Reflection on the Psychoevolutionary Theory

Reflection on the Psychoevolutionary Theory:

A Study of

Emotion and Evolution

P. E. Griffiths

Summary by Chris Murphy, Brianne VanElslander, Sonia Ramirez, Claudia Sanchez

Loyola Marymount University


Evolutionary Psychology

October 10, 2000


1. Introduction

The psychoevolutionary method to studying emotion brings about an alternative classification of certain emotion phenomena. Previously classifications of different emotions for scientific purposes were based on colloquial classes of emotion, such as fear, anger, and love. This vocabulary is inadequate to describe all the various kinds of emotions. The new categories are based on a set of evolved adaptive responses, which are cross-culturally universal. These responses occur through a modular system of stimulus appraisal, and at times conflict with higher level cognitive processes. The adaptive responses are innate, but the contents of the modular system that triggers the responses are mostly learned. The limbic system is most likely responsible for these adaptive responses. Our current vocabulary does not cover all the distinctions of emotion, which are required for the scientific study of emotion. But the traditional cognitive theory is based on this vocabulary. The cognitive theory is inadequate for a couple of reasons: first, it does not provide sufficient categories of emotions, and second, it does not offer many of the necessary things for a theory of emotions. The attraction of the cognitive approach is that it claims to preserve the categories of emotions used in our everyday conversation. This is a good reason to question whether or not these categories are definitive.

2. The Psychoevolutionary Theory of Emotion

P. E. Griffiths offers an alternative approach, the psychoevolutionary theory, which does not preserve the traditional categories. The psychoevolutionary theory of emotion utilizes new vocabulary to describe emotional phenomena. This approach was started by Darwin. Darwin used data on facial musculature that could be linked to particular emotional expressions. He invented the judgement test, in which subjects are shown photographed faces and asked to identify each face's emotional state. There are three experiments that utilize this type of investigation of facial expressions. All three show patterns of emotive response, which occur in all cultures. The previously held view claimed that emotions are culturally specific because they are learned.

The first experiment used people from New Guinea who faced extremely little foreign influence. Each subject was told a story, and then asked to identify out of three photographs, which photograph was of the person in the story. An overwhelming majority selected the photograph intended to correspond to the story. Similar facial expression is selected for the same emotion in isolated preliterate cultures.

In a second experiment both Japanese and American subjects were shown a video and were simultaneously being recorded on camera. Both groups had similar facial expressions during the same parts of the video.

The last experiment analyzed the facial behaviors of infants born deaf and blind and of normal infants when presented with the same stimuli. The same patterns of muscular activity were used to show the same kinds of emotions in both groups. The results of these experiments have important implications for the psychoevolutionary theory.

3. Are Emotional Responses Innate

Many emotional reactions may be controlled by "affect programs". An "affect program" is a neural circuit, probably in the hypothalamus and associated regions (Griffiths, 1990). When emotional responses are initiated, a complex series of reactions occur. They often include facial expression, vocal changes and skeletal and muscular reactions. While we theorize that "affect programs" exist, we must not assume that they are innate. An affect program may be innate, learned, or a combination of the two. We may not know how the circuitry is built, but we know that it exists. Although "affect programs" may control emotions, their innateness is still unknown.

There is significant evidence that suggests that facial expressions are, in fact innate. This is because facial expressions are mostly arbitrary behaviors. Expressions such as fear and joy can't be explained by any fundamental appropriateness of those expressions. If these expressions occurred because of learning the use of the same expressions for emotions in different cultures could not be explained.

With regard to ANS research, many researchers have simply addressed the question of the specificity of ANS arousal to particular emotions rather than any innateness related to it. It has to be concluded that if "affect programs" exist their contents are at least partially innate.

4. The Affect Program Theory

The main argument for the existence of "affect programs" is that there are many characteristics of emotional responses that are in need of explanation. Typically emotions, in contrast to moods, are brief and may often be considered instantaneous. An emotional response is both complex and organized and involves four kinds of coordinated changes (Griffiths, 1990). First there are skeletal and muscular changes, second there are facial expression changes, thirdly there are vocalization changes and finally there are autonomic nervous system responses. All of these are typically involuntary.

There is a considerable amount of evidence that suggests that newborn babies are sensitive to their caregiver's facial expressions. Therefore it may be assumed that the system that initiates "affect programs" has very few innate properties. More evidence suggests that phobias are best understood as learned responses.

A great deal of data suggests that "affect program" responses are innately responsive to very few stimuli. Disgust responses, for example have shown that there is a strong tendency for humans to acquire disgust for a taste which has been followed by illness even though there may be no causal connection between the food and the illness. "Affect programs" are adaptations to situations that have environmental significance for the organism. Many times the organism must learn which events trigger the "affect programs". Emotional responses don't seem to adjust to new environmental changes as readily as beliefs. The cost of failing to respond to danger may lead to death. Although we may fear and worry unnecessarily, in evolutionary terms, phobias and distaste may be very advantageous.

5. Affect-Programs and Modularity

Griffiths argues that the systems that trigger affect-programs must learn the emotional significance of the local environment. He stresses that at least some of these systems are different from the systems that create the model of the world that guides our rational action.

He supports the existence of such a separate system due to a need to explain the ways in which emotional responses can conflict with other cognitive activity. For example, although fear embodies the perception of something dangerous, it is common to display the symptoms of fear when confronted with a stimulus that one knows as harmless. This suggests that there is a process that is able to evaluate the stimuli and trigger the appropriate affect-program, separate from the process that leads to the fixation of belief.

Griffiths uses Fodor's research to explain how this process would be modular. Fodor argued that there are modules responsible for processing sensory data to the point where it becomes a conscious perception, although we are not aware of it. This process has access to information that helps establish prior probabilities for interpretation, but it does not have access to all information known of the subject.

Griffiths believes that it is possible for a modular system to respond a certain way even if the organism, as a whole believes otherwise. In addition, he supports other characteristics of modular systems, which are presented by Fodor, such as their operation being mandatory and our not being able to choose our response to a given stimulus.

Fodor, drawing on Rozin and others, gives a psycho-evolutionary account of the existence of modules, in mind such as our, which are capable of general intelligence. Fodor stresses that these modules originated in phylogenetic predecessors who did not posses this general-purpose intelligence. This modular system has many advantages. Among these is the short response time achieved through a mandatory system with a limited database. Fodor also suggests that are penalties associated with allowing our other cognitive processes interfere too freely with certain areas of mental activity. He points out that in the case of perception, it is essential that an organism be able to accept data that contradicts with even its firmly held beliefs. Otherwise, we would not be able to perceive novelty.

The modular system of affect-program responses can be seen as a way to save us from our own intelligence. It causes you to pay more attention to the stimulus and triggers preliminary elements of a fight or flight response, in case it becomes necessary once the stimulus is evaluated. What our higher cognitive processes tell us about a situation is irrelevant if we have experienced an object as harmful in some segment of our past learning history because our appraisal mechanism will trigger our fear affect-program regardless. It is clear that in some point of our human history it must have been more useful to preserve our modular responses than to incorporate them into general intelligence, since they still exist.

Griffith stresses that the affect-programs differ from the perceptual input systems. The output of perceptual systems is a mental event, while that of the emotion system is behavioral. He supports the notion of a modular system by analogy with reflexes by using Fodor's example of a blinking eye. Fodor argues that in this case, even if we know "rationally" that a person putting their finger directly in front of our eye is incapable of jabbing his finger in our eye, we blink. This is because it is a mandatory action that ignores "logic," not taking into consideration the character of the person or other rationalization.

Griffith considers the possibility that other routes could trigger affect-programs. He considers that they could be triggered both voluntarily and involuntarily, like the heart can be brought under control voluntarily, by the use of biofeedback devices. Also, the imaginative interpretation of emotion inducing stimuli could trigger the affect-programs.

6. The Neural Basis of the Affect-Programs

Research on the neural base of the affect-programs suggests that neural circuits in the limbic system control them. Particularly, the hypothalamus is a possible location for these responses.

These structures play an important role in emotion. First, Griffiths uses MacLean's argument is that emotions represent a more primitive way of processing important information. Then, he refers to Fodor's explanation that modules evolved in our ancestors for want of a general-purpose cognitive mechanism retained for their efficiency. In accepting these arguments, it is established that such brain functions be located in the parts of our brains that are equivalent to the brains of our ancestors. However, this does not mean that inheritance of structures carry inheritance of the same functions, it only provides a rational basis for research.

Griffith also presents the findings of Panksepp, who suggests that that there are four circuits that can be found in the hypothalamus of certain animals. These include the expectancy, fear, rage, and panic pathways.

7. The Significance of the Evolutionary Theory

According to Griffiths, the psychoevolutionary theory is a theory in which physiological responses are used to put emotional responses into categories. He uses Ekman's and his co-workers' isolated categories of emotions to add to the theory. These emotions are fear, anger, joy, surprise, disgust, and sadness. It is in this way that Griffiths takes emotion abstracts and categorized them away from causes. In other words, the response and not by where the stimulus is coming from identify the emotion.

The reason for going away from nature of the stimuli is due to the fact that many responses are cultural responses and not of the individual. Therefore categorizing responses makes it easier to explain them in evolutionary ways.

The theory also gives us the rationale of the way in which affect-program responses are triggered, and the way in which the contents of the triggering mechanism are sensitized to certain stimuli (Griffiths 1990). In addition to the affect-program responses, Griffiths states that emotions also involve learnt and culture-specific elements. In some cases, the nature of a response my not be an important characteristic and it may only be reflecting the attitudes of that particular society.

Griffiths then introduces the folk concept where he uses the pre-scientific conception of heat as an analogy of emotion. With this concept a person who touches a very hot piece of aluminum and remain unharmed is unexplainable. He states that heat is made of components consisting of temperature, quantity of heat, and conductivity (Griffiths 1990). It is these components put together that explain how heat works. He suggests that it is the same for an emotion. It too has components that add up to the particular emotion being experienced. Unlike heat, an emotion's components are psycho-evolved adaptive responses, cognitive factors, and cultural factors (Griffiths 1990).

Griffith also suggests that emotion and folk categories of emotion will not of the interest to a developed science and that a new classification will be needed. This is when the affect-program will contribute.

8. Exploring the Folk Conception

Griffiths reminds the reader about the two strands of the pre-scientific conception of emotion that he wrote about in his introduction. They are the involuntary and disruptive effects of emotion and their intentionality. He writes that in everyday talk, an emotional response is paired with an object. This object is what causes the response whether it is dangerous or not. If the theory he has outlined is correct then relationship between emotions and cognitive states is more complicated the pre-scientific conception (Griffiths 1990). This is when people have irrational emotions.

The affect-program responses can explain irrational emotional response due to perceiving a stimulus that is dangerous. The dangerous part can be described in two ways. The first is through a belief fixation and the second is the modular triggering system. The system could class a stimulus as one of the emotion categories and trigger the affect-program response. By these two items running together, the person may experience fear and affirm the cause as being dangerous. But6 if only the affect-program response classes the stimulation, the only experience fear and will deny the judgements the folk theory supposes to be implicit in the emotion (Griffiths 1990). On the contrary, if it is the belief system that does the classifying then the person will not experience fear or will deny it and only take the necessary steps to avoid the stimulus.

To be able to draw this distinction is of great advancement. This turns away from paradoxes that have put the cognitive theory of emotions in a state of stubbornness. It was believed that fictional or imaginable visions could evoke real emotional responses. According to Michael Stoker, for this paradox to be resolved the cognitive content of emotions must be allowed to different from the cognitive content of beliefs (Griffiths 1990). By utilizing notions like modularity and informational encapsulation that are already organized somewhere else in psychology, it is allowed to not use the suggestion of fictional or imaginable visions evoking real emotional responses. It then becomes a psychological investigation and not a philosopher's paradox.

The evolutionary theory and the affect-program allow us to explain the paradoxes that arrive from the pre scientific conception of emotion and the origins of this conception. The affect-program makes it easier to understand that emotions are not just collections of beliefs and desires. The affect-program is not based on beliefs and desires. Instead it has informational encapsulation, and their involuntariness.

Certain emotions such as jealousy, hope, and envy are based on common arrangements of desires. What leads us to categorize them as desires is that such strong desires for a particular outcome is involuntary. A cognitivist would want to know why we have these common emotions. The answer is being research through pychoevolutionary factors as well as other theories.

Critical Review Items


  1. Three Interesting or Informative Points Made by the Author:

-The relationship between particular emotional expressions and facial musculature.

-It is implausible to assume that emotional facial expressions are learned because experiment has revealed that even deaf and blind infants demonstrate the same facial behavior as healthy infants.

-While emotional responses are innate, the system which triggers them is learned.

  1. Two Arguments Made by the Author that the Panel Disagreed With and/or Required Further Explanation:

-We disagree with the author's claim that our current vocabulary is insufficient to describe emotions.

-He discusses emotions as adaptive responses, therefore they must be a cross-cultural universal. But he claims the Japanese experience an emotion that westerners would claim to have never experienced.


  1. Three Concepts the Panel Had Questions About or Required Further Explanation:

-Why does Griffiths believe that our current vocabulary for emotion is inadequate for scientific purposes?

-What display rules exist in Western cultures?

-How is it that our emotions override rational thought?

Reflection on the Psychoevolutionary Theory: A Study of Emotion and Evolution

I. Introduction

  1. The psychoevolutionary method to studying emotion brings about an alternative classification of certain emotion phenomena.

II. The Psychoevolutionary Theory of Emotion

A. P.E. Griffiths offers an alternative approach, the psychoevolutionary theory,

which does not preserve the traditional categories.

B. Experiments

III. Are Emotional Responses Innate

A. Many emotional reactions may be controlled by "affect-programs"

IV. The Affect-Program Theory

A. The main argument for the existence of affect-programs is that there are many

characteristics of emotional responses that are in need of explanation

B. "Affect-Program" responses are innately responsive to very few stimuli.

V. Affect-Programs and Modularity

A. The systems that trigger "affect programs" must learn the emotional

significance of the local environment.

B. A psychoevolutionary account of the existence of modules, in minds such as

ours, which are capable of general intelligence.

C. There is a possibility that other routes could trigger affect-programs.

VI. The Neural Basis of the Affect-Programs

A. Research on the neural base of affect-programs suggests that neural circuits in

the limbic system control them.

B. Panksepp's four circuits found in the hypothalamus: expectancy, fear, rage,

and panic pathways.

VII. The Significance of the Psychoevolutionary Theory

A. The psychoevolutionary theory is a theory in which physiological responses

are used to put emotional responses into categories.

B. The introduction of the folk concept, using heat as an analogy.

VIII. Exploring the Folk Conception

A. Two strands of the pre-scientific conceptions of emotion.

B. "Affect-Program" responses explain irrational emotional response due to the

perception a dangerous stimulus.