On Having One or More Theories of Emotion: Perturbance and Ur-Emotions

We can’t get away from “folk psychology” and “intuitive physics” (also known as “naive physics”), i.e., from using everyday concepts like emotion, memory, force and energy. However, in everyday discussions as in more technical ones, those words can trip us up. “Emotion” in particular is a tricky one. This difficulty is acknowledged in multiple articles in the emotion literature (and elsewhere on this web site). But, even in psychology, often the term is used without reference to particular theory of emotions. And therein lies the problem:

without a reference theory of emotion, the term “emotion” doesn’t mean much at all.

One can graduate from university, even with a psychology degree (!) without in depth knowledge of a particular, helpful [1] theory of emotion, let alone what psychology students really need, which is to master several different theories of emotion.[2] That’s a problem, because emotions (broadly speaking) are a major aspect of mental life. It’s difficult enough to try to use one of the best theories of emotion (because they are all incomplete in important respects.) Trying to communicate within oneself and with others about emotions without an explicit theory of emotions is worse than trying to get around a new city without a map.

Perturbance and Ur-emotions

As emotion is a complex, polymorphous concept it helps to have additional theory-based terminology to single out aspects of emotion. In this section, I discuss two such concepts.

In the early 1990s, tired of the pointless debates about what really counts as an “emotion”, I coined the term “perturbance” to refer to an important aspect of emotion to which Prof. Aaron Sloman drew our attention. The human mind generates, activates and processes motivators (wishes, wants, desires, goals, etc.). Mental and physical resources (such as working memory and one’s eyes) are limited. Not all motivators can simultaneously be considered. Even simply considering a motivator, such as the goal to communicate to someone, could be fatal when one’s attention needs to be on the task at hand, such as making a left turn in traffic. So when motivators are generated, their insistence is computed using undemanding heuristics. A highly insistent motivator is likely to be allocated attentional resources. However whether a motive distracts attention depends on a dynamic motive filtering process whose threshold varies. So even a highly insistent motivator might be ignored. When a cluster of related motivators is highly insistent, we have a condition of “perturbance”. Here one’s higher-order ability to schedule the deliberation of a motivator is compromised by the motivator. While this concept is important for routine aspects of autonomous agency, it is also helpful in accounting for phenomena such as anger and limerence (romantic love). In limerence, for instance, one has difficulty postponing consideration of motivators pertaining to the limerent object. In real (perturbant) anger it is difficult to stop thinking about the agent about whom one is angry. One is motivated to respond to what caused the anger.

The concept of perturbance is quite powerful. It can only be fully understood with respect to a model of mind (a “mental architecture”), as it involves the interplay of several different mechanisms. It potentially can figure in a unifying explanation of several critical related phenomena, such as intrusive thinking, repetitive thought, rumination, ear worms, emotion and obsession. I provide some further readings below.

For similar reasons, in one of his last papers, Nico Frijda, and his colleague W. Gerrod Parrott, introduced the term “ur-emotion“.[3] They aimed to capture action readiness, an aspect of emotion to which for decades Fridja had drawn our attention.

Ur-emotions are best conceived as activated mental structures (Jackendoff, 2007) that specify particular motivational, motor, and cognitive response processes. (p. 408)

Like perturbance, the concept of ur-emotion can only be fully understood with respect to the theory from which it emanates.

One could argue that terms like perturbance and ur-emotion are jargon, and one should avoid jargon. What’s the point in using terms that people do not yet understand? Well… I feel that the phenomena designated by these terms are sufficiently important, and the confusion caused by using vague terms so insidious as to warrant the new terminology. Using the term “perturbance” can help focus people’s attention on the attentional properties of emotion. If they leave the discussion feeling a bit confused about emotion, perhaps that is better than walking away oblivious to a critical knowledge gap. Perhaps the Internet in this case will help. Once sufficiently accessible explanations of the concept are easily available (e.g., in Wikipedia) people will easily be able to research and comprehend the concept.

Literature on Emotion

So, if you’re looking for an information processing theory of emotion, I would recommend reading some of the following.

  • Beaudoin, L. P. (1994). Goal processing in autonomous agents. Birmingham, England. (Ph.D. thesis). http://www.cs.bham.ac.uk/research/projects/cogaff/Luc.Beaudoin_thesis.pdf (This does not present a theory of emotion. However, chapters 3, 4 and 6 provide a basis for the concept of perturbance (mentioned below), of which tertiary emotion is a subtype.)
  • Frijda, N. H. (2007). The Laws of Emotion. Psychology Press. (An important book, but Frijda’s writing style is hard to follow.)
  • Oatley, K., & Johnson-Laird, P. N. (1987). Towards a cognitive theory of emotions. Cognition & Emotion, 1(1), 29–50. http://doi.org/10.1080/02699938708408362
  • Ortony, A., Clore, G. L., & Collins, A. (1988). The cognitive structure of emotions. Cambridge, UK Cambridge University Press. (A “must read“. Note that their “emotions” are largely secondary emotions in the Sloman and Beaudoin terminology.)
  • Ortony, A., Clore, G. L., & Foss, M. A. (1987). The referential structure of the affective lexicon. Cognitive Science: A Multidisciplinary Journal, 11(3), 341–364.
  • Panksepp, J., & Biven, L. (2012). The archaeology of mind: Neuroevolutionary origins of human emotions. [Kindle edition.] Retrieved from Amazon.com. (This is not an information processing theory. In fact, Panksepp doesn’t acknowledge that the brain is all really an information processing system. There are several biological theories of emotion. Helpful to know this one —not that I buy into it.)
  • Scherer, K. R. (2005). What are emotions? And how can they be measured? Social Science Information, 44(4), 695–729. http://doi.org/10.1177/0539018405058216
  • Simon, H. A. (1967). Motivational and emotional controls of cognition. Psychological Review, 74(1), 29–39. (A “must read”. This is the basis for many modern information processing theories of emotion. It laid the foundation for the concept of perturbance without using the term.)
  • Sloman, A. (1987). Motives, mechanisms, and emotions. Cognition & Emotion, 1(3), 217–233. doi:10.1080/02699938708408049 (A “must read.” And simple paper. Introduces the concept of perturbance, again without naming it as such. Available for free online somewhere.)
  • Sloman, A. (2003). How many separately evolved emotional beasties live within us? In R. Trappl, P. Petta, & S. Payr (Eds.), Emotions in humans and artifacts (pp. 35–114). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (A “must read.)
  • Sloman, A., University of Birmingham. Cognitive Science Research Centre. (1991). Prolegomena to a theory of communication and affect. (Another “must read”. Available for free online somewhere. This situates emotion in a relation to affect.)
  • Sloman, A. (2004) What are theories of emotion about? Retrieved from http://www.cs.bham.ac.uk/research/projects/cogaff/04.html#200403

Trying to integrate this information is challenging, but worthwhile. In Part 2 of Cognitive Productivity, I integrated some of these theories. But that book is only tangentially about emotions.

Not Just Having, but Wielding Theories

At CogZest, we are mostly concerned with knowledge work and personal development, so it is appropriate once again to emphasize learning.

“Having” one or more theories [2] is not enough. To master them, one needs to regularly use them to describe and explain phenomena. If this interests you and you’re lucky, then you have people in your immediate network who are also willing to try to “up their game”, and use theoretical concepts in discussing real affective phenomena. This inevitably becomes a knowledge building enterprise.


1. There’s an entire chapter of Cognitive Productivity about assessing knowledge resources. The chapter deals with what it means for a knowledge resources to be helpful.

2. Richard Feynman, 1965: “Therefore psychologically we must keep all the theories in our heads, and every theoretical physicist who is any good knows six or seven different theoretical representations for exactly the same physics.” Same goes for psychology.

3. Frijda, N. H., & Parrott, W. G. (2011). Basic emotions or Ur-emotions? Emotion Review, 3(4), 406–415. http://doi.org/10.1177/1754073911410742

Published by

Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest. Author of Cognitive Productivity books. Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp. Adjunct Professor of Education, Simon Fraser University. Why, Where, and What I Write. See About Me for more information.

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