Affect Week, Part 2: Silvan Tomkins’s Affects

Yesterday, I wrote about how Silvan Tomkins conceptualized affect as a biological response to a stimulus. Tomkins argued that there were nine such affects, each the result of natural selection. He divided these affects according to whether they were positive or negative, their physiological characteristics, and the stimulus conditions that create them. Tomkins’s nine affects are interest, enjoyment-joy, surprise, fear-terror, distress-anguish, anger-rage, disgust, dissmell, and shame.

Positive Affects

Positive affects are rewarding and they motivate us to continue doing what we were doing.

Stormy Daniels by Thomas Hawk on FlickrInterest is a positive affect elicited by novel stimuli. When someone is interested, her brain activity increases slightly, her eyebrows lower, and she becomes alert to the stimulus by tracking it with her eyes and listening to it. Novel stimuli, such as a clever turn of phrase, activate our interest.


This is June by Stuck in Customs on FlickrTomkins characterized enjoyment-joy in terms of a spectrum of intensity. They are the same positive affect, but joy is a much more intense form than enjoyment. Brain activity decreases rapidly when someone feels enjoyment-joy, and she smiles, widening the lips and turning them up. The stimulus conditions for joy-enjoyment vary, but they can be anything from a sudden relief from pain to the sudden reduction in pleasure, such as after an orgasm (Sedgwick & Frank, 1995).

Neutral Affect

Surprised Spider by KRHamm on FlickrTomkins identified only one neutral affect: Surprise. Like interest, surprise is marked by an increase by brain activity — but a much more rapid one. This is immediately followed by a rapid decrease; the eyebrows go up, the moth forms an ‘O,’ and the eyes blink. Unlike the positive and negative affects, surprise is not motivating. We can be surprised by both good and bad things. It’s better to figure out whether something surprising is helpful or harmful before acting. Surprise is often quickly followed by a different affect, one that is motivating.

Negative Affects

Tomkins identified many more negative than positive affects, arguing that avoiding harm was more important than pursuing pleasure in survival. Negative affects, then, are punishing and motivate one to stop doing whatever one was doing when the affect occurred.

Aie! they will see you! by Julie70 on FlickrFear-terror is the affect you would feel encountering a tiger like the one in yesterday’s post. I’ve already mentioned that it’s characterized by an increase in brain activity, as is interest. Given that these emotions are distinguished by the rate of increase (fear is faster than interest), it’s not surprising that they are sometimes felt close together, such as on a roller coaster ride or in a scary movie. A stimulus condition for fear is something that causes brain activity to increase too fast for interest to register but not fast enough for surprise.

Damsel in Distress by sleepyjeanie on FlickrSteady brain activity is associated with two different negative affects, the first of which is distress-anguish. This affect is expressed through crying, arched eyebrows, and a frown. Distress is elicited by an ongoing, steady stimulus, such as a constant humming noise or the need to use the toilet.


Angry Chris by dave_apple on FlickrThe other affect associated with steady brain activity is anger-rage, which occurs when brain activity is even denser. Because of these affects’ similarity, some of the same stimuli that can cause distress-anguish can also cause anger-rage when they made more intense. If, instead of a low hum background noise, you heard a constant, loud noise, such as your neighbor’s awful music, you might become angry, not just distressed. Anger has a distinct facial express from distress: the frown stays, but the jaw clenches and the skin becomes red.

Disgusting by orphanjones on FlickrDisgust, which I discussed a little in my post on foreign ideas and moral indigestion, is triggered when something is foul-tasting. It prompts us to reject food or waste that might harm us, and there is increasing evidence that disgust is elicited by ideas or actions that we morally oppose and is implicated in the ritualized behavior seen in obsessive compulsive disorder. The disgust face is characterized by leaning the face forward, pressing the upper lip down, and sticking out one’s tongue.

Smelled Something Bad by N8tr0n on FlickrTomkins identified an affect similar to disgust, which he called dissmell. The two have a similar purpose, but whereas disgust is triggered by foul tastes, dissmell is triggered by foul odors. It has a different facial expression, including nose wrinkling and moving the head back rather than forward. I did not find many references to dissmell in the literature, so I get the impression that it is not as well studied as disgust. I admit that my intuition is that they do not seem sufficiently different, but I would like to see evidence either way.

blush! by snigl3t on FlickrShame-humiliation is Tomkins’s final affect, but he didn’t use the word “shame” the way that you or I would normally use it. Instead, Tomkins’s shame, which includes the usual definition but also more, is triggered by the abrupt end of enjoyment or interest. It’s easy to see how this could apply to what we normally think of as shame: you’re having fun joking around with friends until you tell a joke that offends someone in the group; suddenly, you are no longer feeling enjoyment and are feeling shame instead. Tomkins argued that the same affect is triggered in this situation as in a situation when, say, a child’s toy is taken away while he is playing with it or when your interest in a book is suddenly interrupted. Our emotional reactions to these situations may be different, but, for Tomkins, the affect experienced is the same. Whether the emotional experience is one of shame, frustration, or annoyance, the facial expression is the same: the eyes look down, head slumps, and cheeks go red.

These nine are the affects Tomkin’s proposed. I am impressed with several aspects of Tomkins’s affect theory, notably his emphasis on the evolutionary function of affect as distinct from the cultural and personal experience that differ among people and groups. Yet, his theory is couched in language that has become outdated within experimental psychology, such as reference to Freudian drive theories. Although Tomkins’s work is a significant departure from Freud’s, it is still bound by the psychoanalytic tradition from which Tomkin’s came. The use of brain activation as a general state also does not accord with current accounts of neuroscience, which are more concerned about activation of specific brain regions or structures than in brain activity in whole. Still, Tomkins’s work is an excellent place to start in study of affect because it has merits of its own and has had great influence over what has come since he started writing Affect, Imagery, Consciousness.

Of course, this is my perspective as a social psychologist-in-training. Greg Downey of Neuroanthropology has written about Tomkins’s importance to anthropology.



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

Sedgwick, E. K., & Frank, A. (1995). Shame and its sisters: A Silvan Tomkins reader. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.


5 Comments to “Affect Week, Part 2: Silvan Tomkins’s Affects”

  1. Erika, fun stuff – how we ‘react’ is how we evolved. Are you familiar with Cris Evatt’s blog on how we ‘respond’? (my choice of distinction here) Cris is on a dead-end mission trying to prove the untenable thesis that man has no free will, but has succeeded in collecting a most entertaining collection of ’50 brain biases’ (ie.: ways our decisions get skewed in common situations)
    From her post: ‘The biases are energy efficient: There’s only so much information that can be analyzed by our brains before a cognitive load maximum is reached, and in the lead-up to that load, our critical-thinking faculties get sloppier. That’s when mental short-cuts, like the brain biases, are useful.’

  2. No, I wasn’t aware of Cris Evatt’s site. Very interesting. Thanks for pointing it out. A quick looks suggests that many of the biases are pretty well-established fare of the various cognitive sciences. I’m not that well versed on the philosophical free will debate, but I admit I am disinclined toward any sort of contra-causal free will. But several people who I greatly admire as thinkers espouse at least some form of free will (however they define it), so I don’t hold my position on it too firmly; certainly, there could be something other than the phenomenological experience of consciousness that makes others accept it.

  3. Not new, but I liked how she brought them together. Lacking free will, not one experiment could be designed. Nothing new could come about save by random chance (as biological evolution). I suspect we never could have developed consciousness, as it would have no utility. Nor would language.

    • Something need not be useful in itself to come about through evolution (it could accompany or be a byproduct of something else which is useful). I’m not sure how free will is necessary for language, consciousness, or experimentation.

  4. Will is necessary for consciousness to have any utility (I should be careful here, this is not any idealized ‘free’ will, but limited will – we cannot decide to be other than human, to make other than human decisions). Awareness is useless without the ability to make choices on its account. With language, every word is deliberate. Groans and moans may stem from instinct, but not one word of language, not one keystroke on your computer is directed by instinct – only will gives us words – and English gives us many options on words for any one meaning. Any design or plan, for anything, requires deliberate decisions. Just ‘doing’ results in relative stasis – repeating what’s been done for generations – seriously, the behavioral complexity of a flower. Evolution may not require anything to be useful, but it strongly favors useful along with punishing waste.

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