Affect Week, Part 1: Silvan Tomkins

Angry kitty by Tambako the Jaguar on FlickrThe cat above is something I imagine most readers would see only in a zoo or animal sanctuary, but even still, you might find its threatening face quite scary. Your attention would be drawn to the tiger, temporarily losing focus on everything else in your environment. You’d even be able to feel the fear before could actually name what caused it.

Such reactions are great examples of the power of affect — it draws our attention to important stimuli in our environments and gives us information about them (like, “hey, there’s something here that might try eat me!”) faster than our conscious cognitive processes could allow.

This kind of reaction is also a good demonstration of Silvan Tomkins‘s theory of affect.

For this post, I am working primarily from Vernon Kelly’s (2009) summary of Silvan Tomkins’s work. Tomkins’s multi-volume work on affect, Affect, Imagery, Consciousness has become a classic in the field. Yet I had trouble finding a copy (the first volume is being sent via interlibrary loan, but that means I won’t see it for at least a week still). I will do my best to describe Tomkins’s theory, but please forgive the errors I will undoubtedly make for relying on what is essentially a 24-page abstract of much, much larger work.

The concept of affect is hard to pin down and define exactly outside the context of a particular theory. What makes it different from (or the same as) similar concepts, such as emotion or feeling? For Tomkins, affect was the biological component of this network of concepts — a response of the central nervous system to a particular stimulus. It is through affect that any particular stimulus enters one’s conscious awareness. Feeling, in contrast, is our conscious experience of affect, and emotion is a kind of personal overlay onto affect that uses one’s cultural or personal history in interpreting the affect.

For example, my first response to seeing the tiger above would be affective fear — a fast increase in rain activity accompanied by widened eyes, paleness in my face, and the hair on my neck sticking up. This would bring the tiger into my consciousness, and I would probably also become conscious of the feeling of fear. However, my subjective experience of fear would depend somewhat on how I had experienced fear in the past, or how my family had taught me to express fear.

Tomkins identified nine affects (that give rise to a great variety of unique emotional experiences), interest, enlightenment-joy, surprise, fear-terror, distress-anguish, anger-rage, disgust, dissmell, and shame. He argued that each of these affects was an adaptation — a product of human evolution that was favored by natural selection because they motivated useful behavior in response to the environment. These affects were characterized by four important properties: whether it was a positive, negative, or neutral affect; whether brain activity increased, decreased, or remained steady; how it was expressed on the face, and the stimulus condition that elicited it.

I’ll write about each of Tomkins’s affects and a few of my own thoughts about his theory tomorrow. Edit: That post is now up.


Kelly, V. C. (2009).  A primer of affect psychology. Lewisburg, PA: The Tomkins Institute. Retrieved from:


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