The main functions of an emotion

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Louise Hay
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The main functions of an emotion

Last update: Augusts 22, 2018

Johnmarshall Reeve is one of the authors who has contributed most to the knowledge of motivations and emotions in recent decades. According to Reeve, the main functions of an emotion are three: adaptive, social and motivational. Let's see what they consist of and how, sometimes, inhibiting an emotional reaction can even be useful.

Pride, fear, joy, anger, shame: these are emotions that produce a triple effect. First of all, they generate subjective reactions that we manifest in the form of feelings or emotional states. Secondly, they cause physiological consequences, that is, alterations of cells, tissues, organs or of our body as a whole. Finally, we can consider emotions as motivators of behavior. In the following paragraphs we analyze the main functions of an emotion.



What are the main functions of an emotion?

Adaptive function

Preparing the body to act is one of the main functions of an emotion. In this sense, each of them, regardless of the valence or hedonic tone (intensity of the pleasantness or otherwise of a feeling), has its own usefulness.

Thanks to the adaptive capacity of emotion, we can take a series of effective actions. It allows us, in fact, to find and use enough energy to get closer or further from our goal. To give an example, seeing a person we love cry makes us get closer and interested in what happened.

The importance of emotions as an adaptive mechanism was already noted by Charles Darwin; the British naturalist considered them to be elements that help us to implement the most appropriate behavior. More specifically, the adaptive functions of primary emotions are thus broken down (P. Ekman)


Primary emotion Adaptive function (utility)
Enjoyment Affiliation
Disgust Refuse
Anger Self defence
Fear Protection
Surprise Exploration
Sadness Reintegration

Social Function

"I am ashamed", "I feel electric" or "I am apprehensive". An emotion communicates our emotional state or mood. It also facilitates social interaction and allows those around us to predict our behavior; in the same way, we can predict that of others. The value of emotions in interpersonal relationships is indubitable.


Sometimes it is difficult to describe or put into words an emotion. For this reason, if we want to understand the state of mind of people, we often just have to observe. The position of the body, the expression of the face are many times more indicative of a statement such as "I'm down in the dumps".

“We all think we know what an emotion is until we try to define it. At that moment almost no one claims to understand it. "

-Wenger, Jones & Jones-

In some circumstances, and only in some, inhibiting an emotion or suspending communication can exercise a social function in its own way. This happens in cases where hiding our reaction allows us to maintain a relationship of friendship. That is to say, when it is "worse the remedy of the disease".


In general, however, the inhibition of emotions produces misunderstandings and additional physical stress. This is a situation to be avoided as it is dangerous. Conversely, expressing feelings and bringing out emotional experiences in a controlled way is healthy and positive. It also strengthens the social support network.


The social contagion of emotions

The strong social contagion component of emotions can be one of the reasons positive people attract more negative people. We are genetically programmed to let ourselves be infected by the emotions of others; in some of us this ability is more developed, both in transmitting and in capturing emotions.

Motivational function

The motivational function of emotion is equally important. The relationship that is created between motivation and emotion is two-way, because they feed constantly and reciprocally.

On the one hand, motivated behavior produces a positive emotional reaction; on the other, emotions are the fuel of motivation. They determine the appearance of this attitude, endow it with greater or lesser intensity and guide it in one or another direction.


Let's imagine having a coffee with a person for the first time. If we feel cheerful or have fun, we will feel motivated to meet her again next time. On the contrary, a disappointing experience will leave us with a negative memory and, of course, we will think twice before repeating the meeting.

Emotions are the first motivational system for human behavior. They play a fundamental role in the energization of motivated behavior, as well as in the processes of perception, reasoning and motivating action.

Now that we know the main functions of an emotion, we can be more aware of the physiological changes we experience in our day. How many emotions can we feel in 24 hours? Imagine, then, the amount of cellular changes they produce in our body!

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