The Laws of Emotion: An Interview with Dr. Nico Frijda

frij004_p01Professor Nico Frijda, psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of Amsterdam, is regarded as a founding father of contemporary emotion research.  With the publication of his magnum opus, The Emotions, his work set a major benchmark for future research on both the substance and structure of human emotion.  The Laws of Emotion (2006) further pushed the boundaries of this research by describing general rules of emotion that not only enhance understanding, but also establish a vocabulary with which to discuss one of the most consistently elusive topics in the history of psychology. 

Dr. Frijda recently spent some time with Neuronarrative discussing the difference between feeling and emotion, the complex linkage between emotions and sex, and the emotional undertones of our economic crisis.


Your work on the psychological dynamics of emotions has set the standard for study in this area. What originally made you gravitate toward studying emotions?

Originally it was my amazement as a young man about being able to “see” the emotions of the girl I was in love with, whereas emotions are supposed to be things one feels inside. I marveled at this and was puzzled. And at that time I sought in vain in my psychology books for meaningful answers–even in psychoanalysis that brimmed with intriguing speculations about them. Later, the questions grew deeper.

Even now, an understanding of emotions is caught between the biological and the cognitive perspectives in psychology. Biological sources are evident: many of our most elementary emotions we share with many of our remote kin, from birds to kittens to primates. Cognitive sources are evident: from cultural and individual differences in what rouses our emotions and in the way they are–or are not– expressed; and in the fact that many of the most potent emotions–indignation, hatred, being moved by what is different–are themselves culturally shaped.


In your writing, you’re careful to differentiate emotions from feelings, while most people speak of these as if they are synonymous. How is an emotion different than a feeling? 

One sees emotions in other individuals: they transpire from their actions, in affection, desire, interest, watchfulness, avoidance and submission. What one sees is not just behavior: it is behavior with intent expressed in interactions with objects and other individuals. Some of these individuals–human individuals–report feelings that may or may not parallel their behavior. All other animals cannot report in this way, but the presence of feelings is still plausible. So the distinction between emotions and feelings is important: “emotion” includes the processes that give rise to behavior, other bodily phenomena, as well as feelings. In contrast, what one “feels” may be at variance with what one does or is inclined to do. 


In your book, The Laws of Emotion, you discuss the complexity of moving from experiencing an event (good or bad) and the subsequent emotional reaction. I think we’re generally accustomed to think that this is a simple point (a) to point (b) instantaneous movement. What does the actual progression look like and why are we seemingly blind to it?

laws-of-emotionThere are some very simple emotional reactions such as being startled upon hearing a sudden loud noise or experiencing disgust upon seeing a bloody, mutilated face. There is a fairly direct link between the event, its perceived meaning, and one’s reaction to it. Yet, the reaction depends on one’s history and the present context. The disgust one feels is shaped by one’s own bodily response to an offense against bodily integrity, as evidenced by the fact that one “feels” the other’s wounds in one’s own face, and may grasp one’s own nose in reaction.

However, simple reactions like these are exceptions. Most emotions emerge because events promise satisfaction or are offensive at a personal level. When angry with your intimate partner, the anger arises from the awareness that he or she is your partner, and that what he or she said or did conflicts with your wishes for consideration or sympathy or intimacy or independence. Your response, moreover, depends on the nature of your bond: the frequency of frustrations like this, etc. Your anger may flare up, or you may withdraw into silence, or make a mild and sad reproach: after all, he or she is your partner and you cherish your bond (or you do not).

All this goes on automatically, and you may not be aware of it. The path from his/her angering action to your response is complex, touching upon your interests, your joint history, and the context of the event. Even if the angry response to frustration is rooted in evolution, that root is in turn embedded in the brain representations of your personal history, your cultural values, and emotional dispositions of the moment. 


Another area you discuss is sex and the series of emotions it involves. Since few other things consume so much of our collective attention, I’m curious to know from the standpoint of studying emotion what effect you think the nonstop barrage of sexual messages via media of every form is having on society? 

Emotional events usually have multiple impacts, which depend on the multiple expectations and values in which the events are embedded. Sex can be delightful, and it can be disgusting (as unasked-for imposition of intimacy and power-inequality). It can be both at the same time, because everybody has multiple sensitivities and multiple aims. The nonstop barrage of sexual messages is diverting and gives color to existence. But it also blunts sensitivity and takes away the challenges of the unpredictable.

Moreover, much in the surplus of sexual messages is divorced from the links that can exist between sex and interpersonal intimacy that add delight by feeding the latter. Perceiving sexual stimuli, by consequence, may feed into consumerist attitudes that orient towards consumption rather than enlarging the interpersonal emotional context. The extent to which this is actually the case is as yet unclear. Many people simply get bored by excessive emotional attention and may seek more varied and interesting experience.


Research has recently been published in the British Medical Journal that suggests “happiness” is contagious and spreads like a virus through social groups, even up to three degrees of separation.  Is happiness in your opinion an emotion or a feeling? And do the results of this research surprise you, or is this what you would expect?

“Happiness” is an almost empty word in the American-English language, as in the questions, “Is everybody happy? Does everybody have enough food?” etc. Usually (and, presumably, in the research you mentioned) it means no more than being in a state of reasonable contentment, and one is automatically ready to say “yes” to questions like those.

In that sense, “happiness” indeed tends to spread, not as a virus, but as a social environment that is easy to occupy and move within, and which entices the person to go along with it. But many are the circumstances in which discontented and angry moods spread just as easily. I expect that under slightly unfavorable circumstances, socially, economically, or politically, discontented and hostile moods spread as easily; historical as well as experimental evidence supports this expectation.


Finally, a question about the ever-present dualistic divide between emotion and reason (or at least the one most people think exists). Is there really any sort of division between the two, or are we just prone to compartmentalize our ’emotional selves’ and ‘reasonable selves’?

feelings-and-emotionsThere is no true distinction between emotion and reason. Reason is an instrument for detecting emotional as well as instrumental problems, in addition to being an instrument for solving problems of both types.

The current economic crisis provides ample examples. Economic theory has sought rational solutions for particular problems–such as increasing economic gain–without recognizing that the solutions were rational only with a remote eye on the emotional satisfactions provided by such gain, and without giving appropriate attention to emotional repercussions. It is not for nothing that a psychologist–Daniel Kahneman–received the Nobel Prize for economics for pointing out how weaknesses of reason are determined by prior assumptions that have emotional undertones. In other words: emotional selves and reasonable selves are not compartmentalized but, on the contrary, are connected much more than they seem.

Link to a discussion of the Laws of Emotion on Psyblog



Filed under Interviews

7 responses to “The Laws of Emotion: An Interview with Dr. Nico Frijda

  1. Becky

    Truly amazing information. I actually just finished reading a book titled, “Truth Heals,” by Deborah King. From this book, I learned how to read my own emotions and how to better fix the issues surrounding my emotions. I am so fascinated with this topic and am very interested in also readying some of Professor Nico Frijda books.

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  4. You need to post more you do a good job

  5. nelleke

    ja echt interessant….eerlijk….hart.groeten van petronella hans….tussen haakjes…nelleke…1965

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