Motivation and emotion/Book/2015/Extreme emotions as motivation

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Extreme emotion as motivation:
What is the motivational role of extreme emotion?


"Let's not forget that the little emotions are the great captains of our lives and we obey them without realizing it..." - (Vincent Van Gogh)

Our lives are spent in motion. We dream, we play, we laugh and we cry. Underlying these major movements in life are the things that drive us, that push us and that set the course for our lives. Our motivation is at the core of our being. It is the phenomena that gives our behaviour energy, direction and motion. We are also creatures of deep feeling, of passion, strength, courage. Of sadness, rage and despair. Our emotions are functions that are reactive and causal to the situations around us, the environment and people we interact with and our internal biology. As such, emotions that fall at the extreme ends of what are normally felt serve to remind us that extreme emotions are a fundamental part of the visceral and rich experience that is human life.

What is emotion?[edit]

Emotion is a term that has driven a great deal of research and inquiry. There is no clear consensus between researchers on what constitutes emotion. It is multi-faceted and thought to contain aspects of:

  • acute responses to stimuli
  • neurological arousal
  • outward expression of response.
  • internalization of response (Cabanc, 2002).

The most common definitions refer to the James-Lange theory of emotion, first mentioned in literature in the 1920s. This seminal paper suggested that emotion is an organic process that involved the nervous system. This was later developed by researchers to suggest that emotion is a function of the Limbic system and represented the Insula, a part of the inner cortex (Delton & Sell, 2014).

Most broadly emotion represents a mixture of our internal states, our environment, our biology and our motivation. Once combined, these form “emotion” and it is evaluated often by how this is expressed by people (Lindquist, Wager, Bliss-Moreau, Kober & Barret, 2012; Oosterwijk et al, 2012).

What is motivation?[edit]

Motivation has a much more concrete definition. Motivation is the internal processes that begin to lead a person to behave in a particular way. It is a process that can only be inferred from external observation (Baumeister & Voh, 2007).

This area of study has historical underpinnings stemming from B.F Skinner’s principles of operant conditioning in which an action will lead to a consequence. Reinforcing the action that leads to the consequence will eventually produce a reliable pattern of behaviour and the incentive will often predict and “motivate” the behaviour (Kileen & Pellon, 2013).

Hull’s drive reduction theory suggested that any being (animal or human) is motivated by a physiological deficit. You are thirsty, your body triggers a thirst response, you arise and get a drink, the drive to drink is reduced and the body returns to homeostasis. This theory was concerned mainly with the biological processes that drive our observable actions and behaviours (Mills, 1978; Wykoff, 1959).

A popular, modern explanation for the phenomena that is motivation was suggested by Deci & Ryan in 2007. They believe in everyday life, people experience two distinct types of motivation:

  • Intrinsic motivation – behaviour that is internally satisfying and interesting. Curiosity, interest and self-reward drive intrinsic motivation.
  • Extrinsic Motivation – behaviour is externally motivated, involving a reward of some type or avoidance of a negative consequence (Deci and Ryan, 2007).

There are many other motivation theories, all concerned with different areas of cognition, perception and observable examples of what drives motivational forces in our everyday lives.

A Brief Overview of the History of Motivation and Emotion[edit]

Listed below are a selection of the influential and popular theories that directed research into Motivation and Emotion

Psychoanalytic Theory - Freud's suggestion that motivation arises from interaction between the Ego, Id and Superego

Drive Theory - Hull's theory suggesting motivation arises out of physiological deprivation and seeking to return the body to homeostasis

Behaviourism - B.F Skinner's Operant Conditioning, where interactions that are reinforced increase the likelihood of behavior reoccurring. Reinforcement lends itself to generating motivational direction and sustained action.

Social Learning Theory - Rotter's suggestion that behavior is a manifestation of learned interaction with the environment and other people within that environment. When the person is in control, their directed behavior has motive. When control is beyond reach, motivation is impeded.

Achievement Motivation - Atkinson's theory of achievement suggested that motive to achieve is encouraged in childhood and directly reflects positive reinforcement and success. He developed a mathematical formula to account for the desire to achieve vs the desire to avoid failure. This forumla is as follows, Tendency to achieve (Ts). Ts = Ms X Ps X Is, where Ms is the need for achievement also called the motive for success, Ps is the probability of success and Is is the incentive value of success. The tendency to avoid failure is also evaluated. The motive to avoid failure (MAF), the expectancy of failure (Pf), and finally the incentive value of failure (If). Taf = Maf X Pf X If. Atkinson's final forumla combines the two aspects of success versus failure to suggest overall attutude to achievement (Ta) = (Ms X Ps X Is) + (Maf X Pf X If). If achievement motivation is moderate, optimal levels of motivation occur.

Attribution Theory - Attribution theory states that individuals attempt to understand what causes events that occur. They examine their own personal state and the state of the environment as well. Attribution theory states that people try to understand what causes events and behaviors in the world by considering personal and environmental forces. This work was further refined during the 1960's to include certain aspects of causality: the locus - internal vs external, stability - stable vs unstable and control - controllable vs uncontrollable. A combination of these factors lead to the experience of motivation

Self-Determination Theory - Deci and Ryan's suggestion that optimal experience occurs when human beings have autonomy and are free to set goals and their behaviour, competence at tasks and encouragement towards mastery and relatedness. Motivation is then broken down into two seperate states; external or extrinsic motivation or internal, intrinsic motivation

(Bernard, Walsh, Mills & Swenson, 2005).

James-Lange Theory of Emotion – this early theory suggested that emotions evolved out of a response to physiological stimuli. You see a lion, your heart races and you feel fear. Emotions are secondary to the physiological response.

Cannon-Bard Theory – Cannon’s theory rose out of response to the James-Lange theory. He believed that physiological responses alone could not account for the richness and vastness of human emotion. He suggested that it is a simultaneous process between the brain, environmental stimuli and experience that produces emotions. Bard contributed to this theory through his research into animals which support Cannon’s hypotheses.

Two-Factor Theory – Schatcher’s two-factor theory further built upon Cannon-Bard theory and earlier work by Spanish doctor Gregorio Maranon. It continued to investigate physiological link between emotions. Most famously, Schatcher injected patients with epinephrine and asked them to report what they were feeling. He discovered that people could have different emotions despite being in the same situation. This formed the early stages of cognitive appraisal.

Cognitive Appraisal – Lazrus’s pioneered cognitive appraisal suggesting that the experience of emotion is a three-fold process. Cognitive appraisal in which an event is examined, physiological changes occur such as a heightened arousal, shallow breathing, and increased blood pressure. Finally a person is spurred to action. Lazurus proposed that this process occurs both consciously and unconsciously

(Dror, 2014; Moor, 2014; Wassman 2014).

The extremes of emotion - anger and fear[edit]

Figure 1. Just as light can vary in its brightness and intensity so can emotions - from anger to rage and happiness to bliss.

Emotion is a complex area with many different theories and perspectives. However, the consensus across researchers is that there is a number of “primary” emotions. Plutchik suggested that this forms a wheel of primary emotions that, when combined or experienced, form what we consciously recognise as being human. Most distinct of the 8 identifiable emotions are Anger and Fear (Plutchik, 2002; Smith & Schneider, 2009).

Figure ... Anger arises under a number of circumstances. Here it is displayed during a protest.
"Anger is just anger. It isn't good. It isn't bad. It just is. What you do with it is what matters. It's like anything else. You can use it to build or to destroy. You just have to make the choice." - ( Jim Butcher)


The first of the common extreme emotions is Anger; a naturally occurring and biologically based emotion common across humans from different cultural backgrounds. It varies in intensity from mild irritations through to severe manifestations, namely rage. It occurs on a cognitive level where people perceive threats, over-predict other people’s actions and over-sensitivity to violations[factual?]. It also is a physiologically based response with activation occurring in the sympathetic nervous system[factual?]. Increased blood pressure, heart rate, skin conductivity and muscle tension are physical reactions of the human body when experiencing anger[factual?].

This emotion serves a particularly strong motivational role, with anger serving a function that draws together emotional and physical resources to deal with real and perceived threats within the environment. The heightened arousal allows for the brain to react instantaneously to threats. However, when this natural response remains heightened and prolonged it begins to lead to dysfunctional, problematic and maladaptive behaviours (Reifen-Tager, Frederico, Halperin, 2011).

Whilst everyone experiences anger at some point during their life, it is when this emotion continues to malinger that it ascends into an extreme representation. It is this extreme anger that serves to create aspects of hate crimes and racism. There is early research to suggest that this also serves to develop some of the underlying motivations behind terrorism. It has been proposed that prolonged heightened anger towards foreign occupation lends itself to developing a deep seeded hatred and that this anger toward these perceived invaders drives their motivation to commit acts of terror including suicide bombing, arson and killing of civilians and military personnel (Dunkel, Waterman, Schwartz, 2009; Kruglanski, Chen, Dechesne, Fishman & Orehek, 2009). This also occurs with racism with anger at perceived violations of one ethnic group against another[factual?]. Hate crimes are undertaken to cause harm to a rival ethnic or social group; usually the victims are strangers and the attacks are designed to damage and denigrate the group as a whole. This anger and hatred fuels the motivation to cause harm and commit violent act (Ikuenobe, 2011; Saucier, Hockett & Wallenberg, 2008).

Apply your knowledge – anger in the real world

Suzanne is a middle aged retail worker. She works with a variety of people from all ethnic backgrounds. She has been working for the same company for the past 20 years and has seen many people come and go. However, recently a number of international students have passed through the business. Often she feels that their English is poor and their communication stilted and hard to understand. Initially this caused mild annoyance and anger, her record as a department manager was being challenged routinely by poor performance from all team members. As time has gone by she has begun to blame all her work-related stresses on international students with poor English skills. She is openly hostile and defensive towards new employees of any ethnic background who display with poor English skills.

She has allowed her anger to devolve and intensify to a level of extremes. This extreme prolonged anger has caused racism.

Figure ... Fear occurs under a number of circumstances, the main uniting theme is that a person perceives a threat.
""You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, 'I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.' You must do the thing you think you cannot do."" - Eleanor Roosevelt


The second emotion that produces an extreme response is fear. It occurs in a very similar manner to Anger, with the presence of a threat causing a significant physiological change that prepares a person to react. Where anger spurs individuals to action, preparing them to fight and defend, fear is a response to an event or interaction that is current or perceived to have the potential to occur in the future. This event has a significant risk to an individual’s life, health, security or anything of value. It is a danger that causes the body to be ready for either confrontation or flee (fight-or-flight) (Lindquist & Barrett, 2008). Much like anger, fear causes distinct changes in the body including

  • Increased rate of breathing
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Goosebumps
  • Sweating
  • Increased alertness
  • Dyspepsia

In extreme cases, fear can completely overwhelm the body and brain resulting in paralysis and this is often seen in individuals who have experienced a traumatic event (such as severe sexual assault, residency in a warzone and environmental disasters) (Hatzimoysis,2014).

Just as anger is motivational, fear too can lead to increase in motivation. Primarily, fear promotes avoidance and escape behaviours, seeking to escape. A great deal of research has occurred into fear and motivation primarily around academic motivations (Putwain & Remedios, 2014). However, extreme fear is usually only present after trauma which is distinctly different from the fear and stress that is caused by exam and university. The prolonged exposure to the flight and flight response has generated interesting results particularly in regards to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (Franz et al, 2013; Zoellner, Pruitt, Farach & Jun, 2014).

It has been revealed that heightened fear responses has the potential to cause changes in the fear activation system, directly linked to the amgydala. In one such study, individuals with distinctly identified fear-based neuroses were investigated with functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging. The study compared them to healthy controls and showed that participants who experience fear display quicker activation in their amygdala to imagery that stimulates their fear, but also had prolonged activation in the amygdala far beyond the removal of the feared stimuli (Killgore et al, 2014). There is also evidence that the anterior cingulate cortex and the hippocampus can be related to long-term losses in memory, as a consequence of heightened awareness and fear (Fani et al, 2012; Marin, Camprodon, Doughterty & Milad, 2014; Thomaes et al, 2013).

Apply your knowledge – fear in the real world

Rhett is a 25 year old victim of sexual assault. In his late teens as he was leaving work one night he was approached by a gang of young men who beat him, violated him and sodomized him. Police became involved and the perpetrators were recently bought to justice. Although this incident happened almost 7 years ago, Rhett still avoids going out at night alone and finds that if he is left alone at night in public that his body reacts and his mind freezes. He is receiving treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and in the process of undertaking Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) to reduce his anxiety levels at night. However, his fear of sexual assault reoccurring often overcomes his mental defenses. He seeks shelter inside buildings that are well lit and will only go out at night if he can drive himself home.

Rhett is displaying extreme levels of fear which motivate his escape and avoidance behaviour.

It is important to note that emotions vary in their intensity and duration. This is referred to as their “affect.” Extreme emotions are an extension of emotional affect and manifest depending on the circumstance. This means that fear can emerge in situations when a person is threatened and anger is a response to a perceived violation or provocations. (Ross, Shayya, Champlain, Monnot & Prodan, 2013.)

Theories of emotion and motivation[edit]

Figure 2. Fight-or-flight reflexes occurs in non-human samples. When animals are threatened by predators, examples of motivation to escape are seen (Cury et al, 2010).

A number of theories offer practical approaches to the extreme emotion continuum. Below are the three dominant theories that offer explanations into why emotions get the better of people and why they degenerate to into maladaptive extremes.

Approach and Avoidance Motivation

Motivation energizes and directs our behaviour, it allows sustained interest. It drives us towards our goals and away from the things that would serve to harm us. One theory that bears striking resemblance to the expression of extreme emotions is Approach and Avoidance. This phenomena shares close links with appetitive and aversive motivation (Eder, Elliot & Harmon-Jones, 2013). Both Approach and Avoidance are aspects of emotional valence, with positive valence correlating with approach and appetitive stimuli and negative valence correlating with avoidance and aversive stimuli (Kreigmeyer, Deutsch, Houwer & Raedt, 2010; Rutherford & Lindell, 2011).

Approach motivation involves behaviour that is directed towards or instigated by a positive and desirable event where conversely avoidance motivation drives an individual away from negative, potentially harmful events in the environment (Corr, 2013; Trew, 2011). Both Anger and Fear are emotions that illicit an avoidance response in individuals. These responses are immediate and ingrained, with anger and fear serving defensive purposes. Most people feel these emotions instinctively, far before they emerge into conscious awareness. These two primary emotions are considered primitive responses (Elliott & Covington, 2001). Preliminary research suggests that anger can also motivate approach-based responses (Aarts et al, 2010). This is an area in research that is still in its infancy so care must be taken when making grand justifications regarding emotions and their motivational causes (Eder, Elliot & Harmon-Jones, 2013).

Gray's Behavioural Activation, Behavioural Inhibition Systems and Fight or Flight reflex

Another suggested theory that allows extreme emotions to motivate behaviour are Gray’s Behaviour Activation System (BAS), Behavioural Inhibition System (BIS) and the Fight or Flight response. These respectively share ties to approach and avoidance motivation. This shares many of the same underlying principles as other behaviourally reactive theories, with the BAS entincing and readying the individual for attractive and positive interactions in the environment, the BIS inhibiting these response and preparing the person to freeze and escape aversive stimuli. Most important of these three suggested systems is the fight or flight response – of which fear and anger are by-products. An animal or person will experience aggression (and anger) responses in the face of a threat, as the brain and body prepares itself to defend. Just as avoidance motivation promotes escape from aversive, negative stimuli so too does the instinctive flight response. In readying the body with fear, an animal or person possesses the necessary physiological and emotional arousal to flee from the perceived threat and danger (Conte, Balconi, Falbo, 2012).

Appraisal - Primary and Secondary Evaluations of Emotions

Appraisal is another important aspect of the intertwining motivation and emotion dichotomy. Without this important cognitive process, it is suggested that emotions would not occur at all. Appraisal allows a person to evaluate, respond and drive the self into action. It is a continuous process that is circular, emotion leads to appraisal and appraisal leads to emotion. As appraisal involves evaluating the positives and negatives of environmental interaction this is particularly important when looking at anger and fear (Tony & Tay, 2011). Appraisal allows the benefit, harm or threat to be evaluated as detrimental or beneficial. This process is further broken down into two stages which end with motivation. This initial stage is the primary appraisal where one evaluates if there is anything to lose, if there is a threat or issue in an encounter. Beyond primary appraisal, secondary appraisal occurs which drives the self into action. This is the culmination of the resources a person has to deal with change as well as react prior experiences that they have had with the environment. This dual process of evaluation drives the behavioral action in secondary appraisal.(Bosch, 2013).

What does this have to do with anger and fear, the emotions that lie at the extreme of the continuum?

It is when these appraisals are taken to extremes that individuals experience issues. Constantly appraising events in an aggressive manner or allowing anxiety to dominate the behavioural responses lends to the development of emotional distress. This once again returns to the notion of valence – is the situation good or bad and if so, how do I respond? When maladaptive it once again opens the door to the dark side of emotion to colour people’s experience. It is within this biased view that anger grows hate, from anxiety grows fear (Ellsworth, 2013).

Test yourself[edit]

How well have you been paying attention while reading this chapter? Try your hand at these questions.



Anger and fear are types of what emotion?



Anger involves what part of the nervous system?

Central Nervous System
External Nervous System
Peripheral Nervous System
Autonomic Nervous System


Which of the following is not a physiological response caused by fear?

Slurred Speech
Sweaty Palms


James-Lange's theory of emotion suggests that?

Physiological responses and emotions occur at the same time
All people experience emotions differently
Punishment causes changes in behaviour
Emotions are necessary for human experience


Emotions vary in their intensity and duration, this is known as what?



Anger and fear are two of our core, basic emotions. They energise our behaviour in a predictable pattern of avoidance and approach. The physiological and biological underpinnings of these behaviours are very similar and involve a trigger in the central nervous system that serves to ready the human for "fight or flight". In itself this instinctual response to stimuli in the environment is enough to stimulate a behavioural response which motivates an individual. At its most basic level this highlights the extent to which emotions motivate our behaviour; when we are afraid we want to run from the object evoking that fear, when we are angry we ready ourselves to defend our self either physically or mentally. However, when these emotions linger is when people experience problems.

Prolonged anger can degenerate into projections of racism and hatred. Fear has been identified as an aspect of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and heightened fear can affect structures of the brain over time. A number of theories have been put forward to explain emotion as motivation including Gray's behavioural inhibition system (BIS) and behavioural activation system (BAS). The approach and avoidance approach to motivation offers insight and how people engage and avoid situations and environments. Finally, primary and secondary appraisal highlight how emotions that become extreme are detrimental to the human experience of being.

Emotion and motivation are two intertwining concepts both of which drive behaviour. There are emotions that when pushed to their extreme become maladaptive. Increased awareness and further research into emotions as motivation will lead to an enhanced understanding of human behaviour and the complex nature of emotion and motivation.

See also[edit]

Avoidance Motivation - A chapter devoted to evaluating avoidance motivation
Anger and Motivation- a detailed look at anger as a motivating force
Filicide motivation - What drives the motivation to murder one's children?
Anger and violent behaviour Anger and violent behavior - the motivations and implications behind this phenomena.


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