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Psychological constructionism

Psychological constructionism has emerged to deal with the problems of other emotion theories, particularly the problem of establishing discrete emotions with distinct causal mechanisms and response patterns. Instead of continuing to search for evidence for discrete emotions, constructionists suggest that the problems of finding such evidence are chronic and diagnostic of the constructed character of emotions. Construction requires ingredients such as facial and vocal expressions, ANS changes, feelings, behaviours, appraisals, attributions, and regulation, but these occur both inside as well as outside of emotional episodes and do not require the category of "emotion" for their explanation. Insofar as correlations among components exist, these patterns are loose and do not require separate emotion-producing mechanisms for their explanation. Instead, experiences of emotions emerge from interpretations of existing multimodal psychological states in terms of contextually and socially viable emotion categories that impose meaning and structure on the components of ongoing psychological processes as components of emotion.

Even so, psychological constructionism retains the basic idea of multi-level processing, but with a twist. The twist is its reinterpretation of the two levels of emotional processing, nonconceptual and conceptual, as different domains and types of processing that associate only contingently. At the lower, nonconceptual level is core affect, feelings with a certain hedonic valence and intensity of arousal. Changes in core affect emerge from continuous and automatic appraisal of situations and objects for their relevance to the subject's well-being at developmentally early stages of information processing. However, the variety of core affect both underdetermines and outnumbers discrete emotions. Therefore, the theory posits a higher, conceptual level of processing at which emotions are constructed by categorizing particular highs and lows of core affect in terms of contextually salient conceptual knowledge about distinct emotions. This knowledge is established via context-specific memories captured across instances when core affect has been categorized as this or that emotion, such as anger or guilt or fear. Yet "the key here is that membership in the emotion category does not require a set of necessary and sufficient features. Resemblance is a matter of degree", as Russell (2009, p. 1275) emphasizes. Some instances of emotion may involve further appraisal of the situation in terms of such cognitively complex themes as coping potential, normative significance, accountability, future expectancy, and so on. However, psychological constructionists disagree with process-oriented appraisal theorists in claiming that such appraisals are not necessary for the categorisation of core affect even if appraisals are typical ingredients of emotion because the appraisal dimensions of different emotions are built into our conceptual understanding of discrete emotions.

Yet the difference between appraisal theories and psychological constructionism may be only in their dissimilar focus, as Moors (2012) and Russell (2012a) have recently suggested. Moors points out that both process-oriented appraisal theories and psychological constructionists deny the existence of a single process that is the common cause of the other components. In the former theories, each appraisal variable exerts its influence on the remaining components of emotion via a separate mechanism, whereas the latter propose component-specific processes that are not characteristic to emotions alone. In a like manner, Russell has (2012a, 297) contended that "Appraisal theorists emphasize appraisals and have offered detailed hypotheses and supporting data, [whereas] I emphasize components, one of which is an appraisal, and I have not offered details."

Psychological constructionism emphasizes the non-linear, parallel, and holistic nature of affective processing. The experience of core affect emerges from the simultaneous activation of several output systems, some of which such as autonomic and endocrine changes, voluntary behaviour, and facial movements typically associate with emotional responding, whereas others such as selection of attention and memory are influenced by nonaffective processes as well. Some patterns of core affect become labeled as discrete emotions and integrated into situated conceptualizations of those emotions. As instances of the same emotion accrue, information about the specific emotion type develops into a conceptual system which "is a distributed collection of modality-specific memories captured across all instances of a category" (Barrett, 2006b, p. 34). A specific emotion can then be triggered by priming any aspect of the category: sensory, motor, or conceptual. Whatever route this priming takes, "conceptual and affective processing proceed in parallel, with the processing in each limiting, shaping, and constraining the way in which the brain achieves a single coherent interpretation and action plan that suits the particular goals of the individual and constraints of the context" (ibid., p. 35). Along with categorizing core affect as this or that emotion, we imbue it with intentional directedness to an object that the subject believes to have caused the affect. This ascription is made on the basis of situational cues together with knowledge about typical causes of distinct emotions. Intentionality becomes then a property of emotion only at the stage of emotional meta-experience. However, the same applies to discrete emotions that do not have an ontological status separate from our categorisation of their ingredients in terms of mental prototypes of emotion.

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