Affect is the word used by psychologists to describe behavior that is the observable representation of emotion. The affect is what we see when someone expresses a state of feeling (emotion). Emotions are subjective and are therefore quantified by observing affect. Affect is an important diagnostic tool for psychologists since it represents the outward manifestation of what the subject is feeling. Affect can show when and how a person is experiencing joy, fear, sadness or anger, for instance.
Psychologists have formulated ranges of normalcy for expressed affect. However, normal affect can vary according to cultures or even for individuals. Normal affect is also known as "broad affect." Terms used to describe affect include: flat, blunted, constricted, inappropriate, irritable, euthymic and labile. Affect can be expressed through tone of voice, hand gestures, facial expressions and other outward signs of feeling, for instance, tears or laughter. The affect of an individual can fluctuate according to the emotional state experienced at a given moment.
Culture is an important factor in determining the significance and normalcy of affect. In some cultures, it is normal for people to gesture with great animation or to use theatrical facial expressions in everyday social situations. In other cultures, it is rare for individuals to show an outward response even to serious trauma. The psychologist factors in these cultural issues when assessing affect.
People who suffer from psychological disorders may show variations in affect. For example, someone with constricted or restricted affect is showing some signs of restriction in the intensity or range of displayed emotions. Should the display of feeling be further reduced, the psychologist may deduce that the severity of disorder has worsened. The term "blunted affect" may then be applied to describe the current manifestation of what the patient feels and experiences in his emotions.
Where there is an absence of the display of emotions, the affect is said to be "flat." The flat affect is shown through immobility, the absence of facial expression and speaking in a monotone. At the other end of the spectrum, is the "labile affect," which describes a state of emotional instability or extreme mood swings.
Sometimes the affect describes the exact opposite of the emotion experienced. In this case, the affect is said to be "inappropriate." An example of inappropriate affect is laughter during the description of a painful event.
It can be difficult for laymen, and sometimes even psychologists, to draw the line between affect and emotion. One neat attempt at delineating the two terms was offered by Jaak Panksepp in his 2000 work, "Affective consciousness and the instinctual motor system: The neural sources of sadness and joy" in The Caldron of Consciousness: Motivation, Affect and Self-organization, Advances in Consciousness Research. Panksepp stated that emotion is the term used to signify changes in behavior, expression, cognition and physiology. Affect, said Panksepp, is the conscious experience of emotion, while the emotional affect is the unconscious part of emotion. J.E. LeDoux described emotional affect as an appropriate and worthy subject crucial to the study of emotion in his 1996 work, The Emotional Brain.
There has been a certain amount of debate as to whether affect occurs prior to or after cognition. According to Robert Boleslaw Zajonc in his 1980 work "Feelings and Thinking: Preferences Need No Inferences" in American Psychologist, affect is the instinctual response to stimulus. Zajonc says that affect occurs before cognitive processes take over and contribute toward the formation of more complicated emotions. In this school of thought, affect is a primary human response while in lower organisms the affect remains the dominant response to stimulus. Zajonc holds that affect occurs without thought or perception and sooner and with greater assurance than cognitive judgment.
Other psychology theorists, such as R.S. Lazarus in his 1982 report, "Thoughts on the Relations between Emotions and Cognition" in American Physiologist, believe affect is post-cognitive. This implies that affect is expressed only after information has undergone at least some cognitive processing. According to this view, shared by C.R. Brewin in his 1989 work "Cognitive Change Processes in Psychotherapy" in Psychological Review, the feeling of, for instance, pleasure, could not be expressed through affect without a prior cognitive process in which an evaluation of an experience is formed.
Still other theorists, such as J.S. Lerner and D. Keltner in their 2000 report, "Beyond valence: Toward a model of emotion-specific influences on judgement and choice" in Cognition and Emotion, posit that affect may be both precognitive and post-cognitive. These researchers believe that thoughts can be the result of an initial emotional response while further affects may manifest as the result of further thinking. The matter of determining at what point affect occurs is a bit like the ancient conundrum of: what came first—the chicken or the egg?
It is impossible in the 21st century to find a psychological text that omits mention of affect. As André Green said in an unpublished address given to the British Society in 1976, which was quoted by A. Limentani in his 1977 "Affects and the psychoanalytic situation," International Journal of Psychoanaysis, "It is no exaggeration to say that, in psychoanalysis as it is practiced today, work on the affects commands a large part of our efforts. There is no favorable outcome which does not involve an affective change."