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Modalities of Emotion


Explanations > Emotions > Modalities of Emotion

Physiological arousal | Motor expression | Conscious sensation | Action tendencies | Cognitive processing | Combinations | So what


'Modalities' are components or variables. Emotions can be observed and measured along several of these, as below.

Physiological arousal

Emotions lead to changes in the physical body, from sweating, increased heart rate and blood pressure to reddening of the cheeks and dilation of the pupils.

Arousal is caused by the release of neurotransmitters such as epinephrine which flood the brain and body and prepare us for action.

Arousal is also sometimes simplified using a temperature metaphor to 'hot' and 'cold'. An aroused, emotional state is warm or hot and a low arousal state is cool or cold. This works well in communication as an aroused person may well feel hotter, for example when the fight-or-flight reaction has been triggered.

Motor expression

Physical expression of emotions is displayed in Body Language and we display much of what we are feeling through the shapes we create with our bodies and, particularly, our facial expressions.

Conscious sensation

Emotional expression leads to us consciously feeling some kind of sensation that we can then link to the situation.

Although we feel happy, afraid, angry and so on, it can be quite difficult to actually describe what this is like. If you ask a happy person to say exactly how they feel, they will likely look puzzled and say 'well...happy!'

There has been some debate amongst the various theories about emotion as to whether labels we put on our feelings come before or after arousal.

Action tendencies

Arousal and motor expression are often done without conscious decision as the subconscious mind takes over initial reactions. This is particularly true of rapid reactions designed through evolution to keep us safe. When a tiger leaps at you, you do not have time to ponder your options. The motor cortex in the brain is stimulated, the peripheral Nervous System is actuated and we cower or flee in fear, fight with anger and so on.

Emotions can not only subconsciously trigger action, they can also more subtly prod us to make conscious choices. Thus when we feel fear we may not just react but still feel like running away.

Cognitive processing

Emotions often lead to much thinking. We may wonder why we are afraid or in love and what make deliberate choice about the actions we take.

We also tend to post-rationalize, explaining emotions and blaming what we did on our emotional state at the time.


Emotions may be felt across a range of intensity, from mild to overpowering. The greater the intensity of the emotion, the more it displaces cognitive processing. Some conditions will amplify intensity, for example music, which is why it is often used in movies, with strong music accompanying emotionally powerful scenes. Xu et al (2013) found that emotions are also felt more intensely under bright lights, with effects such as greater optimism on sunny days and a greater tendency to depression in dark, gloomy days.


How many of these do you need to guarantee an emotion is happening? Some same one, but the more you have the more certain you can be.

The subconscious 'Reaction Triad' is composed of physiological arousal, motor expression and subjective feelings.

So what?

When working with emotions consider all of these. What physiological changes can you see? What is the person's tendency to action? What might they be thinking?

See also

Five Dimensions of Emotion, Cannon-Bard Theory of Emotion, Cognitive Appraisal Theories of Emotion, James-Lange Theory of Emotion


Xu, A.J. and Labroo, A.A. (2013). Incandescent affect: Turning on the hot emotional system with bright light, Journal of Consumer Psychology, 24, 2, 207–216


Scherer, K. R. (2000). Emotion. In M. Hewstone & W. Stroebe (Eds.). Introduction to Social Psychology: A European perspective (3rd. ed., pp. 151-I 91). Oxford: Blackwell

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