Human Nature

, Volume 1, Issue 3, pp 261–289

Evolutionary explanations of emotions

  • Randolph M. Nesse

DOI: 10.1007/BF02733986

Cite this article as:
Nesse, R.M. Human Nature (1990) 1: 261. doi:10.1007/BF02733986


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.

Key words

Adaptation Anxiety Evolution Fear Feelings Emotion Mental disorders Mood Natural selection Psychiatry Psychology Reciprocity Relationships 

Copyright information

© Walter de Gruyter, Inc 1990

Authors and Affiliations

  • Randolph M. Nesse
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychiatryThe University of Michigan Medical CenterAnn Arbor

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