Cognition and emotion . These two concepts have often been considered separately, although most people tend to think of them as aspects that are linked: emotion arises from the assessment of cognitively processed information.

But it is also possible that emotional reactions are spontaneous and only after the emotion arises the processing of information that allows us to make sense of these reactions. Many authors have defended one position or another, and many models and theories have been developed. One of them is Robert Zajonc’s theory of affective primacy .

Short preamble: a generic definition of emotion

To understand Robert Zajonc’s theory of emotional primacy, it may be useful to make a brief review of the concept of emotion.

Defining the concept of emotion is really complex, since it is easy to confuse with other terms and has a lot of nuances to take into account. Broadly speaking, emotion can be defined as that type of affection or psychic state of short duration and linked to the stimulation that generates it that prepares us for certain types of performance and allows us to adapt to the environment.

They can be considered as subjective reactions, of physiological origin and directed to a concrete but unconscious purpose , which allow us to mobilize the energies of our organism in order to respond to external or internal phenomena and express our sensations.

This concept has been explored by multiple authors and sometimes there has been speculation about the relationship that emotion has with cognition. Some authors have considered that the former precedes the latter, as expressed in Zajonc’s theory of affective primacy

Zajonc’s theory of emotional primacy: a controversial position

Zajonc’s theory of affective primacy proposes, contrary to most theories on the subject, that emotion and cognition are two processes that are independent of each other . In fact, the theory proposes that the affective reaction to a stimulus or emotion arises and precedes the cognitive reaction or cognitive processing. And even, that emotions may appear without any type of cognitive processing.

Zajonc relies on the presence of differentiated structures that deal with emotional and cognitive processes, such as the limbic system and the basal ganglia and frontal cortex.

This theory proposes different aspects that support part of its theoretical model and the author even proposes situations in which it is evident that the emotion arises before the information can be processed cognitively.

Aspects that support this theory

Zajonc’s theory of affective primacy is supported by different arguments, which reflect that it is true that emotion precedes cognition in some cases.

First, one of the points at which we can contemplate how emotion can precede cognition is observed in our own developmental process. When we are babies we are still unable to carry out cognitive processing that allows us to interpret situations, but it has been shown that emotional reactions such as fear, anguish or satisfaction .

In addition, while cognition develops slowly throughout development, basic emotions are active early on, resulting largely innate and inherited from our ancestors.

Another of the points on which the theory of affective primacy is based is the fact that the emotional reaction to an event occurs more quickly than the period of time we need to process it cognitively. If we experience physical pain, for example, our physical and emotional reactions will be immediate.

Brain and Emotion

Based on biological arguments, Zajonc highlights that there are specialized brain structures in emotional processing and cognitive processing , resulting in subcortical structures mostly linked to the emotional and cortical to the cognitive.

Similarly, emotions can be generated from artificial methods without changing the subject’s cognition (as occurs with psychotropic drugs linked to mood disorders).

The fact that we cannot verbalize our affective states or why we have them is another of the points defended by the proposal of the theory of affective primacy: if we cannot explain them it is because we have not cognitively processed those sensations and why they are there.

It also highlights the fact that we can change our way of thinking without changing our feelings and emotions and vice versa. That is, I can change my way of thinking and want to change how I feel about it, but without success . In the same way, I can feel a certain way about a specific topic even though on a cognitive level we evaluate it in a way that is not in line with our emotions.

Current consideration

Although there is a tendency nowadays to have a more cognitive view and to consider that there is a two-way relationship between cognition and emotion, the truth is that some aspects of Zajonc’s theory of primacy have been observed and taken into account.

It is even possible to consider that some phenomena have their origin in an emotional processing previous to the cognitive one. For example, the effect of mere exposure in which the fact of having contact with a certain stimulus or subject causes us a better predisposition towards it without us being able to determine why.

It is now accepted that emotions can occur if there is conscious cognitive processing, but the idea that there is independence between emotion and cognition is not fully accepted. In fact , the fact that there is no conscious processing of information does not mean that it is not carried out at an unconscious level , which could generate phenomena such as intuition.

Bibliographic references:

  • Higueras, B. and Muñoz, J.J. (2012). Basic Psychology. Manual CEDE de Preparación PIR, 08. CEDE: Madrid
  • León, D. (2014). Emotions in old age: differences associated with age. Doctoral thesis. Department of Biological and Health Psychology. Faculty of Psychology. Autonomous University of Madrid.
  • Palmero, F., Fernández-Abascal, E.G., Martínez, F. and Chóliz, M. (Eds.)(2002). Psychology of Motivation and Emotion. Madrid: McGraw-Hill
  • Zajonc, R.B.; Murphy S.T. & Inglehart, M. (1989) Feeling and Facial Efference: Implications of the Vascular Theory of Emotion. Psychological Review Vol. 96, No. 3, 395-416.