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What is the role of our emotions?

The role of emotions has been defined as episodic, relatively short-term, biologically based patterns of perception, experience, physiology, action, and communication that occur in response to specific physical or social challenges or opportunities - (Keltner & Gross, 1999). Emotions are often described as valence, a quality that is added to our narrative memory experiences.

Emotions serve as a means for us to know ourselves and our surroundings better. However, there needs to be stimuli or an explicit event - that triggers the emotions. This could be an internal or an external stimulus signaling the mind about the feeling (happy, anger, frustration, or danger) of the event – Hansen & Hansen (1988). The significance of emotions can often be found in the events that trigger them.

One of the main functions of emotions that support emotions as crucial for human survival involves the fight or flight response. Fear is vital for self-protection, self-defense, and knowing when to flee a dangerous situation – this way, emotions could act as protection. We won't know if we must fight or flee if we don't experience fear or trepidation. For example, when we look at a bear, our emotion (fear) signals us to move away from the scene and find safety. Again, this allows us to protect ourselves.

Although fear is crucial for human survival, one could argue that even when the fear is experienced in the present, fear is inherent in the future; a future that is uncertain and inherently unknowable as a condition (Guardini et al., 2017). However, fear remains one of the best ways humans can use their experiences and understanding to protect themselves, and fear is one of the strongest motivators to create human behavior change.

Secondly, emotions can also motivate and influence others' behavior through facial expressions. Research suggests that our facial expressions are, in some ways, universal, although there are some clear distinctions based on the cultural norms. The evidence for universals in facial expressions of emotion comes from two types of research. In one class, observers in two cultures (Ekman, Sorenson, & Friesen, 1969; Ekman & Friesen, 1971) looked at various facial expressions of emotions and agreed in their judgments about which emotion was represented in those faces. Despite cultural differences, most observers rated the facial expressions as having the same emotional meaning. The second research examined the expression rather than the perception of emotions (Matsumoto & Ekman, 1989). When viewing stress-inducing or joyful movies, participants from American and Japanese culture showed similar facial expressions. However, there are arguments that also suggest that some words can be different based on the cultural norm; in general, emotions and emotional expressions show remarkable similarity across different cultures. For example, in Asian cultures, when an authoritative figure is present at the event, participants may forge a different expression than they otherwise would have in a more casual setting. But the meaning of those expressions, again, is often universal.

Thirdly, emotions function to enhance social bonds. Humans, for the most part, are social animals – as we do not live in isolation. This requires being able to interpret the motivations of other people during complex interactions. One of the easiest ways to do this is through facial expressions. And when humans cannot do this, it can make social interactions much more challenging. For example, autistic children in schools often face serious issues in interacting with their peers because they often cannot accurately interpret social cues and facial expressions (Plimley, 2006)

My family bonds express a positive reaction when I am around them, and I feel an emotion of safety with them. A mom's smile can be a remarkably assuring thing. Maternal bonds can be critical in animals as well, as many animals give birth to defenseless young. If these bonds are not cemented early, the offspring may not survive without the necessary care and attention of their mother or a guardian (Guardini et al., 2017).

I want to conclude by saying that humans are social creatures for the most part in modern society. In some cases, our survival requires an understanding of emotional expression, a sense of fear, and a social bond through interaction with other people. Be it to get food or get any services we need for our daily survival or even our protection; emotions provide a link between people. Caring and responding are functions of emotions that make reciprocal relationships easier that are crucial for human survival.


Keltner, D., & Gross, J. J. (1999). Functional Accounts of Emotions. Cognition and Emotion, 13(5), 467-480. doi:10.1080/026999399379140

Guardini, G., Bowen, J., Mariti, C., Fatjó, J., Sighieri, C., & Gazzano, A. (2017). Influence of Maternal Care on Behavioural Development of Domestic Dogs (Canis Familiaris) Living in a Home Environment.

Animals : an open access journal from MDPI, 7(12). doi:10.3390/ani7120093

Ekman, P., Sorenson, E. R., & Friesen, W. V. (1969). Pan-cultural elements in facial displays of emotion. Science (New York, N.Y.), 164(3875), 86-88. doi:10.1126/science.164.3875.86

Plimley, L. (2006). Supporting pupils with autistic spectrum disorders : a guide for school support staff. London: London : PCP/Sage Publications.

Matsumoto, D., & Ekman, P. (1989). American-Japanese cultural differences in intensity ratings of facial expressions of emotion. Motivation and Emotion, 13(2), 143-157. doi:10.1007/BF00992959

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