Robert Zajonc’s Theory of Affective Primacy

Cognition and emotion. These two concepts have often been considered separately, although most people often think of them as related aspects: emotion results from the evaluation of cognitively processed information.

But it is also possible that emotional reactions are spontaneous and it is only after the emotion that information processing allows us to make sense of these reactions. Many authors have defended one position or another, and several models and theories have been developed. One of them is Robert Zajonc’s theory of emotional primacy..

Brief preamble: a generic definition of emotion

To understand Robert Zajonc’s theory of affective primacy, it may be useful to briefly review the concept of emotion.

Defining the concept of emotion is really complex, as it is easy to confuse with other terms and has many nuances to consider. Generally speaking, emotion can be defined as this type of affection or mental state of short duration and related to the stimulation that generates it which prepares us for certain types of action and allows us to adapt to the mig.

They can be considered as subjective reactions, of physiological origin and oriented towards a concrete goal still unconscious., Which allow us to mobilize the energies of our body in order to respond to external or internal phenomena and to express our feelings.

This concept has been explored by several authors and there has sometimes been speculation about the relationship between emotion and cognition. Some authors have considered that the first precedes the second, as expressed by Zajonc’s theory of affective primacy.

Zajonc’s emotional primacy theory: a controversial position

Zajonc’s theory of affective primacy proposes, in exchange for most theories, that emotion and cognition are two independent processes. In fact, the theory proposes that the affective reaction to a stimulus or emotion occurs and precedes the cognitive reaction or cognitive processing. Even, these emotions can appear without any cognitive processing.

Zajonc relies on the presence of differentiated structures that support emotional and cognitive processes, such as the limbic system and the basal ganglia and the frontal cortex.

This theory offers different aspects that support part of his theoretical model and the author even offers situations in which it is obvious that emotion arises before information can be cognitively processed.

Aspects that support this theory

Zajonc’s affective primacy theory is supported by various arguments, which reflect that it is true that emotion precedes cognition in some cases.

First, one of the points at which we can consider how emotion can precede cognition is observed in our own developmental process. When we are babies we are still unable to perform cognitive processing that allows us to interpret situations, however emotional reactions such as fear, anxiety or satisfaction have been shown.

Additionally, while cognition develops slowly throughout development, core emotions are activated early on, largely resulting in innate and inherited from our ancestors.

Another point on which the theory of affective primacy is based is the fact that the emotional reaction to an event occurs faster than the period of time, we need to process it cognitively. If, for example, we experience physical pain, our physical and emotional reactions will be immediate.

Brain and emotion

Based on biological arguments, Zajonc points out that there are specialized brain structures in emotional processing and cognitive processing., Resulting in subcortical structures mainly related to the emotional and cortical to the cognitive.

Likewise, emotions can be generated from artificial methods without altering the subject’s cognition (as with psychotropic drugs related to mood disorders).

The fact that we cannot verbalize our affective states or why we have them is another point that defends the proposition of the theory of affective primacy: if we cannot explain it, it is because we have not. not cognitively processed these sensations and why they are there.

It also highlights the fact that we can change the way we think without it changing our feelings and emotions and vice versa. In other words, that is to say i can change my way of thinking and i want to change how i feel about it, but no success. Likewise, I can feel a certain way with a specific subject even though cognitively we assess it in a way that is at odds with our emotion.

current consideration

If globally today they tend to have a more cognitive vision and in which we consider that there is a bidirectional relationship between cognition and emotion, the truth is that certain aspects of Zajonc’s primacy theory have been observed and taken into account.

It is even possible to consider that certain phenomena have their origin in a pre-cognitive emotional processing. For example, the effect of a simple exposure in which the fact of being in contact with a certain stimulus or subject leads us to a better predisposition towards it without our being able to determine the why.

Today it is accepted that emotions can arise, it is that there is a conscious cognitive processing, but the idea that there is an independence between emotion and cognition is not fully accepted. . In realityThat there is no conscious processing of information does not mean that it is not carried out at an unconscious level., Which could generate phenomena such as intuition.

Bibliographical references:

  • Higueras, B. and Muñoz, JJ (2012). Basic psychology. CEDE PIR preparation manual, 08. CEDE: Madrid
  • Léon, D. (2014). Emotions in old age: age-related differences. Doctoral thesis. Department of Biological and Health Psychology. Faculty of Psychology. Autonomous University of Madrid.
  • Palmero, F., Fernández-Abascal, EG, Martínez, F. and Chóliz, M. (Eds.) (2002). Psychology of motivation and emotion. Madrid: McGraw-Hill
  • Zajonc, RB; Murphy ST and Inglehart, M. (1989) Sentiment and facial efference: implications of the vascular theory of emotion. Psychological review vol. 96, No. 3, 395-416.

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