Skip to main content
Log in

Being moved

  • Published:
Philosophical Studies Aims and scope Submit manuscript


In this paper, we argue that, barring a few important exceptions, the phenomenon we refer to using the expression “being moved” is a distinct type of emotion. In this paper’s first section, we motivate this hypothesis by reflecting on our linguistic use of this expression. In section two, pursuing a methodology that is both conceptual and empirical, we try to show that the phenomenon satisfies the five most commonly used criteria in philosophy and psychology for thinking that some affective episode is a distinct emotion. Indeed, being moved, we claim, is the experience of a positive core value (particular object) perceived by the moved subject as standing out (formal object) in the circumstances triggering the emotion. Drawing on numerous examples, we describe the distinctively rich phenomenology characteristic of the experience as well as the far-reaching action-tendencies and functions associated with it. Having thus shown that the candidate emotion seem to satisfy the five criteria, we go on, in section three, to compare it with sadness and joy, arguing that it should not be confused with either. Finally, in section four, we illustrate the explanatory power of our account of “being moved” by showing how it can shed light on, and maybe even justify, the widespread distrust we feel towards the exhibition of ‘sentimentality’. On the whole and if we are right, we have uncovered an emotion which, though never or rarely talked about, is of great interest and no small importance.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Subscribe and save

Springer+ Basic
EUR 32.99 /Month
  • Get 10 units per month
  • Download Article/Chapter or Ebook
  • 1 Unit = 1 Article or 1 Chapter
  • Cancel anytime
Subscribe now

Buy Now

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. A notable one is the Swiss psychologist Claparède whose study of “pure emotions” (Claparède 1930) is precisely on this topic. In this rich article, Claparède argues that although pure emotions constitute distinct phenomena, they are ultimately “disturbances” that allow “no adjustment of the individual to the circumstances that move him”. Although we reject this claim in the following, we highly recommend the article as well as an earlier one that helps understand it (Claparède 1928). Another, more recent, exception is Konecni (2005), who claims that “being moved” is a “very distinctive subjective state” but discusses it mainly from an aesthetic perspective.

  2. This is what certain dictionaries seem to suggest. For example, the MacMillan Online Dictionary defines “moving” as “making you feel emotional”, the Collins English Dictionary defines the same word as “arousing or touching the emotions” and, according to the Wiktionary, a moving thing is one “that causes someone to feel emotion”.

  3. This claim and the further developments that follow will obviously be more plausible if they apply also to the corresponding expressions in other languages (e.g. “je suis ému”, “sono commosso”, “Ich bin gerührt”, “ik ben ontroerd”, “Estoy conmovido”, etc.). Intuitions of native speakers of these languages that we have consulted as well as linguistic suggestions made by an anonymous referee make us quite optimistic in this regard.

  4. This is what is suggested by other dictionaries, such as the Webster, Collins, or Oxford English dictionaries, that define the words “move” or “moving” as “stirring the passions or affections (usually tender)”, or “having an effect on your emotions and causing you to feel sadness or sympathy for another person”. In each case, the range of emotions is reduced by specifying a shared property (e.g. being tender) or by specifying a set of possible emotions (e.g. sadness and sympathy).

  5. For a defense of these criteria, see Deonna and Scherer (2010).

  6. We rely on the results of an internet-based survey we ran on English-speaking participants living in the US and recruited through Amazon Mechanical Turk ( 100 participants (M age = 28.2; SD age = 10.7; 60 were men and 39 were women, 1 did not declare his or her gender) were recruited and asked to remember and describe an event in which they were “particularly moved”. After doing so, they were asked several questions about (i) the event itself (was it negative? positive?), (ii) the physical sensations they experienced, (ii) what it “made them feel like doing”, and (iv) how pleasurable this affective experience was. A final question tested the potential pro-social action tendencies of “being moved”: participants were told that one of them would be chosen at random to receive a special prize of $10, but that they could decide to transfer part of this amount to UNICEF, and that they should tell us how much they were willing to part with in case they were the lucky participant. Throughout the paper, we describe and use their answers to reach a better understanding of the phenomenon of “being moved”. A full description of the method and results obtained can be found in Cova et al. (in preparation).

  7. For a detailed study of the various objects of the emotions, see de Sousa (1987, Chap. 5). For the role of formal objects in philosophical theories of the emotions and their relation to values in particular, see Teroni (2007). For the similar notion of a core relational theme in psychology, see Lazarus (1991, Chap. 3).

  8. For an articulation of this hypothesis, see Deonna (2011).

  9. Of over 100 participants, 11 mentioned a birth (or nurturing a child for the first time) as a moving episode, 5 reported a declaration of love and 2 a wedding, while 9 reported being moved by an (academic or sporting) achievement, whether their own or someone else’s. Overall, births were the kind of event most frequently reported. When we replicated this experiment in French with a younger population, 100 psychology students from the University of Geneva, we found that the most frequently reported events were academic and sporting achievements (11), closely followed by surprise reunions organized by family and/or friends (10).

  10. Additional reasons to reject this hypothesis come from our data. After remembering and writing down an occasion in which they were moved, participants were asked to respond ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the two following questions: “Was the thing or event that moved you partly or totally positive?” and “Was the thing or event that moved you partly or totally negative?”. Results in Table 1 show that a majority of participants perceived moving events to be purely positive, suggesting that, even if all moving situations can be interpreted as involving both positive and negative elements, no negative elements need be perceived for a situation to be experienced as moving. More on the role of the negative later.

  11. Although we do not address here the issue of what is peculiar to being moved by music, what we say of being moved in general is consistent with, or even congenial to, the experience of being moved by music. It is interesting to note that Levinson’s characterisation of music-induced chills (2006) is very close to what we claim with regard to being moved in the mixed cases. Drawing on empirical work by Panksepp (1995), Levinson suggests that what triggers music-induced chills is some apprehension, often vague, of the indissoluble fusion of the positive and the negative in most human experiences of importance to us. Indeed, alleged moving pieces often begin with a sad or dark mood—generally in minor key and slow pace—but turn at some point into something more hopeful—generally in major key and faster tempo—yet not quite joyful, so that the sad or dark mood is still present in the background. The sombre themes with which the music starts in these cases often re-emerge before a new lighter moment begins. This constant oscillation between darker and lighter themes is characteristic of all these famous moving examples: the Andante of Schubert’s 2nd trio in E flat, the Andante con moto of his Death and the Maiden quartet, the second movement of Beethoven’s 7th, the 3rd movement of his 15th quartet, his Sonata Pathétique, the Casta Diva from Bellini’s La Norma, Chopin’s 1st and 20th Nocturnes and the Introtuis or the Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem.

  12. In fact, Tetlock et al. (2000) call these values “sacred values”. The religious implications of the term “sacred” are unnecessary and misleading in the present context, however. We shall thus use the expression “core values” instead.

  13. For example, piety or chastity might constitute core values for some people, while playing no role at all in the life of others.

  14. The distinction between core values and non-core values should not be confused with the distinction between intrinsic and instrumental values: although all core values have intrinsic value, something can have intrinsic value without being a core value. Thus, certain kinds of pleasure may have intrinsic value without it being the case that trade-offs involving these pleasures are ‘taboo’. This is why the notion of core value cannot be assimilated, for example, to the psychological notion of needs, as defined by Maslow (1943): in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, one finds such things as water, food, and resources, that clearly are things for which many would accept trade-offs.

  15. For a similar distinction, see de Sousa (1987, Chap. 5). See also Helm (2009).

  16. Once again, it is interesting to note that our analysis of being moved is consonant with what Levinson (2006) observes about music-induced chills. They are, he says in conclusion of his study, “usually the first sign that one has registered something of depth or significance in the music”.

  17. To determine which felt physiological changes were characteristic of the experience of being moved, we asked our participants to rate the intensity with which they felt a series of sensations on a scale ranging from −4 (‘not at all’) to 4 (‘very much’). These sensations were: a ‘warm’ chest, a lump in the throat, high energy, increased heart rate, chills, feeling light or bouncy, laughter, relaxed muscles, a ‘rising’ or ‘open’ chest, tensed muscles and tears. We compared the answers of participants who described an entirely or partly positive situation with the answers of 60 new participants, recruited in the same way, who were asked to remember a situation in which a really good thing happened to them (a standard way of eliciting joy). Using the ‘joy’ condition as comparison, we found that participants in the ‘being moved’ condition were significantly more likely to report ‘tears’ (1.11) than those in the ‘joy’ condition, and less likely to report feeling ‘light or bouncy’ (0.73), ‘laughter’ (0), ‘high energy’ (1.98), and ‘increased heart rate’ (1.78). Items rated more intensely were ‘warm chest’ (2.27), ‘high energy’ (1.98), ‘increased heart rate’ (1.78), ‘lump in the throat’ (1.41), and ‘tears’ (1.11).

  18. It is plausible to regard the expression “I am touched” as designating an attenuated form of the phenomenon of being moved.

  19. In fact, participants who remembered entirely or partly positive situations found being moved mostly pleasurable (3.2 on a scale ranging from −4 to 4).

  20. For more on this way of conceiving of the emotions’ phenomenology, see Deonna and Teroni (2012, Chap 7).

  21. These predictions are coherent with the results of our study. As we saw earlier, participants reporting partly or entirely positive situations were mostly moved by situations involving either (i) concerns about family, friendship, and social bonds or (ii) success and achievements. A third important category of situations involved (iii) acts of generosity. Consequently, we should expect participants to have the relevant action tendencies, that is: (i) being with one’s family, (ii) achieving success and (iii) helping others and being a better person. A series of questions probed to what extent participants felt more like doing certain actions, on a scale ranging from −4 (‘much less’) to 4 (‘much more’). Analyzing the answers of participants who reported partly or entirely positive situations, we found high scores for the following action tendencies: ‘being a better person’ (3.05), ‘doing something good for another person’ (2.95), ‘taking care of your family’ (2.70) and ‘achieving success’ (2.47). That the moral aspirations of these participants were not only empty words was shown by the fact that these participants were willing to give significantly more of their potential reward to UNICEF than those in the ‘joy’ condition ($4.15 vs. $3.21).

  22. Some empirical studies indeed suggest that being moved by fiction can alter personality traits to some extent. See for example Djikic et al. (2009).

  23. An interesting question is whether being moved is not only a distinct emotion, but also a basic one. The notion at stake here being notoriously fraught with difficulty, let us only say that the evolutionary explanation provided should convince friends of the distinction between basic and non-basic emotions that ‘being moved’ might very well belong to the former category. The fact that ‘being moved’ is perhaps unique to humans (something true of disgust as well for example) and that it is typically triggered by complex cognitions (this is true of many episodes of fear), should not be viewed as decisive considerations against the idea that, at least in some respectable taxonomies of the emotions, being moved is a basic emotion.

  24. Analyzing the answers of participants who reported cases they did not perceive (even partly) as positive, we found that the feelings that were rated the highest were ‘lump in throat’ (3), ‘tears’ (2.21), ‘muscles tensed’ (2.15), and ‘increased heart rate’ (1.7). And, crucially for these purely negative cases, ratings for ‘warm feelings in the chest’ were significantly less reported than for participants reporting at least partly positive situations (−0.75).

  25. As pointed out by an anonymous referee, some instances of the emotional episode referred to with the expression “crying for joy” are clear cases of “being moved”. Thus, one interesting thing to do would be investigate the stage at which children begin to “cry for joy” so as to reach an understanding of the developmental pattern of being moved. To our knowledge, there is no empirical evidence related to this question (though there is much evidence about when and how children cry in sadness; for a review, see Rottenberg and Vingerhoets 2012; Vingerhoets 2013). Research on this topic would be most welcome.

  26. See for example Peterson (1976–1977), Jefferson (1983) and Solomon (1990).


  • Claparède, E. (1928). Feeling and emotions. In M. L. Reymert (Ed.), Feelings and emotions. Worcester: Clark University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Claparède, E. (1930). L’émotion “pure”. Archives de Psychologie, 22, 333–347.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cova, F., Deonna, J., & Sander, D. (in preparation). Is elevation just a way of being moved?

  • de Sousa, R. (1987). The rationality of emotions. Cambridge: MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Deonna, J. (2011). Etre ému. In C. Tappolet, F. Teroni, & A. Konzelmann Ziv (Eds.), Les Ombres de l’Âme: Penser les emotions negatives. Genève: Markus Haller.

    Google Scholar 

  • Deonna, J., Rodogno, R., & Teroni, F. (2011). In defense of shame: The faces of an emotion. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Deonna, J., & Scherer, K. (2010). The case of the disappearing intentional object: Constraints on a definition of emotion. Emotion Review, 2, 44–52.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Deonna, J., & Teroni, F. (2012). The emotions: A philosophical introduction. New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Djikic, M., Oatley, K., Zoeterman, S., & Peterson, J. B. (2009). On being moved by art: How reading fiction transforms the self. Creativity Research Journal, 21, 24–29.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Fessler, D. M. T. (2004). Shame in two cultures: Implications for evolutionary approaches. Journal of Cognition and Culture, 4, 207–262.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56, 218–226.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Fredrickson, B. L. (2009). Joy. In D. Sander & K. Scherer (Eds.), The Oxford companion to emotion and the affective sciences. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Frijda, N. (2007). The laws of emotion. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

    Google Scholar 

  • Helm, B. (2009). Emotions as evaluative feelings. Emotion Review, 1, 248–255.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Jefferson, M. (1983). What is wrong with sentimentality? Mind, 92, 519–529.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Konecni, V. (2005). The aesthetic trinity: Awe, being moved, thrills. Bulletin of Psychology and the Arts, 5, 27–44.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lazarus, R. S. (1991). Emotion and adaptation. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Levinson, J. (2006). Musical chills. In Contemplating art: Essays in aesthetics. Oxford: Clarendon Press

  • Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370–396.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Panksepp, J. (1995). The emotional sources of “chills” induced by music. Music Perception, 13, 171–207.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Peterson, M. (1976–1977). Sentimentality. In Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society (Vol. 77, pp. 127–147).

  • Rottenberg, J., & Vingerhoets, A. (2012). Crying: Call for a lifespan approach. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 6, 217–227.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Solomon, R. C. (1990). In defense of sentimentality. Philosophy and Literature, 14, 304–323.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Teroni, F. (2007). Emotions and formal object. Dialectica, 61, 395–415.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Tetlock, P., Kristel, O., Elson, B., Green, M., & Lerner, J. (2000). The psychology of the unthinkable: Taboo trade-offs, forbidden base-rates, and heretical counterfactuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 853–870.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Vingerhoets, A. (2013). Why only humans weep: Unraveling the mysteries of tears. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

Download references


For their comments and suggestions on previous versions of the present paper, or help in its preparation, we would like to thank Constant Bonard, Otto Bruun, Tom Cochrane, Emma Dayer-Tieffenbach, Amanda Garcia, Jerrold Levinson, Patrizia Lombardo, Olivier Massin, Clare MacCumhail, Winfried Menninghaus, Agnes Moors, Kevin Mulligan, Hichem Naar, Isabelle Pitteloud, Vanessa Sennwald, Cristina Soriano, Fabrice Teroni, two anonymous reviewers, and the Swiss Centre for Affective Sciences.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Florian Cova.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Cova, F., Deonna, J.A. Being moved. Philos Stud 169, 447–466 (2014).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: