The Bio-informational theory of emotion

The Bio-informational theory of emotion (Detenber & Reeves, 1996) is the starting point for the classification of emotions in KHNUM. This theory adopts a 3-dimensional view on emotional responses to environmental stimuli and therefore seamlessly matches the genetic semantic model. This means that emotional reactions can be captured by three independent, bipolar dimensions: pleasure/displeasure,  arousal/sleepiness and dominance/submission(Russell, 1979; Russell & Pratt, 1980).

Summarized, the Bio-Informational theory of emotion contends that pleasure and arousal reactions are organized around two universal motivational systems: an appetitive and a defensive motivational system. These two systems regulate how people respond to their environment (Lang, 1995). Furthermore, the emotional dimensions of pleasure and arousal are seen as reflecting motivational activation (Bradley et al., 2001). Pleasure (or displeasure) reactions indicate whether the appetitive (or the defensive motivation) is activated. Arousal reactions consequently determine the intensity of motivational activation and behaviour (Bradley et al., 2001; Lang, Bradley & Cuthbert, 1998). Concretely, the appetitive motivation is activated in contexts promoting survival, like, for example love, care-giving, eating, drinking, and other inviting contexts. The defensive motivation is activated in contexts that threat survival, like, for example violence, abuse, mutilation, and other unpleasant contexts. In addition to these two most cited and researched emotional axes: ‘hedonistic valence’ and ‘arousal’, ‘dominance’ is used as the third axis. The dominant / compliant axis has ‘in control’ and ‘out of control’ as opposing emotions.

The bio-informational theory posits a network model of emotion. Emotions are networks of information – stimulus, response, and semantic concepts – linked by associations (Lang et al, 1993). The tendency to respond to a stimulus and its physiological manifestations are linked to nodes in the brain that represent properties of emotion-inducing stimuli. Such that fundamental characteristics of the stimulus, such as size, colour, shape and movement, can influence the emotional response (Detenber & Reeves, 1996). For example, the fear that a person feels face to face with a snake can be artificially generated by the twisting movement or by mimicking the S-shape.

Each dimension is, in principle, functionally independent of the other two. Nevertheless, mutual correlation relationships between the different dimensions were established. Research studying emotional reactions to pictures (Ito, Cacioppo & Lang, 1998; Lang, Bradley & Cuthbert, 1999) shows linear relations between pleasure and arousal reactions. More specifically, plotting pleasure and arousal reactions to pictures reveals a boomerang shaped, curvilinear pattern that indicates a positive linear relation between pleasure and arousal ratings for pleasant pictures and a negative linear relation for unpleasant pictures. Moreover, this linear pattern was not only found when people evaluated pictures, but also for evaluations of words (Bradley & Lang, 1999), sounds (Bradley & Lang, 2000), and odours (Bensafi et al., 2002). Bradley et al. (2001) argued that the consistency of this pattern across various types of stimuli indicates the existence of a more general, underlying adaptive mechanism.

This bio-informational view was already successfully applied to the study of persuasive communication (Poels & Dewitte, 2008). It was found that, in line with the theory, pleasure and arousal reactions to a set of commercial ads displayed a tight linear relation, reflecting the implicit reference to an appetitive motivation. Moreover, deviations from this linear pattern were positively related to the extraordinariness of the message.


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