Motivation and emotion/Book/2022/Emotion knowledge

Emotion knowledge:
What is emotion knowledge and how can it be developed?


Emotion knowledge is a valuable tool that individuals can use in different areas of life. Psychology can provide us with insights and information about emotion knowledge, how we can develop it, and how it can benefit individuals. Developing one’s emotion knowledge can help in various areas, such as improving social interactions and relationships, professional development, leadership skills and opportunities, and academic pursuits (Abraham, 2004; Dunsmore & Karn, 2004).

Emotion knowledge and emotional intelligence (see Emotional intelligence training) are often incorporated with each other despite explaining different processes (Bratianu, 2015). It is essential to understand the differences to benefit from the application of emotion knowledge in today-to-day life (Bratianu, 2015; Izard et al., 2011). Knowledge is an individual’s range of information and understanding, which is often the result of their experience (Australian Psychological Association, 2015). Intelligence is one’s ability to apply and correctly use knowledge through reason and thought to adapt to their situation or environment (Australian Psychological Association, 2015).

Emotional knowledge is one’s ability to accurately understand the expressions, feelings, and functions of discrete emotions in themselves and others (Izard et al., 2011). Emotion knowledge can be developed through experience or active study of emotions and their functions (Australian Psychological Association, 2015; Bratianu, 2015).

Focus questions:
  • What is emotion knowledge?
  • What is the difference between knowledge and intelligence?
  • How can emotion knowledge help us in day-to-day life?

What is emotion and how does it relate to emotion knowledge?Edit

Figure 1. Robert Plutchik's (1980) Wheel of Emotions provides an easy-to-follow guide to help describe and understand emotion.

[Provide more detail]

What is emotion?Edit

Emotion is a complex behavioural and physiological process. Individuals experience emotion as a result of an event, and the degree to which they experience emotions depends on how significant the event is perceived to be (Australian Psychological Association, 2015). Emotions can be either positive or negative, but it is important to note that this does not necessarily predict how much this will affect an individual (Izard et al., 2011). Research suggests emotions are socially and psychologically constructed and have evolved as adaptive reactions necessary for survival (TenHouten, 2021). Emotion can be categorised into basic emotions, such as interest, enjoyment, sadness, anger, and fear, that can be separated into secondary and tertiary levels of emotion, such as curiosity, delight, grief, annoyance, and apprehension (TenHouten, 2021). Plutchik, using a psychoevolutionary perspective, famously developed a wheel of primary emotion (see Figure 1) that presents eight primary emotions (with primary and secondary dyads) and how they interact with each other to form more complex emotions (Plutchik & Kellerman, 1980; TenHouten, 2021).

Why do we need to understand emotion?Edit

Understanding emotion and having the language and appropriate labels to explain and describe emotion is vital for emotion knowledge (Izard et al., 2011). Individuals often have difficulty explaining emotion because they lack the language to describe their emotional states effectively). Better language to describe emotion aids in emotion knowledge development (Camras & Shuster, 2013; Izard et al., 2011; TenHouten, 2021). However, language alone is not enough, [grammar?] an individual also needs to be able to recognise emotion in facial expressions and body language to have efficient emotion knowledge (Camras & Shuster, 2013; Izard et al., 2011). The ability to accurately identify and understand emotional signals increases an individual’s ability to regulate and utilise emotions (Izard et al., 2011).

Test your knowledgeEdit

1 Which of the following statements is NOT true about emotion?

Emotion is part of the evolutionary process.
Emotion is socially constructed.
Emotion is not necessary for survival.
Emotion is a complex physiological process.

2 Which of the following is a necessary skill for understanding emotion?

Recognising facial expressions
Reading body language accurately.
Knowing the appropriate emotion language and labels.
All of the above.

Key psychological theoriesEdit

There are many psychological theories that have been developed to explain emotions and how we develop emotion knowledge. This section aims to highlight some of the key theories developed by researchers.

Distinguishing emotionsEdit

Izard et al. (2011) outlined body language and facial expressions as two key ways we distinguish emotions and an important tool in how we also display emotions. They further explained that emotions are cognitively developed, using emotion schema, through experience. Izard et al. (2011) state that there are two components to emotion, basic emotion and emotion schemas. Schemas are a psychological theory from the cognitive perspective and explain that our knowledge of the world is categorised using blueprints (schemas). It is argued that basic emotions result from evolution and are an automatic response to an event (Izard et al., 2011). Emotion schemas are a complex structure of emotion and involve higher-order cognition — emotion knowledge and reasoning (Izard et al., 2011). It is argued that we need to be able to distinguish emotions to better our social interactions and to improve our ability to regulate emotions in challenging situations.

Case Study from Ekamn (2004. pp. 1): Practical example of emotional awareness

"Being criticised during an appraisal can be hard to deal with. We need to be aware of our own emotions and to try to read accurately how the person who is giving us the feedback feels. Perhaps, for example, you see subtle signs of anger on your supervisor's face during the appraisal: their lips are slightly narrowed and there is a slight tensing of their lower eyelids. It is useful to know they are angry, even though you cannot know the cause. Maybe they are angry because someone passed a message on to them about your performance that they must now pass on to you, and they are angry at being the messenger.

If you see anger, the most you can say to your supervisor is: "Is there anything more I need to know about how you feel about what's happened?" In most situations, unless the person criticising you is a close colleague rather than a supervisor, you will not be able to say more than that. If you see sadness on your supervisor's face, perhaps they are disappointed in how you performed and you might say: "I'm really concerned--have I disappointed you?" or "I know I've disappointed you and I want to do whatever I can about that." You can respond to their emotion. Of course they might say, "No, I'm not disappointed at all." That is fine--it is better that you at least raised the issue.

You might see some slight fear. This is more difficult to respond to. Maybe your supervisor is concerned about how you are going to respond--they are concerned that you are going to respond with guilt, anger, shame, or disappointment. So you might need to reassure them: "It is helpful to get this feedback." Or you may decide to say nothing further. It all depends on the situation and the relationship you have with that person".

It is important to be able to distinguish emotions in social situations to accurately assess and effectively respond to the situation.

Basic emotion theoryEdit

Basic emotion theory states that emotions have evolved over time and are developed in the cerebral cortex (TenHouten, 2021). This theory argues that the most basic emotions evolved to have survival value that allowed us to be ready to adapt to any situation (Keltner et al., 2019; TenHouten, 2021). The role of basic emotions is to motivate animals, including humans, to have adaptive reactions to help them respond to emergencies, events, and threats (TenHouten, 2021). This theory argues that emotions are biologically programmed, goal-directed, motivational, and adaptive (Keltner et al., 2019). Emotions are beneficial for defining oneself and developing interpersonal relationships that form goal-orientated groups that support each other’s survival (Keltner et al., 2019; TenHouten, 2021).

Examples of the adaptive features of emotion:
  • Fear helps to limit the risk of being preyed upon
  • Jealousy prompts mate protection
  • Anger helps to defend oneself
  • Resentment helps to ensure fair treatment within groups and reduce conflict

Social constructionismEdit

Social constructionism provides some good insights into understanding emotions and argues that emotions are constructed and centred on biology and evolution (Averill, 1980; TenHouten, 2021). It is a bread[spelling?] theory that outlines and differentiates emotions based on cognitive evaluation. This cognitive evaluation allows individuals to determine what social stimuli are relevant to their personal, physical and psychological well-being (Averill, 1980; TenHouten, 2021). Emotions are seen to be reliant on social situations where complex emotions are developed by cultural factors (Averill, 1980; TenHouten, 2021).

Social constructionism describes emotion as a structured process that is given meaning through language and developed through individual experiences and schemata (TenHouten, 2021). This theory states that emotion results from bodily agitation, cognitive evaluation, social situations, and moral behaviour (Averill, 1980; TenHouten, 2021). Emotion is ingrained into social systems and is categorised with specific functions within this system (Averill, 1980; TenHouten, 2021). This theory also highlights a series of basic emotions that are easy to recognise using everyday language (TenHouten, 2021)[Provide more detail]. This theory highlights the need for emotion language in our ability to recognise, explain, and regulate emotions (TenHouten, 2021)[Provide more detail].

Emotional competence frameworkEdit

Goleman put forward the emotional competence framework in 1989 and argued that emotional intelligence underlines emotional competence, which is required for successful social interactions (Abraham, 2004; Serrat, 2017). This framework focuses on emotional intelligence; however, the skills outlined in this framework can also be used to develop emotion knowledge. The key domains of this framework are (Abraham, 2004; Boyatzis et al., 2000; Serrat, 2017):

  • self-awareness (knowing your own emotions)
  • self-regulation (managing your emotions)
  • self-motivation (motivating yourself)
  • social awareness (understanding other people’s emotions)
  • social skills (managing relationships)

These five domains can be further separated into competencies (see Table 1) and provide insight into we can develop our emotion knowledge (Abraham, 2004; Boyatzis et al., 2000; Serrat, 2017).

Table 1: Social Competence Framework
Domain Competence Description
Self-awareness Emotional awareness Recognising one's emotions and their effects
Accurate self-assessment Knowing one's strengths and limits
Self-confidence Sureness about one's self-worth and capabilities
Self-regulation Self-control Managing disruptive emotions and impulses
Trustworthiness Maintaining standards of honesty and integrity
Conscientiousness Taking responsibility for personal performance
Adaptability Flexibility in handling change
Innovativeness Being comfortable with and open to novel ideas and new information
Self-motivation Achievement drive Striving to improve or meet standards of excellence
Commitment Aligning with the goals of the group or organisation
Initiative Readiness to act on opportunities
Optimism Persistence in pursuing goals despite obstacles and setbacks
Social awareness Empathy Seeing other's feelings and perspectives and taking an active interest in their concerns
Service orientation Anticipating, recognising, and meeting customers' needs
Developing others Sensing what others need in order to develop, and bolster their abilities
Leveraging diversity Cultivating opportunities through diverse people
Political awareness Reading a group's emotional currents and power relationships
Social skills Influence Wielding effective active persuasion
Communication Sending clear and convincing messages
Leadership Inspiring and guiding groups and people
Change catalyst Initiating or managing change
Conflict management Negotiating and resolving disagreements
Building bonds Nurturing instrumental relationships
Collaboration and cooperation Working with others toward shared goals
Team capabilities Creating group synergy in pursuing collective goals
(Abraham, 2004; Boyatzis et al., 2000; Serrat, 2017)

Hierarchical frameworkEdit

In emotion research, there are many proposed hierarchies of emotions. Hierarchies are organised into levels, and depending on where an emotion sits in these levels determines its complexity (Ghazi et al., 2010). Hierarchical approaches are desirable as they allow emotions to be categorised based on characteristics and intensity (Ghazi et al., 2010). Using a hierarchical framework, we can better understand the complexities of emotions. It gives us the language necessary to explain and understand our emotions, bettering our emotion knowledge (Ghazi et al., 2010; Xu et al., 2015).

Xu et al. (2015) proposed a hierarchy of emotions that uses four levels of emotion classification (see Table 2). The two primary categories are negative and positive. From these two categories are seven basic emotions based on the proposed basic emotions from Ekaman (1971). The final level further categorises the basic emotions into 20 more complex emotions.

Table 2: Level 2, 3 and 4 hierarchical emotions
Level 2 emotions Level 3 emotions Level 4 emotions
Positve emotions Fond Favoured
Joyful Calm
Negative emotions Distressed Sad
Surprised Surprised
Fearful Panic
Angry Angry
Disgusted Dissatisfied
(Xu et al., 2015)

Prototype approachEdit

The prototype approach is an approach to emotions knowledge and states that emotions are organised into prototypes (Fehr, 1982; Shaver et al., 1987). Prototypes are the clearest or best examples of a category (Fehr,1982). This approach argues that emotion is a combination of emotions, not solely one emotion experienced at a time (Shaver et al., 1987). Emotions can be categorised based on how much they represent their category (Fehr, 1982; Shaver et al., 1987). Categories of emotions are formed through repeated exposure and are organised through the prototypes that an individual has developed (Shaver et al., 1987). The better emotions are categorised and understood, the better one’s emotion knowledge (Shaver et al., 1987).

This approach uses a hierarchical approach to explain the categories of emotions. However, this perspective allows for different categories to interact and combine and for categories to be viewed vertically and horizontally (Shaver et al., 1987). The vertical domains are the hierarchical relations among categories (tree diagram), and the horizontal dimension consists of three primary levels; superordinate, basic, and subordinate (Fehr & Russell, 1984; Shaver et al., 1987). Categories on the bottom of the hierarchy (superordinate) are used for making day-to-day distinctions and are the most readily available to access (Fehr, 1982; Shaver et al., 1987). Basic level categories are learned through language and experience. Some of the emotions that the prototype approach suggests as basic emotions are happiness, love, anger, fear, awe, respect, and envy (Shaver et al., 1987). The basic level of categorisation is generally the most preferred level as its use is the most natural in everyday conversation and thought. (Fehr & Russell, 1984; Shaver et al., 1987).

The prototype approach ranks emotion with the following criteria:
  • how easily it comes to mind when an individual is asked to list emotions
  • how likely it is going to be labelled as an emotion
  • how easily it can be substituted for the word emotion
  • how much it resembles other emotion categories (it has shared characteristics)

(Fehr & Russell, 1984; Shaver et al., 1987)

Developing emotion knowledgeEdit

The most important thing to developing emotion knowledge is an increased understanding of emotions and how they interact with us and our environment[factual?]. The most effective way to increase our knowledge is to familiarise ourselves with the different types of emotions and the theories that help to explain them and their purpose[factual?]. Increasing our linguistic skills is necessary to communicate our emotions and understand our internal emotions[factual?]. It is also essential to get feedback from others (Abraham, 2004; Izard et al., 2011). Social feedback is vital in developing our ability to recognise and understand emotion cues from others (Dunsmore & Karn, 2004). Recognising emotions in others is just as crucial as understanding personal emotion experiences[factual?]. The emotional competence framework highlights key skills necessary to improve emotion knowledge (Boyatzis et al., 2000). It requires good awareness (of the self and the environment), self-regulation, and motivation (Boyatzis et al., 2000). If one has trouble self-reflecting, social feedback will be a valuable tool to help one develop the necessary skills (Izard et al., 2011). Finally, it is also essential to practice emotion skills. Many theories have shown that experience develops our schema and prototypes. Therefore, one of the most effective methods to develop emotional knowledge is to practice with social feedback (Fehr & Russell, 1984; Izard et al., 2011).

The hierarchical and prototype approaches help to categorise emotions and their characteristics. They provide more words that can be used to explain emotions (Fehr & Russell, 1984; Xu et al., 2015). These theories help us break down basic emotions into more complex ones that may better describe the emotions being experienced. Social constructionism and basic emotion theory help explain how we cognitively process emotions (TenHouten, 2021). They help to explain how we experience emotions on a personal level and how we may apply them to our environment.

Emotion knowledge is essential for successful social interactions and is associated with positive outcomes (Abraham, 2004; Dunsmore & Karn, 2004). Studies have shown that children with emotion knowledge tend to engage in prosocial behaviour, adjust well in school, and achieve academic achievement (Dunsmore & Karn, 2004). Studies have shown that emotion knowledge allows individuals to regulate their emotions better (Dunsmore & Karn, 2004)[Provide more detail]. When individuals understand emotions and reactions, they make better decisions (Izard et al., 2011). Emotion knowledge also allows individuals to interpret and understand the emotions of others, which aids in improving communication skills and better relationships with others (Izard et al., 2011).


Emotion knowledge is a valuable tool that can improve social interactions and relationships, professional development, leadership skills and opportunities, and academic pursuits (Abraham, 2004; Dunsmore & Karn, 2004). Emotion knowledge can be developed by improving emotion linguistic skills, receiving social feedback and experience, self-reflection, and studying theories about emotions and emotion knowledge (Abraham, 2004; Dunsmore & Karn, 2004; TenHouten, 2021; Fehr & Russell, 1984).

[for example?]

[Take-home messages?]

See alsoEdit


Abraham, R. (2004). Emotional Competence as Antecedent to Performance: A Contingency Framework. Genetic, Social, and General Psychology Monographs, 130(2), 117–145.

Australian Psychological Association. (2015). APA dictionary of psychology (2nd ed.). (G. R. VandenBos, Ed.; 2nd ed.). American Psychological Association.

Averill, J. R. (1980). Chapter 12 - A constructionist view of emotion. In R. Plutchik & H. Kellerman (Eds.), Theories of Emotion (pp. 305–339). Academic Press.

Boyatzis, R. E., Goleman, D., & Rhee, K. (2000). Clustering competence in emotional intelligence: Insights from the Emotional Competence Inventory (ECI). Handbook of Emotional Intelligence, 99(6), 343–362.

Bratianu, C. (2015). Emotional Knowledge. In . Organizational Knowledge Dynamics: Managing Knowledge Creation, Acquisition, Sharing, and Transformation. (pp. 50–71). IGI Global.

Camras, L. A., & Shuster, M. M. (2013). Current Emotion Research in Developmental Psychology. Emotion Review, 5(3), 321–329.

Dunsmore, J. C., & Karn, M. A. (2004). The Influence of Peer Relationships and Maternal Socialization on Kindergartners’ Developing Emotion Knowledge. Early Education & Development, 15(1), 39–56.

Ekman, P. (2004). Emotions revealed. BMJ, 12.

Fehr, B. A. (1982). Prototype categorisation of emotion (pp. 2–123) [Pdf].

Fehr, B., & Russell, J. A. (1984). Concept of emotion viewed from a prototype perspective. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 113(3), 464–486.

Ghazi, D., Inkpen, D., & Szpakowicz, S. (2010). Hierarchical versus Flat Classification of Emotions in Text. Proceedings of the NAACL HLT 2010 Workshop on Computational Approaches to Analysis and Generation of Emotion in Text, 140–146.

Izard, C. E., Woodburn, E. M., Finlon, K. J., Krauthamer-Ewing, E. S., Grossman, S. R., & Seidenfeld, A. (2011). Emotion Knowledge, Emotion Utilization, and Emotion Regulation. Emotion Review, 3(1), 44–52.

Keltner, D., Sauter, D., Tracy, J., & Cowen, A. (2019). Emotional Expression: Advances in Basic Emotion Theory. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 43(2), 133–160.

Plutchik, R., & Kellerman, H. (1980). Emotion. Vol. 1, Theories of emotion. Academic Press.

Serrat, O. (2017). Understanding and Developing Emotional Intelligence. In Knowledge Solutions : Tools, Methods, and Approaches to Drive Organizational Performance. Springer Singapore.

Shaver, P., Schwartz, J., Kirson, D., & O’Connor, C. (1987). Emotion knowledge: Further exploration of a prototype approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52(6), 1061–1086.

TenHouten, W. D. (2021). Basic emotion theory, social constructionism, and the universal ethogram. Social Science Information, 60(4), 053901842110464.

Xu, H., Yang, W., & Wang, J. (2015). Hierarchical emotion classification and emotion component analysis on chinese micro-blog posts. Expert Systems with Applications, 42(22), 8745–8752.

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