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In psychology, affect is an emotion or subjectively experienced feeling. Affect theory is a branch of psychoanalysis that attempts to organize affects into discrete categories and connect each one with its typical response. So, for example, the affect of joy is observed through the reaction of smiling. These affects can be identified through immediate facial reactions that people have to a stimulus, typically well before they could process any real response to the stimulus.
Affect theory is attributed to Silvan Tomkins and is introduced in the first two volumes of his book Affect Imagery Consciousness (published in 1962 and 1963 respectively).
The nine affects
These are the nine affects, listed with a low/high intensity label for each affect and accompanied by its biological expression :
- Enjoyment/Joy - smiling, lips wide and out
- Interest/Excitement - eyebrows down, eyes tracking, eyes looking, closer listening
- Surprise/Startle - eyebrows up, eyes blinking
- Anger/Rage - frowning, a clenched jaw, a red face
- Disgust - the lower lip raised and protruded, head forward and down
- Dissmell (reaction to bad smell) - upper lip raised, head pulled back
- Distress/Anguish - crying, rhythmic sobbing, arched eyebrows, mouth lowered
- Fear/Terror - a frozen stare, a pale face, coldness, sweat, erect hair
- Shame/Humiliation - eyes lowered, the head down and averted, blushing
The nine affects can be used as a blueprint for optimal mental health. According to Tomkins (1962), optimal mental health requires the maximization of positive affect and the minimization of negative affect. Affect should also be properly expressed so to make the identification of affect possible (Nathanson 1997).
Affect theory can also be used as a blueprint for intimate relationships. Kelly (1996) describes relationships as agreements to mutually work toward maximizing positive affect and minimizing negative affect. Like the "optimal mental health" blueprint, this blueprint requires members of the relationship to express affect to one another in order to identify progress.
These blueprints can also describe natural and implicit goals. Nathanson (1997), for example, uses the "affect" to create a narrative for one of his patients:
- I suspect that the reason he refuses to watch movies is the sturdy fear of enmeshment in the affect depicted on the screen; the affect mutualization for which most of us frequent the movie theater is only another source of discomfort for him.
- His refusal to risk the range of positive and negative affect associated with sexuality robs any possible relationship of one of its best opportunities to work on the first two rules of either the Kelly or the Tomkins blueprint. Thus, his problems with intimacy may be understood in one aspect as an overly substantial empathic wall, and in another aspect as a purely internal problem with the expression and management of his own affect.
Tomkins (1991) applies affect theory to religion noting that "Christianity became a powerful universal religion in part because of its more general solution to the problem of anger, violence, and suffering versus love, enjoyment, and peace." The implication is that the optimization of affect motivates the adoption of religion.
Affect theory is also referenced heavily in Tomkins's Script Theory.
Adoption of affect theory
Affect theory's use in psychoanalysis and therapy is limited, though it has gained widespread use in psychoanalytic theory, particularly through the work of Eve Sedgwick and Lauren Berlant, who have written extensively about affect.
- Kelly, VC (1996). Affect and the redefinition of intimacy. In: DL Nathanson, Ed. Knowing feeling:
Affect, script, and psychotherapy. New York: Norton, pp. 55-104.
- Nathanson, DL (1997). A Goal is an Image. Bulletin of the Tomkins Institute, vol. IV, pp. 1-4.
- Tomkins, SS (1962). Affect Imagery Consciousness: The Positive Affects (Vol. 1). New York: Springer.
- Tomkins, SS (1963). Affect Imagery Consciousness: The Negative Affects (Vol. 2). New York: Springer.
- Tomkins, SS (1991). Affect Imagery Consciousness: The Negative Affects: Anger and Fear (Vol. 3). New York: Springer.
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