Motivation and emotion/Book/2017/Goose bumps and emotion

From Wikiversity
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Goose bumps and emotion:
What is the relationship between goose bumps and emotions?


Figure 1: over 40% of the general population reports experiencing goose bumps during emotionally arousing events (e.g. listening to your favourite song)

You're driving in your car on a beautiful summer's day and you turn on the radio. Your favourite song from your teenage years comes on and you can't help but sing along. Just as your favourite part plays the hairs on your arms raise and you feel a tingly sensation spread throughout your body. What was that, you wonder ... normally these bumps only come when you're cold ... but it's summer? What you have just experienced is an emotional chill, known as "goose bumps". Colloquially called chills, thrills, tingles, goose-pimples or, in Russian "Murashki begaiut po telu" meaning ants running up and down your skin[grammar?]. But what is the relationship between goose bumps and emotions? How can non-threatenting[spelling?] stimuli, such as a beautiful song, elicit such a unique response?

What are goose bumps?[edit]

Minute muscles, known as the musculari arectores pilorum, are connected to each hair follicle. When stimulated, this muscle can contract, causing the hairs to rise up (Benedek et al, 2010). A shallow depression then forms on the skin’s surface surrounding the follicle which, in turn, results in the protrusion of the other surrounding areas (Bubenik, 2003). This bumpy protuberance is aptly named "goose bumps" after the appearance of poultry's skin after the feathers have been plucked, though it is more formally known as the pilormotor reflex , or piloerection. This psychophysiological phenomenon is seen in both humans and animals and occurs as a response to decreased core temperatures and intense emotions such as fear, anxiety and awe (Benedek & Kaernbach, 2010).

What are emotions?[edit]

Despite being an experience shared by all, defining emotions is rather difficult and as such, a clear consensus has not been reached (Izard, 2007). Arguably, emotions can be defined as a response to complex feelings that can influence our behaviour and thought process via psychological and physiological changes (Hsu, 2016). Most psychologists generally agree that the 4 basic emotions with which other subcategories of emotion derive from consist of joy, sadness, fear and anger (Panksepp, 1995). Emotions, though commonly shared by all, are highly subjective and consist of several distinct components (Elkman, 1999).

Components of Emotion[edit]

[Provide more detail]

Cognitive/subjective component[edit]
  • Emotions are a highly personal experience that often arises automatically and as such are rather difficult to regulate (Weiten, 2014). Individuals subconsciously evaluate events to determine whether a situation is determined to be pleasant or unpleasant. This determination is quite subjective and what may be considered unpleasant and fear inducing to some, such as public speaking, may seem mundane and routine to others.

Physiological component[edit]

  • Stemming from the sympathetic nervous system that controls one's fight-or-flight reaction, physical responses such as a racing heart or sweaty palms often accompany intense emotions. For example, in the words of Marshall Mathers' (‘eminem’) song "Loose Yourself": "…his palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy….he’s nervous but on the surface, he looks calm and ready..." Find a link to the song here

Behavioral component[edit]

  • This component denotes how one overtly expresses the emotions they are feeling. This is typically done through one’s body language and non-verbal communication.  For example, one may convey anger by crossing their arms, furrowing their brow and frowning. 
    Figure 2: Emotions can be distinguished cross culturally just via the distinct facial expressions they manifest

Evolutionary significance of goose bump reactions[edit]

Animals utilise this piloerection response for keeping warm by trapping a layer of air between their fur and attempting to appear larger to discourage potential attacks (Maruskin, Thrash & Elliot, 2012). Since humans have less need for either of these responses, why do we still get goose bumps? Perhaps it is a remnant of an inherited mechanism from our furry ancestors (Kalat, 2016).

Temperature and social bonds[edit]

  • Piloerection and shivering is considered to be a thermoregulatory response to a decrease in core temperature however this response to the cold can also be intrinsically motivated by a social aspect. When one feels cold, they may feel socially isolated (Panksepp, 1995). This feeling of being isolated may evoke a sense of separation distress and sadness. In fact, studies have demonstrated that feeling cold is a characteristic of fear and sadness (Maruskin, Thrash & Elliot, 2012). Perhaps seeing someone with goose bumps may unconsciously thermally motivate social reunion (Panksepp, 1995). Some theorists have gone further to suggest that evolutionarily speaking emotions were designed to maximise the possibilities of social bonds, with joy and happiness manifesting from vigorous social play and sadness and fear manifesting from social isolation (Panksepp, 1995). 
Figure 3: Goose bumps causes the fur on this dog's neck to raise in order to appear larger than he is and to discourage a potential attack

Approach/avoidance motivation[edit]

  • From an evolutionary point of view, knowing which situations may cause a pleasant or an unpleasant experience can aid in an organism's continual survival and quality of life. This is undertaken in the cognitive component of emotion mentioned above. Intrinsically, we are motivated to approach situations with pleasant stimuli and avoid situations which pose an unpleasant threat (Maruskin, Thrash & Elliot, 2012). For example, emotions such as fear and disgust may increase adrenaline levels in the body thus resulting in goose bumps. This bodily response may result in the individual avoiding the possibly dangerous event. This idea mirrors that presented in James-Lange Theory in which an individual appraises a situation which results in a physiological response such as goosebumps or sweating following which an appropriate action is taken, for example avoiding or approaching a situation (Weiten, 2014).

Why do certain emotions trigger goose bumps?[edit]

[Provide more detail]

Theoretical reasons[edit]

[Provide more detail]

Distinct factors of goose bumps[edit]

  • Though occasionally used interchangeably, goose bumps can be further categorised into two groups: goose-tingles and cold-shivers. whilst overall, goose bumps can result from a plethora of emotions, goose-tingles are uniquely related to positive effective states and emotions such as awe and surprise. Contrarily, the cold-shivers are uniquely responsive negative affective states like disgust, fear, sadness and surprise[factual?].

Hypothesis of the origin of emotional piloerection[edit]

  • Often, an increase in emotionally arousing experiences will subsequently result in an increase of physiological arousal, theories of why can be found in the next section. This hypothesis states that, much like a full glass of water, emotional arousal has a particular threshold, beyond which any additional stimulation increases the rate of physiological arousal dramatically resulting in goose bumps. It can be theorised that goose bumps mark a distinct peak in emotional arousal. This hypothesis is known as the peak arousal hypothesis (Benedek & Kaernbach, 2010)

James-Lange theory of emotion[edit]

  • The James-Lange theory operates on a three step process in which an individual begins by first appraising the situation following which physiological responses occur such as piloerection. It is only after this point that a behaviour or emotion occurs. Essentially, this theory suggests that it is the physical reaction that determines the emotion (E.g. A dog is barking --> i am trembling --> i must be afraid) or more specific to this chapter, " i am listening to an upbeat song, i am feeling goose-tingles and an increase heart rate, i must be happy" (Weiten, 2014).

Biological reasons[edit]

[Provide more detail]

visceral responses[edit]

  • often during peak moments of emotional arousal , such as listening to music , a number of physiological events transpire such as an increase in heart rate, respiratory rate, vasoconstriction and electrodermal activity. This increase in phasic electrodermal activity is a strong indicator of potential goose bump activity.

Role of sympathetic and autonomic nervous system, hormones and brain regions[edit]

The autonomic nervous system plays a pivotal role in 'fight-or-flight' situations by controlling hormonal secretions from glands such as the adrenal glands (Weiten, 2014). Adrenalin, the stress hormone is secreted during a number of adverse emotions such as fear. This hormone can help focus the individual in order to best prepare from their fight or flight. During moments of pleasant emotions, inhibitory sensors in the brain minimise the activity of the amygdala and hippocampus consequently increasing the activity of the ventral striatum, an area known for motivation behaviours likely to result in rewards. This may in turn, allow the level of emotional arousal to peak, causing goose bumps (Blood & Zatorre, 2001)

Test your knowledge

choose the correct answer and click "Submit":

What area of the brain is known for involvement in 'fight-or-flight' response?

Frontal cortex
Temporal lobe
Central sulcus

Which statement below is incorrect ?

The James Lange theory involves perceiving the dog barking ,sensing you are scared and then start shaking
An increase in emotional arousal will subsequently result in physiological arousal
Fear and disgust increase adrenaline levels in the body
Marshall Mather's is feeling nervous but on the surface he looks calm and ready

Differences in intensity and frequency of goosebumps[edit]

[Provide more detail]

Personality differences[edit]

  • Studies conducted by Silvia and Nusbaum (2011) examined 196 university students to determine whether exposure to the arts could elicit goose bumps. They also examined which individuals were more likely to be moved by the art than others. Using the Big Five Aspects Scale they were effectively able to determine that those ranking highest in the personality trait, ‘Openness to Experience’ were significantly more likely to report feelings of goose-tingles and cold-shivers in response to the art. The sub categories of this trait, such as ‘appreciation of beauty’ and ‘emotional sensitivity’ also positively correlated with reports of goose bumps (Silvia & Nusbaum, 2011). Further study was conducted by Maruskin, Thrash and Elliot (2012) who determined that traits such as Extraversion were more prone to positive affective states such as excitement and happiness whereas those with high Neuroticism tended to be prone to negative affective states such as fear, sadness and guilt. Therefore an individual high in Neuroticism may report feeling goose bumps after watching a film excerpt with negative undertones but not whilst listening to happy songs (Burgin et al, 2013). 

Individual differences[edit]

  • Silvia and Nusbaum also noted that a number of individual differences also predicted one’s likelihood of experiencing goose bumps. These differences included previous experience with art .  For individuals whom have experience with arts, it can be hypothesised that their increase in somatosensory responses is a direct result of the frequency and depth with which they engage with art. They may be more open to experiencing and identifying the emotions elicited by the pieces thereby increasing their chance of experiencing goose bumps (Silvia & Nusbaum, 2011).   

Gender differences[edit]

  •  Panksepp (1995), noted that, for the most part, women have a greater socio-emotional system than males in regards to sorrow and nurturing and as such are more likely to experience frequent chills. He argues that , from an evolutionary perspective, women were more in tune with the call of their offspring and so anything resembling a call of separation would elicit a strong emotional response from the mother. Music can often mimic this call and so this would explain why women experience more chills when listening to music (Panksepp, 1995). 

Difference in stimuli[edit]

  • Music, through its context, tone use of instruments can evoke emotions ranging from love and happiness, to anger and sadness. A multitude of studies have indicated that musical structures are one of the most efficient ways of eliciting pleasant piloerection feelings known as aesthetic chills (Benendek & Kaembach, 2010 & Beaty et al, 2013)  Greater intensity and frequency of goose bumps can be reported through the use of music. Aesthetic chills, such as those experienced when listening to music activates areas of the brain typically experienced during euphoric or pleasurable experiences (Silvia et al, 2014) From an evolutionary point of view, it has been hypothesised that the high pitched crescendo often found in sad songs mimics that of a separation call which elicits feelings of not only loss but also potential reunion. The separation call has prolonged wails and successive harmonics, a format often closely adhered to the general rules of song writing (Panksepp, 1995). The idea of music’s ability to elicit chills follows the idea of James Lange Theory in which an individual cognitively appraises the situation, following which respiratory and heart rates increase and chills occur. Finally an overt behaviour occurs such as being moved or shedding a tear (Benedek & Kaernbach, 2010). Film excerpts have been another proven goose bump elicitor. It can be theorised that by pairing emotionally weighty auditory and visual information, one can build up a strong emotional state , thus eliciting an intense somatosensory response (Benedek & Kaernbach, 2010). 
Figure 4: Whitney Houston's song "I Will Always Love You" has been notes as being one of the best song to evoke goose bumps (Panksepp, 1995). Follow the link here to listen to the song and see if you experience a piloerection response.


At the beginning of this chapter we questioned what the relationship was between emotion and goosebumps and how this reaction can occur during non threatening situations.This phenomenon can occur for a number of reasons including being cold or frightened , as is often seen when an animal's fur is raised. However, goose bumps can also occur due to intense emotional arousal. Emotions such as excitement, awe, happiness, sadness, fear and sexual arousal can all stimulate physiological responses in the body which can stimulate this tingly, hair raising sensation. Despite being a naturally occurring movement in the body with a distinct evolutionary background, only 40-50% of the population can actually experience goose bumps in response to emotions (Panksepp, 1995). This is due to factors such as personality differences, gender differences and differences in type of emotional stimuli.

See also[edit]


Beaty, R., Burgin, C., Nusbaum, E., Kwapil, T., Hodges, D., & Silvia, P. (2013). Music to the inner ears: Exploring individual differences in musical imagery. Consciousness And Cognition, 22(4), 1163-1173.

Benedek, M., & Kaernbach, C. (2011). Physiological correlates and emotional specificity of human piloerection. Biological Psychology, 86(3), 320-329.

Benedek, M., Wilfling, B., Lukas-Wolfbauer, R., Katzur, B., & Kaernbach, C. (2010). Objective and continuous measurement of piloerection. Psychophysiology.

Blood, A., & Zatorre, R. (2001). Intensely pleasurable responses to music correlate with activity in brain regions implicated in reward and emotion. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences, 98(20), 11818-11823.

Bubenik, G. (2003). Why do humans get "goosebumps" when they are cold, or under other circumstances?. Scientific American. Retrieved 18 August 2017, from

Eid, M., & Larsen, R. (2008). The science of subjective well-being. New York: Guilford Press.

Izard, C. (2007). Basic Emotions, Natural Kinds, Emotion Schemas, and a New Paradigm. Perspectives On Psychological Science, 2(3), 260-280.

KALAT, J. (2013). BIOLOGICAL PSYCHOLOGY (12th ed., pp. 104-114 356-370). Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.

Maruskin, L., Thrash, T., & Elliot, A. (2012). The chills as a psychological construct: Content universe, factor structure, affective composition, elicitors, trait antecedents, and consequences. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 103(1), 135-157.

Nusbaum, E., Silvia, P., Beaty, R., Burgin, C., Hodges, D., & Kwapil, T. (2014). Listening between the notes: Aesthetic chills in everyday music listening. Psychology Of Aesthetics, Creativity, And The Arts, 8(1), 104-109.

Panksepp, J. (1995). The Emotional Sources of "Chills" Induced by Music. Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 13(2), 171-207.

Silvia, P., & Nusbaum, E. (2011). On personality and piloerection: Individual differences in aesthetic chills and other unusual aesthetic experiences. Psychology Of Aesthetics, Creativity, And The Arts, 5(3), 208-214.

Weiten, W. (2014). Psychology (pp. 409-419). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Lerning.

External links[edit]

  • Video summary of why humans get goosebumps [1]
  • News article on benefits of those who experience emotional chills [2]