Cognitive Psychology

by Eamon Fulcher

Chapter 8: Cognition and emotion




Chapter summary

In this chapter we will cover the study of emotion from the cognitive perspective. It could be argued that what the previous chapters miss is how cognitive processing can be coloured by emotion. This is a relatively new area of research, and in this chapter we address issues such as the relationship between cognition and emotion, their mutual influence over each other, and applications of cognitive theory in the therapeutic domain.


Cognition and emotion: separate or interdependent?

There is a debate in the literature on the relationship between emotion and cognition. In this section, we review the main ideas on the issue.

Emotion does not require cognition

Zajonc (1984, p. 117) affirmed that ‘affect and cognition are separate and partially independent processes and although they ordinarily function cojointly, affect could be generated without a prior cognitive process'. One example of this is to imagine that you turn a corner and come face to face with a lion. What Zajonc is arguing is that your physiological reaction will occur before you have processed the sensory image of the lion cognitively. Zajonc (incidentally, most students pronounce this name as ‘za-jonk' but the correct pronunciation is ‘zai-yonce') discusses the ‘mere exposure' effect as evidence of this distinction. When pictures are presented subliminally (too briefly to be consciously detected) participants later tend to rate as more liked those pictures they have been ‘shown' than new pictures. This demonstrates that an affective response can occur without cognition.


The mere exposure effect is the observation that people will tend to like something simply because they have seen it before and have some familiarity with it (all else being equal). It may be a basic psychological process for both animals and humans, and has an obvious function: better to deal with something we have seen before than something novel or new which might be less predictable. The effects seem to contradict the adage ‘familiarity breeds contempt', but I will leave you to ponder why they might both be true.

Emotion requires cognition

Lazarus (1982) has criticised the conclusion drawn from mere exposure experiments. If subjects prefer items they have ‘seen' subliminally then they may still have processed the items 'cognitively', since we do not need to equate awareness with cognition. Lazarus argues ‘Cognitive appraisal (of meaning or significance) underlies and is an integral feature of all emotional states.' In other words, Lazarus seems to be saying that the cognitive process of detecting or determining affect comes before any elicitation of emotion. Affective processing may involve detecting the goodness or badness as well as the significance or potency of a stimulus.

This theory of pre-emotional appraisal has three forms:

•  a primary appraisal (identification of the event as being aversive, positive, etc.);

•  a secondary appraisal (a check of the resources one has to cope with the event);

•  and a reappraisal (monitoring and modifying both the primary and secondary appraisal processes).



Subjects were shown a particularly gruesome and anxiety-evoking film (these included scenes I in which people receive cuts, which are sometimes fatal). Participants were divided into three groups:


In general, Lazarus takes the view that cognitive appraisals (which need not be conscious) always precede emotional reactions. Zajonc's reply is that we have little evidence that these appraisals exist, they are nothing more than an article of faith. More recently, neuropsychologists have entered the debate providing new perspectives on the issue.

A cognitive neuroscience perspective

LeDoux (1989) argues that ‘Emotion and cognition are mediated by separate but interacting systems of the brain.' The emotional system evaluates the biological significance of stimuli from the external world or the internal one (thoughts, images and memories). Further, this evaluation takes place prior to conscious awareness, and only the results of the evaluation are made conscious. Thus, LeDoux's appraisal theory has much in common with that of Lazarus, although LeDoux (1989) provides more details on how such mechanisms might operate. He distinguishes between cognitive and emotion processes according to their consequences:

For example, the computations that determine that a snake is a vertebrate, that it is biologically closer to an alligator than to a cow, and that its skin can be used to make belts and shoes, have very different consequences than the computations that determine that a snake is likely to be dangerous (p. 272).

For LeDoux, cognitive computations in the brain provide information about a stimulus and its relationship to other stimuli (broadly, this is knowledge about the world), while affective computations (those that lead to emotions) provide information about the relation of the stimulus to the individual (in short, what the significance of the stimulus is for the individual). Cognitive computations may also lead to further cognitions (e.g. ‘elaboration' – reasoning or thinking deeply about something). Affective computations lead to behavioural responses (e.g. avoidance), autonomic responses (increased heart rate, sweating, and so on), and humoral reactions (changes in brain chemistry, such as an increase in adrenaline).

LeDoux argues for a distinction between cognition and emotion on functional grounds – what is most efficient for adaptation: ‘In the presence of danger it is more important to emit appropriate escape or defence responses than to ruminate over cognitive attributes of the stimulus' (p. 272).

Before reading on, ask yourself what you understand by the term ‘cognition'. How would you define a cognitive process? Then read on.

Avoid using labelling terms such as ‘phobics', ‘depressives' and so on. Instead, use terms such as ‘people with a phobia' or ‘people who have been diagnosed with depression'.

•  one third of the subjects were informed, via the soundtrack, that the individuals who appeared in the film were actors (denial group);

•  a second third of the subjects watched the film with an ‘anthropologist' describing the events (intellectualisation group – the voice-over on the soundtrack sounds objective and factual, as though viewing strange customs);

•  the other subjects watched the film without the soundtrack (control group)


In recording physiological measures of emotional arousal, it was found that both the denial group and the intellectualisation group showed significantly lower levels of arousal than the control group. Therefore, cognitive appraisals of events can significantly affect emotional reactions, and in this case reduce their intensity.

But what is cognition anyway?

From this analysis what becomes clear is that the problem lies in what is meant by (and what is not meant by) the term ‘cognitive process'. It may be a term that is too vague and imprecise, and means different things to different psychologists. It is interesting how the debate has moved from ‘what is an emotion?' to ‘what is cognition?' So, is cognition to be equated with conscious thought or with non-emotional information, or is it broader than that? Do the collective firings of nerve cells within a structure, such as the amygdala, represent a cognitive process?

This position is adopted by Parrot and Schulkin (1993), who argue that ‘emotion and sensation cannot be independent from cognition' since ‘for emotions to function adaptively, they must incorporate interpretation, anticipation, and problem-solving. . . '. They argue that emotion must be inherently cognitive since it requires appraisal and preparedness for action. If cognition is defined as that which is involved in interpretation, memory, anticipation and problem-solving (the list could be continued), then every emotion has a cognitive element, since emotion involves these processes. However, they argue that there are some cognitive processes that do not involve emotion.


We appear to have arrived at the position that while all emotional processes have a cognitive component, the possibility that all cognition can have an emotional component is doubted. Historically, the answer to the question has been determined by how cognition is defined.

The influence of cognition on emotion: attention and anxiety

In this section we examine how cognitive processes, such as attention, can have under certain circumstances a negative impact on our emotional state. Several theories suggest that paying too much attention to things we find threatening can increase our levels of anxiety, and in the extreme case, promote an anxiety disorder. We examine the evidence for this assertion.

Anxiety, phobia, and attention

Imagine (or remind yourself!) that you are afraid of spiders. You are in the attic looking for grandpa's old photographs. You notice a sudden movement of something small, through the corner of your eye. What is it? Do you assume that it is nothing of importance and ignore it, or do you think it might be a spider? If the latter, then you slide down the ladder as quickly as you can, in a desperate attempt not to be eaten alive!

Think of other fears that you or other people might have. Do you tend to notice those things associated with the fear very quickly? The next time you are a little afraid or nervous, monitor your own attention and note whether you are vigilant for the thing you are in fear of.

The spider-in-the-attic example demonstrates what has been found in people who are prone to anxiety – they tend to notice potential dangers and threats much more easily and sooner than people who are less prone to anxiety. Clearly, there is a pay-off for the anxious person who notices a threat sooner rather than later: they can take evasive action before being harmed. However, anxious people too often make the error of assuming that something is dangerous or threatening when it really is harmless and quite innocuous. This rapid switching of attention towards threat has been observed in the laboratory in anxious students as well as people diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.

Highly anxious individuals demonstrate an attentional bias for threat. It is has been suggested that attentional orientation towards threat over prolonged periods of time (e.g. years) can change a mildly anxious person into someone with severe anxiety. The evidence for this is not conclusive, however. At least it seems intuitively obvious that attentional bias might at least serve to maintain anxiety.

In many experiments, highly anxious individuals have been found to direct their attention towards items related to personal threat (e.g. words related to health, or photographs of mutilation, and so on) when these items appear alongside more neutral items (see review by Mathews and MacLeod, 1994). For example, when a smiling face and an angry face are presented at the same time on a computer screen, the anxious individual looks at the angry face first.

Specificity of attentional bias

Research has shown that what an anxious person fears most grabs most attention (MacLeod et al., 1986;MacLeod and Mathews, 1988; Broadbent and Broadbent, 1988). As examples:

•  people with a spider phobia attend to words such as hairy or creepy;

•  people with a social phobia attend to words related to socialising (e.g. party);

•  people with an eating disorder attend to words related to food (e.g. chocolate);

•  anxious students tested just before their exams have been shown to attend to words related to success and failure (e.g. error).


The tendency for anxious individuals to attend to threat does not seem to depend upon conscious awareness or deliberate intent, as attentional bias has been found to exist even for stimuli that cannot be reported, such as when the words are presented subliminally MacLeod and Mathews (1988) devised the dot-probe method. The idea is that a probe, such as an asterix (*), is presented on a computer monitor and the participant is required to press a button as soon as he or she sees the probe appear. Two words are presented on the screen, one on the left side and the other on the right side, and one word is a threatening word (e.g. dagger) and the other word is a non-threatening word (e.g. number). Suppose dagger is presented to the left and number to the right. An anxious person might orient towards the word dagger, while a low anxious person might look at either. The probe is then presented on the screen replacing the word dagger. If the participant is looking at dagger then they will be able to respond sooner than if they were looking at the word number. In this way it is possible to infer the direction of attention by analysing reaction times. (e.g. Mogg et al., 1993). It may therefore be a behaviour that is difficult to control or suppress (and this then obviously has implications for therapy).



As indicated above, it has been suggested that cognitive bias for threat is a contributory cause of clinical anxiety, because it leads to more information about potential dangers being perceived. However, while there is ample evidence for the existence of an attentional bias in anxiety, the evidence for a causal connection is very limited, and more evidence is required.

The influence of emotion on cognition

Ways in which emotion can affect cognition are examined in this section, through research on how mood can influence memory.

Mood and memory

One of the most studied areas on the effects of emotion on cognition is that of mood and memory.

State dependent memory (SDM) is the term given to the theoretical view that the recall of information is dependent upon the state of the brain during learning and during recall. The principle is that if the state of the brain during learning is very close to the state of the brain during retrieval, then recall will be easier than if these two brain states differ. As examples, taking eyewitnesses to the scene of the crime may enhance recall, and having an exam in the same lecture room rather than in a different room should improve recall of the material.

SDM is offered as an explanation for childhood amnesia. Few people can recall their early childhood experiences, especially before the age of five. This is consistent with the finding that there are distinct EEG differences between the brains of adults and young children (although this finding is predicted without recourse to a theory of SDM, such as the fact that the brains of young children are less developed). The selective allocation of attention to emotional stimuli has also been assessed using the emotional Stroop task. Participants are required to name the ink colour of emotional words as quickly as possible, while attempting to ignore their semantic content. Consistent with the notion of the presence of an attentional bias towards the content of threatening words, individuals with high levels of anxiety trait have been found to consistently display a disproportionate slowing to name the colour of the ink of threat-related stimuli.

SDM is also offered as an account of why drugs that influence some psychopathologies such as depression alleviate the disorder: the drugs change the state of the brain and hence make certain memories (in this case very sad personal memories) more difficult to retrieve. SDM cues may be features of the environment or features of the internal state (arousal level, hormonal state, mood state). The ‘functional state' of the brain may permit access to certain parts of long-term memory but restrict access to other parts.



In the first experiment of Bower et al. (1981) there were four phases:

1. Participants were induced into happy or sad state.

2. Participants learned a list of words.

3. Participants were induced into a mood state (either the same or different).

4. Participants were tested for recall on the list of words.

The results indicated that superior recall occurred when the mood state at recall was the same as the mood state during learning. Thus participants induced into a sad state during learning and then into a sad state again during the memory test recalled more words than participants induced into a sad state during learning and a happy state during the memory test.

In the second experiment, participants kept a diary and recorded any event that had an emotional impact on them. They were to record the time, the place and the gist of the event, and to rate its importance (on a 7 10 to +10 scale). Recordings were made over the period of one week. Participants were then induced into a happy or sad mood, and were asked to recall as much information as possible about the events that they had recorded.

The results were that those induced into a sad mood recalled more information about their unpleasant events than their pleasant events and those induced into a happy mood recalled more information about their pleasant events than their unpleasant events.

Implications for our understanding of depression

The conclusion from Bower et al.'s (1981) study is that the current mood state is predictive of the type of material that is easier to recall. Thus, if a sad mood promotes the recall of unpleasant personal experiences then it is possible that a negative cycle of mood and memory is produced. As unpleasant memories are elicited during a state of sadness, so that recall deepens the state, and it is easy to see that if such a cycle were allowed to continue uninterrupted, then even over a short period a state of depression could result. In one sense people are already aware of this phenomenon, as it is present in our language, as in the phrases ‘the rose-coloured glasses of the optimist' and the ‘sombre grey outlook of the pessimist'. However, the implication of the study is that pessimism breeds eve more pessimism.

Other studies have shown that the speed of recall of emotional material is affected by the emotional state of the individual. Mood-congruent material, such as lists of words related to sadness and disappointment learned by people in a state of sadness, is recalled more quickly than mood-incongruent material, such as lists of words related to being happy learned by people in a state of sadness (Teasdale and Fogarty, 1979).

The Bower et al. paper begins with an example from a Charlie Chaplin film. Basically, he is a tramp and meets a drunken wealthy gent in a bar. They get on well together, and the wealthy man looks after him– that is, until the wealthy man sobers up and can remember nothing of Charlie and why he is in his home, and so kicks him out. However, when the man gets drunk again he sees Charlie and treats him like a long lost friend. The message is that drugs such as alcohol can induce SDM-type effects (as well as others!).

Bower set out to explore whether SDM effects can be reproduced in the lab using mood induction. In another study Lloyd and Lishman (1975) compared people with a clinical diagnosis of depression with non-depressed people, and found that the more severe the depression, the longer it took to retrieve a pleasant memory and the quicker it took to retrieve an unpleasant one.


SDM theory predicts that mood-congruent recall should not be restricted to states of depression but to other states as well, such as anxiety. However, it is interesting to note that a memory bias for unpleasant information has not been found in individuals with clinical anxiety (Mathews, 1994). Furthermore, Bower's version of SDM theory predicts attentional bias for unpleasant information in depression, and despite much effort to look for this effect, it has not been found.

Unfortunately, the findings from the Bower et al. (1981) study have been difficult to replicate (e.g. Bower, 1987). It may be that the effect is only present in extreme emotional states, such as clinical depression, but not in emotional states that correspond to everyday mood swings.

Typical Exam Questions

1. ‘There can be no emotion without cognition.' Discuss.

2. What is the evidence for an attentional bias in anxiety?

3. In what ways can mood influence cognitive processing?

tion 5

Further reading

Three papers that set the debate about whether emotion can occur without cognition are:

Zajonc, R. B. (1980) ‘Feeling and thinking: preferences need no inferences', American Psychologist, 35, 151–75.

Zajonc, R. B. (1984) ‘On the primacy of affect', American Psychologist, 39, 117–23.

Lazarus, R. S. (1982) ‘Thoughts on the relation between cognition and emotion', American Psychologist, 37, 1019–24.

More recent works on the issue are:

Damasio, A. R. (1994) Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain. New York : Grosset/Putnam.

LeDoux, J. E. (1989) ‘Cognitive-emotional interactions in the brain', Cognition and Emotion, 3, 267–89.

A good overview of attentional bias and anxiety is presented in:

MacLeod, C. and Mathews, A. (1988) ‘Anxiety and the allocation of attention to threat'.

Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Experimental Psychology, 38, 659-70.

If your library subscribes to the journals Cognition and Emotion, Cognitive Psychotherapy, Behaviour Research and Therapy or Cognitive Therapy and Research then take a look at the latest issues for any good overviews/reviews and new developments.

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This book was first published in 2003 by Crucial, a division of Learning Matters Ltd [ISBN 1 903337 13 5] © 2003 Eamon Fulcher; © 2009 GEFT Consultance Services (

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