they had to do almost exclusively with meaning—vision and kinaesthesis remaining under control.

Our observers reported, also, that the blurs, concomitant with the initiation of the reconstitutive process, cleared up, sometimes suddenly, sometimes gradually, as the adequate response emerged. This was to have been expected, since it is precisely the function of the attentive or reconstructive processes to make things clear —to remove blurs. We secured introspective evidence, very definite in character, to show that the final formation of the response was attended by a heightened feeling of clearness, as if light had

( 146) suddenly been let in upon a state of obscurity. "When the blur dissipates,"one observer told us, "the feeling of relaxation is quite marked." Another said, "The feeling of uncertainty and the lack of clearness passed away when the stimulus was seen in its true relationship, and I was prepared to respond."

I wish now to advance the thesis that in the emotional state, in its true form, what is experienced is an enlargement and irradiation of the original blur. Introspectively, as well as objectively, emotion is a state of disruption. All the sensational, imaginal, and affective elements of the experience are exploded out of their natural patterns, are confused and mixed and meaningless. Some theorists maintain that organic sensations are the characteristic elements in the emotions; others emphasize the feelings. Introspection upon genuine emotional states will, I am assured, in the light of our studies already made, show that none of the sensational or affective elements are definitely in the focus of experience, but that, on the contrary, experience is without focus or margin, a confused and scattered state of consciousness. The affective tones which introspectionists describe—or try to describe—are probably present in all of our experiences. But in the emotional state they are confused and dissipated, and the affective tone of the emotional state—if it can be called a tone—is one of blankness and lostness; a condition in which the thousand colors of feeling lose all definiteness and are mixed indiscriminately in the star-dust of general psychical confusion.


PROFESSOR HUGHES (Lehigh University): Mr. Chairman, the statements that we have just heard read, it seems to me, refer to one class only of what are generally classed as emotional disturbances. It seems to me that we have plenty of evidence of another class of human responses, human activities, which we can hardly deny are emotional, but which, so far from being blurred, are the clearest and the most effective responses that human beings make. Dr. Stratton, in a recent article, has drawn attention to the experiences of an aviator, who, however great the stress, thinks with unusual clarity. The literature of the world is filled with illustrations of that type. Just why it is that psychologists neglect that type of experiences it would be interesting to consider.

You will recall how Plato defines the act of creative imagination. He does not think the best work can be done in a condition of high excitement.

Perhaps some of us are familiar with Oliver Wendell Holmes's account in The Autocrat at the Breakfast Table of how it feels to write a poem like "The Chambered Nautilus." At the same moment the man is in a great state of excitement, stunned, thrilled, and so on, to read his adjectives—still he receives things with clearness, a clarity which is unexampled in his experience.

Francis Galton, in speaking of the greatest geniuses, men of the highest imagination, insists on that great emotional quality in their work. Side by side with energy and intelligence he puts what he calls zeal. The emotional factor in human behavior he looks upon as necessary. That is, as the poet says, the fine frenzy of doing.

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Until we find what, it is that is common in those two types of emotional activity, I do not think we can proceed so far. Why is it that so many psychologists think that an emotionally disturbed state of mind is one in which we are confused? Of course, if it is a matter of definition and we want to say that emotional states are states in which the image is blurred, let us say so. But we are overlooking a department of human behavior that is as' important as anything, the work of the minds of the highest quality of creative imagination who seem to be practically unanimous in their treatment of emotional states. So I think I am compelled to reject Dr. Howard's theory of emotional behavior.

Dr. HOWARD: There are a great many experiences, such as the one described, that have at various times been called emotional. I certainly do not want to interfere with the examination of any of these interesting experiences. The states that I have called emotional states are confused states, states of blur. I think the other states ought to be studied, too, but it seems to me their nature is different, just as their description is different.

PROFESSOR McMULLEN (University of Kentucky): I would like to ask what the connection would be between what we call latent intelligence and the tendency of emotion to be disturbed? What is the connection between those two: tentative or emotional reaction and the strength of the intelligence?

Dr. HOWARD: I can see some kind of connection between the two things all right. Assuredly a person who has a character or a make-up that tends to break down constantly under strain can do intellectual work only under the most favor-able conditions. Certainly the operation of the intellect would be greatly hindered in the case of a personality that was dissociated or that constantly tended toward disassociation or disruption, and emotional disturbance after all is just a break-down of personality—temporary break-down of the kind that we often find permanent in abnormal cases.

DR. REYMERT: It occurs to your Chairman that the question from Professor Hughes has been given at least one intelligible answer, worthy of note: namely, by Bergson, in his treatment of "intuition."

DR. HOWARD: I do think that those states of experience in which things stand out clearly and are perceived clearly, in which memory is clear, and in which there seems to be a general uplift of one's whole conscious life, are undoubtedly very interesting. Just what their condition is I am not sure. I am certain that they are not disruptive states. I should say they are the opposite of disruptive. That man has these splendid high moments in life is true, and he must be completely integrated for that moment in order to experience them. The gentleman spoke of a case of clear perception, clear memory, where the person was working under a strain. Well, clarity of memory or clarity of perception are not emotional necessarily. They carry an affective tone with them secondarily, but to be able to see clearly is not to have an emotion. But in general I think those fine high moments of life, which we all experience more or less, come to us when we are integrated, when we are most of all ourselves, most completely in command of ourselves.

PROFESSOR THOMPSON: In support of Dr. Hughes, I would like to ask this question: Is it not the biological and physiological purpose of emotion to protect the person rather than to confuse him?

Dr. HOWARD: I have always been interested in that question, as to the value of emotional states, and the conclusion to which I come is that they have absolutely no value at all, but represent a defect in human nature. I cannot see any other conclusion you can come to.

DR. CANNON (Harvard University): I studied a short time ago a large number of bodily changes that occur In times when emotions are expressed by lower animals. I spoke of a redistribution of the blood in the body, a rapid heart, a dilation of the bronchia, a liberation of sugar from the liver, a discharge of adrenalin from the glands. Now every one of those changes are directed—at least, they are

( 148) serviceable; I will not say that they are directed—in making the organism more effective in the struggle. If an animal is enraged, he is likely to attack. If he is frightened, he is likely to run. Whether one is to be the attacker or the attacked. or whether one is the pursuer or the pursued, work must be done by the big skeletal muscles. And perhaps it is a great and lasting struggle. To say that these changes in the body, all of which are serviceable for struggle, are defects, is going against physiological investigation and examination, it seems to me.

I can account for both of the situations which have been developed this after-noon, the clarity and the confusion. It seems to me that there are parts of the central nervous system below the cortex in which all of these emotions have their pattern—have their natural expression. If the cortical inhibition is removed, the expression is intense—intense to the highest degree. If the cortical control is still there, there is a conflict between the natural discharge of these impulses and the control from above. Under those circumstances there would be hesitation, there would be confusion, there would be no clear integration of the organism in its responses to influences from the outside. The moment that release comes from the cortex and the lower centers have full sway over the body, obviously the clarity would appear.

James had to confront this matter. It was complained by those who opposed his theory that there was an emotion when no work was being done, that there was an emotion when there was no bodily change occurring. I do not think James met that very well, because he had to assume changes were taking place, and he said there were tensions that were not ordinarily observed. You do not have to do that. There are operations going on in these lower states which are discharging upward to the cortex, but which can discharge down lower in the motor mechanism because the cortex holds control. You see we have a conflict. The moment that conflict is resolved by the release to the lower centers of the higher centers, the bodily centers are integrated and the whole process runs off smoothly, and then occurs what James claims did occur under these circumstances, which directly contradicts what the last speaker said. James declared that it was in the expression of the emotion and not in the confusion that the emotion was felt.

DR. PRINCE (Harvard University): There are certain things to explain the interpretation that emotions are serviceable. That is to say, when an intense emotion occurs there is a tendency to dissociation of all other processes that are not serviceable for the moment to carry out the adaptation of the person to the situation. In an attack of intense rage, for example, not only is there the discharge of the visceral currents that Dr. Cannon has described and worked out, but there is a discharge that inhibits all other mental processes, so that there is only one focus of intention, there is only one object, one point of view, to which all behavior is directed, and all conflicting behavior or conflicting emotions are inhibited and rendered unconscious. That is the situation as we find it from observation any-way, whether it is serviceable or not. That is to say, if there is a conflict between anger and love, and occasionally that occurs between man and wife, if the husband or the wife arouses that anger, it discharges in the body emotions of that sentiment. Every other point of view, every other conception of the other party, every other emotion that is presented, is inhibited. There is a large number of data derived from abnormal psychology, where the emotion has dissociated the personality, as to that one factor at least, even to the extent of creating a second personality and affecting the defense reaction. Anger is, in one sense, a defense reaction, and when we have the defense reactions, they are serviceable because they direct all of the activities. to that point. It is a question of the interpretation of the phenomena.

DR. WILM (Boston University): The conception of the emotion as a predicament has seemed to me to be very attractive. I do not see why we should call it a theory. It is a way of regarding an emotion rather than a theory. It affects

( 149) those emotions which are disagreeable and upsetting—rather than the agreeable emotions—the emotion of predicament. Therefore I went through this list of emotions to see how many are disagreeable and how many are pleasant and agreeable, and I found the describers give a very large number of disagreeable and unpleasant emotions, and a few agreeable. Nevertheless, the predicament is not quite so obvious in the agreeable. However, there are situations, as in excesses of joy where one is beside himself and so happy that he does not know what to do, which will show the emotions of predicament. And whether beyond those agreeable emotions, whether beyond the predicamentive sort there are things we should call emotion, I suppose is more or less a matter of definition. At least a good many of them can be there cared for. I see no contradiction between outcomes of emotive states, such as have been noticed, the clearing out of the muscles, the removal of fatigue products, and the predicament. I do not think it has been shown by the physiologists, but those combining outcomes are common. They are present. Even there, however, as Dr. Cannon said a little while ago, it is doubtful whether the autonomic and visceral changes are residuent in the emotion and belong thereto, because they occur without emotion. But even if they are integral to the emotion, I see no contradiction in conceiving the emotion as a predicamentive state, which may, notwithstanding, in its ultimate outcome have certain benefits in certain cases for the organism.

DR. HOWARD: I would like to say just one word. I agree thoroughly with what Dr. Cannon said, and I think there is no real disharmony when I said that emotion had no value. I meant the disruption itself had no value. I say the extreme gross emotional states have no value.


  1. "The Theory of Emotion," Psychological Review, I (1894), 553-569; II (1895), 13-32.
  2. "Emotion, Desire, and Interest: Descriptive," Psychological Review, II (1895), 462-474.
  3. Chapter XVI, pp. 1-25.

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