, Volume 1, Issue 3, pp 261-289

Evolutionary explanations of emotions

Rent the article at a discount

Rent now

* Final gross prices may vary according to local VAT.

Get Access


Emotions can be explained as specialized states, shaped by natural selection, that increase fitness in specific situations. The physiological, psychological, and behavioral characteristics of a specific emotion can be analyzed as possible design features that increase the ability to cope with the threats and opportunities present in the corresponding situation. This approach to understanding the evolutionary functions of emotions is illustrated by the correspondence between (a) the subtypes of fear and the different kinds of threat; (b) the attributes of happiness and sadness and the changes that would be advantageous in propitious and unpropitious situations; and (c) the social emotions and the adaptive challenges of reciprocity relationships. In addition to addressing a core theoretical problem shared by evolutionary and cognitive psychology, explicit formulations of the evolutionary functions of specific emotions are of practical importance for understanding and treating emotional disorders.

This work was supported by the University of Michigan Evolution and Human Behavior Program and by the Psychiatry and Evolutionary Psychobiology Project. The participants in a seminar I taught with Barbara Smuts provided the original impetus for this work, and participants in the Psychiatry and Evolutionary Psychobiology Study Group offered critiques, especially Darwin K. Hoop, whose detailed comments were essential to the final manuscript. Barbara Polcyn provided invaluable secretarial and editorial help.
Randolph M. Nesse, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Michigan, is Associate Director of the Anxiety Disorders Program and Director of the Psychiatry and Evolutionary Psychobiology Project. He is a member of the University of Michigan Evolution and Human Behavior Program and has helped to organize the Human Behavior and Evolution Society.