What is Affect Theory and Why Is It So Important?

“Affect” is the term that Silvan S. Tomkins used to describe the nine inherent human affects that, taken together, form a core system of human motivation. According to this theory, the affects turn a person’s conscious attention to matters requiring action (e.g., a predator attacking), allowing one to discriminate among the vast quantity of sensory data that may be bombarding an individual. These nine affects are thought to be “hard wired” and universal. They do not vary from culture to culture. Thus, an aboriginal tribesperson from a remote location would recognize anger or joy or excitement on the face of someone from New York City or Shanghai, and vice versa. Six of these are classified as negative affects because they are punishing to the organism (distress, anger, fear, shame, disgust and dissmell), two are deemed positive (interest and enjoyment) because they are inherently rewarding, and one is classified as neutral (surprise) serving to reorient a person’s attention. Tomkins argued that biological drives, such as hunger and the sex drive, are very site specific but that the affects are far more general. In other words, an almost limitless number of things may provoke or extinguish an affect such as distress of anger, whereas only lack of sufficient food will cause hunger and eating alone will relieve it.

In addition, affects can override drives. For example, while one is sufficiently interested by something, hunger or fatigue can be forgotten for periods of time. It is through these affects that we register that something feels good or bad.

Many emotional problems occur for people when negative affects are too easily triggered. For example, when a person is suffering from anxiety, what they are really experiencing is low-level fear. This fear triggers a response from a part of the autonomic nervous system, called the sympathetic nervous system, that prepares the individual for fighting or fleeing. This includes a rapid rise in heart rate, blood pressure, release of adrenaline, change in blood flow patterns, and rapid shallow breathing. This affect, fear, evolved to quickly get an organism out of trouble.

It is highly punishing and very hard to tolerate where it goes on beyond a short time frame.

Anyone that has suffered from high level of anxiety can tell you that it is extremely punishing.

When distress is a predominating affect, the result will be some kind of depressed state. For some people, that might mean a low-level state of depression where life is “dull,” or “grey.” At a higher level, it might include frequent crying, lack of initiative, or even an inability to get out of bed. At its worst, suicidal thoughts and impulses can be present.

It is often the way we learn to handle negative affect that cause serious problems in life. If we learn that certain situations provoke anxiety, we might become avoidant to a point that is self- defeating. For example, if a person becomes so anxious at the thought of a job interview and avoids them at all cost, it is sub optimal.

I absolutely do not believe that people engage in behaviors with the purpose of intentionally harming themselves, we are not wired that way. In fact, most behaviors that might be described as “self-sabotaging” or “self-destructive,” are really attempts to avoid painful feelings. In other words, we learn at an early age that in some circumstances the best we can do is to avoid something that is even worse than a given bad situation. An example of this would be when a child learns that she gets attention only when she misbehaves and acts out. Now, the attention she receives is negative attention, but that is preferred to not being attended to at all. Later in life this paradigm of “misbehaving” can cause all kinds of trouble — but the internal belief is that behaving badly, whatever that means, is a way to get more attention and feel less bad. What was once an adaptive behavior becomes maladaptive.

The good news is that psychotherapy and neurofeedback, together or separately, can greatly increase one’s capacity to develop more adaptive ways of meeting life’s challenges.

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