Ortony, Clore, and Collins: The Cognitive Structure of Emotions

[Readings] (12.13.08, 7:20 pm)

Ortony, Clore, and Collins define a cognitive approach for looking at emotions. This theory is extremely useful for the project of modeling agents which can experience emotions. The cornerstone of their analysis is that emotions are “valenced reactions.” The authors do not describe events in a way that will cause emotions, but rather, emotions can occur as a result of how people understand events. This approach is surprisingly subtle and nuanced. There are many constraints and caveats, but these are all logical considering the perspective of the model.

The goal of this book is not to claim that the representation of emotion is exactly correct, but that the approach for thinking of them is cognitively viable. Emotional systems, as analyzed, are culturally dependent. There is a claim for generality, but not for universality. Emotions may be understood in terms of eliciting factors and valenced reactions. This is the heart of the theory. The actual emotions that result, including how they are thought of, and the words we use to describe them, are not claimed to be absolute, necessarily dependent on the factors, or universal.

It is extremely challenging to study emotions. There is a conflation between emotions and emotion words. The study here looks at enabling factors and conceptualized situations. The challenge in this study is to determine the relationship between cognition and emotion. Existing theories are: arousal/appraisal, and activation/valence. These theories account for (1) what the emotions are, and (2) their relative intensity. The existing approaches of study tend to return to emotion words, which are problematic because of their cultural and linguistic dependence. Words tie into systems of meaning that surround language, and rarely map one-to-one with emotions themselves. Instead, the authors arrive at the following definition: “Our working characterization views emotions as valenced reactions to events, agents, or objects, with their particular nature being determined by the way in which the eliciting situation is constructed.” (p. 13)

The Structure of the Theory

A question that is introduced are “what are basic types of emotions?” The authors view these as being grouped together by similar eliciting conditions. An idea that is introduced is to test the theory with computer models. In these cases, the computer programs are not thought to experience emotion, but rather, to be able to understand human emotions. There is a concern about the humanistic and phenomenological issue of understanding emotions. It may be argued that experience is necessary to understand emotion. This argument is reasonable, but does not seem to be a problem in the structure, given the way the reasoning works here. The theory describes reactions, valences, and eliciting conditions, but not the actual experiences themselves.

The formulation of the emotion types relate to how the world is understood in terms of agents, objects, and events. How emotions might emerge is very dependent on how individuals actually perceive and interpret the events. The authors give a somewhat distressing example of the emotions one might experience on learning that their neighbor is a child beater (p. 20). The person might think of the neighbor as an agent, which would give rise to reproach because of violation of standards. Thinking of the event might give rise to pity for the neighbor’s children. The person might consider the neighbor as an object, and experience hatred. This is a complex network of emotions that may arise from a relatively straightforward situation, but they may be accommodated within the model. Models in games and other forms of social simulations rarely address the multiple ways that the world may be perceived emotionally.

A predominant approach in cognitive science of emotions has been to view emotions as arising from a palette of “basic emotions.” This has been supported by many authors, including Oatley and Johnson-Laird. These perspectives tend to perceive basic emotions as “low level” feelings such as anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, surprise (from Ekman et al., 1982). These are chosen based on actions and behaviors, universal facial expressions, instincts, etc. The view of these emotions as basic is inconsistent with the theory of emotions as valenced reactions. They poke a few holes in the basic emotion theories, especially with the conflation of anger with distress, or anger with aggression, and avoidance with fear. Anger especially is given as a complex and joint reaction: as a combination of distress and reproach, unlike other theories which describe it as basic. There is also a conflation of emotions with mental states, although this is particular to the definition of emotion given by the authors.

Mental states can lead to valenced reactions, but are not necessarily reactions in of themselves. An example given by the authors is abandonment. The state of being abandoned is not an emotion until the individual reacts to that state. Furthermore, the type of reaction can be dramatically different depending on how the individual construes the reception of the state. Mental states can affect emotions, for instance, surprise is a state, but it tends to intensify emotions that react to the surprising event.

The Cognitive Psychology of Appraisal

This section is on appraisal, which is how situations are interpreted, so as to enable valenced reactions. Appraisal operates on three levels: motivation, standards, and attitudes. The authors first discuss appraisal as it connects to motivations (which are generally referred to as goals). Motivation is also a good term, due to the depth given by Maslow. Goals on their own tend to be rather shallow, dwelling on one thing at a time. The focus at the moment is on goals. The authors acknowledge that goals as employed in life tend to be spontaneous as opposed to planned. They suggest that a goal structure as might be imagined by a person is “virtual”, meaning that it is self-perceived. This gives some flexibility, enabling a certain freedom in how individuals might imagine their goals as to construe reactions to them. In this sense, goals are imagined. A virtual goal structure may be improperly formed (subgoals may not lead to completion of supergoals) and the goals themselves may not even be what the individual wants.

The virtual goal structure forms a graph reminiscent of planning systems. Nodes (goals) relate to each other by links that describe necessity, sufficiency, inhibition, and so on. The framework which is used later is borrowed from Schank and Abelson. The different goals are Active Pursuit, Interest, and Replenishment (A, I, R). An active pursuit goal would be something that the agent is engaged in pursuing, an interest goal is something that the agent wants to occur (it may even be something impossible for the agent to achieve on its own!), and a replenishment goal is something which must be renewed with some regularity (such as satisfying hunger). Appraisal of motivation and goals relates to the emotions which are reactions to events. These affect the emotional dimension of desirability. Goals are usually desired, but an agent may have goals for things not to occur, which would make those events be undesired.

Standards, like goals, may not necessarily be consistent. Standards tie into the appraisal of agents, who may conform with the observer’s standards or not. The degree of conforming ties into the emotional variable of approval. Standards are complicated to formulate, but very flexible, especially in consideration of cultural value systems. Some examples of standards given by the authors are “one ought to take care of other people’s things.” So, in fictional domains, for instance, characters might have wildly different morals and standards, and these would affect how characters approve or disapprove of each other. Events which bear on standards can also be reacted to on their own, and yield event related emotions. Attitudes are much more obtuse, and relate to personal tastes. Attitudes affect the attraction emotions, which focus on objects rather than events or agents.

Desirability ties into goals, but also expectations. Appraisal of an event is done in perspective. The authors give an event of an IRS refund of $100, which would be desirable if one expected nothing or to owe money, but would be less desirable than a refund of $300. Praiseworthiness relates to standards, and because it relates to agents, a central variable is responsibility. An agent must be considered responsible in order to be accountable to standards. This perception of responsibility may not be rational (such as blaming the dog that ate your birthday cake, or the computer program that erased your paper), but it is consistent with our understanding of intentionality.

Appealingness reflects attitudes. An attitude is a disposition, which is not an emotion alone. One may have a disposition to like ice cream, but this does not indicate an emotion on its own, rather it indicates the potential for an emotion when ice cream is present. The relation between attitudes, dispositions, and emotions are difficult to express in language because common usage tends to conflate the concepts.

The Intensity of Emotions

There are 4 global variables that affect the intensity of emotion. Local variables are ones that affect the individual emotions themselves. Global variables affect all emotions that one might experience at a given moment. The authors divide between local and global intensity variables based on isolatability. Variables ought to be independent and not modulate each other.

  1. Sense of reality. When the eliciting conditions are perceived as real, the emotions are more intense. This has to do with both literal understanding of reality (the plane might be delayed, versus the plane is delayed), as well as a sense of investment. If an aspiring author wants to write a best-selling novel, then the emotions associated with the success of the novel will be relative to whether the author considers the project to be realistic or a fantasy.
  2. Proximity (psychological). Proximity relates to factors such as time, so emotions pertaining to remembered events are less strong than the experience of the events. Proximity also relates to psychological nearness, as relates to reactions to consequences for others. Proximity can be an issue in the case of reactions to tragedies in far away places, or good or bad things happening to strangers.
  3. Unexpectedness. Unexpectedness relates to both likelihood and suddenness. Reactions to a sudden catastrophe is more intense than one that was forseen (although the emotions themselves may change from shock to self-reproach). The disappointment at losing at the lottery is less severe because loss is expected, than say being rejected from a job application which seemed very likely. The intensity due to unexpectedness has much to do with the perceived normality of the situation.
  4. Arousal. Arousal is the total experience of emotions that one has experienced over a period of time. Gradually, arousal dissipates, but successive reactions can increase arousal, which will in turn, increase the intensity of subsequent reactions. The authors give an example of someone who is preparing breakfast for his family, but everything goes wrong. He burns the toast, forgets to start the coffee soon enough, overcooks the eggs, and so on. These events lead to reactions which ultimately cause a great deal of frustration. He might slam cabinet doors or speak rudely to people. The situation may be attributed as events, or as agents (either the cook or the appliances are agents which are behaving irresponsibly), and these reactions may activate scripts about personal failure and inadequacy.

The chief local variables are desirability, praiseworthiness, and appealingness, as discussed in the previous section. The authors introduce further local variables that pertain to other emotion types:

  1. Desirability: event based emotions. (pleased/displeased)
  2. Praiseworthiness: attribution emotions. (approving/disapproving)
  3. Appealingness: attraction emotions. (liking/disliking)
  4. Desirability for other: fortunes of others. Whether the event is desirable for the other.
  5. Deservingness: fortunes of others. Whether the other “deserves” the event.
  6. Liking: fortunes of others. Whether the other is liked or not. These distinguish between: happy-for, pity, gloating (schadenfreude), and resentment.
  7. Likelihood: prospect emotions. (hope/fear)
  8. Effort: prospect emotions. How much effort the individual invested in the outcome.
  9. Realization: prospect emotions. The actual resulting outcome. These distinguish between: relief, disappointment, satisfaction, and fears-confirmed.
  10. Strength of identification: attribution emotions. The stronger one identifies with the other, that distinguishes between whether pride or admiration is felt.
  11. Expectation of deviation: attribution emotions. Distinguishes whether the other is expected to act in the manner deserving of admiration or reproach. These distinguish between: pride, shame, admiration, reproach.
  12. Familiarity: attraction emotions. (love/hate)

Reactions to Events: I

The authors give a fine grain analysis that explores specific context of emotion instances. Loss is a specific instance of distress in this typology, and other emotions, that are kinds of losses derive accordingly. Grief is loss of a loved one, homesick is loss of the comforts of home, loneliness is loss of social contact, lovesick is loss of the object of romantic love, regret is loss of opportunity (p. 91). These may be considered different emotions in the sense of emotion words, but derive from the same kinds of experiences, the same kinds of reactions.

Reactions to Events: II

The authors give a table of relative outcomes matched with prospects and expectations. This lends to a mix of prospect and well being emotions. (p. 129)

Prospect Outcome Emotions
-$1000 -$1400 fears confirmed ($1000)
unexpected distress ($400)
-$1000 fears confirmed ($1000)
-$400 relief ($600)
fears confirmed ($400)
$0 relief($1000)
+$400 relief($1000)
unexpected joy ($400)
+$1000 +$1400 satisfaction ($1000)
unexpected joy ($100)
+$1000 satisfaction ($1000)
+$400 disappointment ($600)
satisfaction ($400)
$0 disappointment ($1000)
-$400 disappointment ($1000)
unexpected distress ($400)
Reading Info:
Author/EditorOrtony, A.; Clore, Gerald; Collins, Allan
TitleThe Cognitive Structure of Emotion
Tagssocial simulation, ai, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon


  1. […] Ortony, Clore and Collins assume that emotions develop as a consequence of certain cognitions and interpretations. Their theory exclusively concentrates on the cognitive elicitors of emotions. They postulate that three aspects determine these cognitions: events, agents, and objects. The main objective of their research is to investigate the possibility to design a formal system or a computer that is able to draw conclusions about emotional episodes which are presented to it. […]

    Pingback by Publishing emotions | [ AOS ] Art is Open Source — February 1, 2010 @ 1:21 pm

  2. […] Ortony, Clore and Collins assume that emotions develop as a consequence of certain cognitions and interpretations. Their theory exclusively concentrates on the cognitive elicitors of emotions. They postulate that three aspects determine these cognitions: events, agents, and objects. The main objective of their research is to investigate the possibility to design a formal system or a computer that is able to draw conclusions about emotional episodes which are presented to it. […]

    Pingback by Publishing emotions « interstices — February 1, 2010 @ 1:29 pm

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