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What is the Affect Theory?

By Marisa O'Connor
Updated: Mar 03, 2024

Affect theory states that humans are primarily motivated by affective states. Affective states in psychology are the subjective experience of emotions. The theory is that subjective experiences of emotion can be classified by the type of physical response they elicit in the experiencer. Positive change and mental health can be achieved by trying to understand these affects rather than automatically, often destructively, reacting to them.

Silvan S. Tomkins was the originator of affect theory. Born in 1911, Tomkins devoted his life to the study of psychology, authoring a four volume book called Affect Imagery Consciousness over a period of nearly 40 years. He died in 1991, shortly after completing the final volume. This new theory was Tomkins' answer to the holes in existing psychological theories, such as Freud's drive psychology and B.F. Skinner's behaviorism.

Affect theory claims that there are three primary types of affect, or emotion. These categories include positive, neutral, and negative. Positive affects are joy, interest, and excitement. Surprise is the only neutral affect described by this theory. Negative affects are described as anger, terror, and disgust. According to the theory, mental health can be achieved by maximizing positive affects and minimizing negative affects.

A key component to understanding affect theory is that affects are involuntary responses to external stimuli, hard-wired in the brain. Behaviors are influenced by affects, usually automatically and without conscious intent. People tend to move toward situations that invoke positive affects and avoid situations that produce negative affects in them.

The goal of affect theory is to stop these automatic responses by listening to the messages the brain is sending through affects. When affects are understood, changes can be made to improve mental health. For example, if external stimuli produce the affect of anger, a common automatic response is withdrawal, attacking self, or attacking others. Instead of automatically reacting, a much more positive result can come from listening to the message the anger is trying to send, like the need for more respect and kindness.

Critics of affect theory comes from many practicing therapists. The complaint is that the theory offers very little in terms of practical application during psychotherapy. It is, however, partly credited for helping to displace the dominant psychological theories of the 20th century, Freudian psychology and Skinner's behaviorism. The theory has taken psychology a long way in understanding human motivation. Prior to this theory, Freud's drive theory was used to explain motivation. Tomkins realized that it is the affects, not drives, that motivate people.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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