Affect, the A within social psychology’s ABCs, refers to the feelings we experience as part of our everyday lives. Although affect can be harmful when it gets out of control, our affective experiences normally help us to function efficiently and in a way that increases our chances of survival. Although affect is involved in many aspects of our life, it is particularly social—our emotions provide us with information about our relationships with others.
One component of affect is mood—the positive or negative feelings that are in the background of our everyday experiences. Emotions are affective states like moods, but they are shorter lived, stronger, more intense, and more specific forms of affect. There are both basic emotions, which are communicated through culturally shared facial expressions, and secondary emotions—those that provide us with more complex feelings about our social worlds.
Emotions have both a biological and a cognitive aspect. The biological component of emotions is arousal, which is created by the parasympathetic nervous system and regulated by the limbic system and the amygdala. The cognitive component is the label we place on the arousal. There are some gender and cultural differences in the experience of emotion.
When people incorrectly label the source of the arousal that they are experiencing, we say that they have misattributed their arousal. Misattributing arousal may make it difficult for us to determine what emotion we are experiencing.
One outcome of threatening life experiences is stress—the physical and psychological reactions that occur whenever we believe that the demands of the situation threaten our ability to respond to the threat. Extreme events and just everyday hassles can create stress. The experience of prolonged stress has a direct influence on our immune system, leaving us more susceptible to a variety of health problems. Stress influences our behavior through its effects on the HPA axis and the secretion of stress hormones, including cortisol.
Depression is an affective disorder in which people experience sadness, low self-esteem, negative thoughts, pessimism, and apathy. Anxiety is an affective disorder that may be accompanied by a number of physical symptoms, including diarrhea, upset stomach, sweaty hands, and shortness of breath. Anxiety and depression are partially genetically inherited but are influenced by our social interactions.
The attitude that we express toward our life in general is known as well-being. In general, people feel positive about themselves, but there are many potential threats to the self-concept, and we must learn to effectively cope with them.
Research has found that there are clear difficulties with an approach to negative events and feelings that involves simply trying to ignore them—suppressing our emotions is not a very good option, at least in the long run, because it tends to fail. Rather, when we are faced with troubles, it is healthy to let the negative thoughts and feelings out by expressing them, either to ourselves or to others, and by practicing effective self-regulation.
In general, we can say that we will feel good about ourselves when we have successfully met the goals of creating adequate social support—the development of positive social connections with others. Happiness does not come through money and material wealth.
Social psychologists have investigated the ability of human beings to predict their future emotional states and found that they are not very accurate in this regard. Although positive and negative life changes do make at least some difference in well-being, they tend to be less influential than we think they are going to be.
Your new understanding of the role of affect in social judgment and in mental and physical health, and particularly your understanding of the importance of self-regulation, can help you respond more effectively to the negative situations that you experience.