3.1 Foundations of Emotions

Conflict and Emotions

In many ways, conflict and emotions are inseparably linked (Chen & Ayoko, 2012; Jones & Bodtker, 2001). This link has also been shown in empirical research (Chen & Ayoko, 2012).

Observe the table below demonstrating some of the relationships between emotions and conflict:

 Table 3.1.1. Emotions and Conflict by Samantha Hardy. © All rights reserved, used with permission
Emotions Conflict
Emotions can cause conflict Conflict can cause emotions
Emotions can make conflict worse Emotions can make conflict better
Both emotions and conflict can be negative Both emotions and conflict can be positive
Both emotions and conflict can be experienced privately Both emotions and conflict can be expressed publicly
Emotions can sometimes get in the way of our message Emotions can sometimes BE the message
Everyone experiences conflict, whether or not they admit it Everyone experiences emotions, whether or not they admit it
Emotions are usually better managed when expressed constructively Conflict is usually managed better when expressed constructively
Emotions can be contagious, affecting those around us. Conflict can be contagious, affecting those around us.

As indicated in the table above, conflict frequently causes people to experience emotions, predominantly negative emotions. Why is that? One explanation links in with how people explain conflict to themselves. People in conflict are typically motivated to determine who or what is responsible for causing the conflict (Chen & Ayoko, 2012). According to the “attribution theory”, a topic that we will further explore in Chapter 5, people have a general tendency to attribute negative events to others without considering the context. These attributions drive people’s emotional reactions to conflict events (Chen & Ayoko, 2012). Research has shown that individuals who lay blame on the “other” are likely to experience hostility (which includes anger, frustration and anxiety), while self-blame is likely to lead to self-conscious emotions, such as guilt, embarrassment, shame, etc (Bell & Song, 2005). Furthermore, when in conflict, individuals and groups frequently perceive that their goals are threatened, contributing to the conflict being an emotional experience (Jordan & Troth, 2004).

As suggested in the table above, conflict does not only generate emotions, but emotions may also instigate and/or fuel conflict. In the previous chapter, we noted that emotions are inextricably linked to our cognition. Therefore, emotions experienced during conflict also affect our thinking and behaviours and vice versa (Chen & Ayoko, 2012). For example, affective events theory explains how conflict events may influence an individual’s positive or negative emotional states that are fundamental to attitudes and behaviours in organisations (Chen & Ayoko, 2012).

For an introduction to the study of emotions and a more detailed exploration of the question of how conflict affects emotions and vice versa, you may wish to read the following reading:


Lindner, E. G. (2014). Emotion and Conflict. In P. T. Coleman, M. Deutsch & E. C. Marcus (Eds.), The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice. John Wiley & Sons.

The emotions that people typically experience during conflict are not necessarily all negative. Mild conflict is thought to create positive emotions, including, for example, excitement and enthusiasm (Chen & Ayoko, 2012). Nevertheless, conflict is frequently associated with negative emotions, including anger, resentment, distrust, disappointment, anxiety, fear, and self-conscious emotions like shame and guilt (Chen & Ayoko, 2012; Nair, 2008; Rees et al., 2020). You may be able to identify other negative emotions when thinking about your own experience of conflict.

Whether the emotions that parties experience in times of conflict are negative or positive depends on several factors, including:

  • the type of conflict, e.g., task conflict, relationship conflict, etc. Mild task conflict is thought to generate positive arousal, while relationship and process conflict are thought to predominantly lead to negative emotions such as anger and frustration (Chen & Ayoko, 2012)
  • the intensity of the conflict (mild versus intense)
  • the duration of the conflict (e.g., short-term versus intractable/ ongoing conflict)
  • the relationship of the people in conflict (e.g., defined by the level of trust between people, which again depends on how people are assigning blame)
  • how conflict is being managed.

Now that we have established that emotions are central to the experience of conflict, we will have a closer look at what emotions are, how we process them, and what their purpose is.

Defining Emotions

There is not one generally accepted theory or definition of emotion (Halperin et al., 2011). Different branches of psychology, including cognitive psychology, evolutionary psychology, social psychology, and neuroscience, as well as the field of conflict management have different views on emotions and thus all provide different definitions and focus on different functions of emotions in their definitions.

For example, evolutionary psychology focuses on the “survival and reproductive functions” of emotions and views them as “functional, rather than irrational, and predictable, rather than arbitrary” (Williams & Hinshaw, 2018). Emotions are further defined “as superordinate cognitive mechanisms that coordinate and guide information-processing programs (e.g., attention, perception, memory) and direct behaviour, overriding (or simultaneously activating) programs within the mind specific to the relevant problem at hand” (Williams & Hinshaw, 2018). From an evolutionary point of view, negative emotions linked to social confrontations, such as anxiety, anger and disgust evolved by facilitating the avoidance of similar dangers during our species’ development (Luterbach, 2016).

In textbooks on neuroscience, emotions are frequently viewed as “responses to stimuli”, which can be both positive and negative (Freberg, 2019). Freberg (2019), describes emotions as involving two major components:

  1. physical component (like racing heartbeat and overt behaviour like screaming or crying)
  2. conscious, subjective experience that we recognise as a feeling (e.g., feeling sad, happy)

Some definitions, provided for example in cognitive psychology textbooks, distinguish the physical component as 1) physiological responses (e.g. racing heartbeat) and 2) overt behaviours (facial expressions, gestures, specific actions like running away, crying, laughing, etc.) (Gluck et al., 2020).

Other definitions provided by other branches of psychology, in the below case, neuropsychology, distinguish further dimensions, defining an emotion as a discrete response to an external or internal stimulus that entails the three components listed above PLUS evaluation or appraisal (Lempert and Phelps, 2016).

Social psychology and conflict resolution literature are likely to also consider situational factors and may discuss emotions as:

  • discrete, adaptive responses to the environment that contain both psychological and physiological components (Todorova & Bear, 2014, p. 541)
  • subjective feeling states that the results of an individual’s interpretation of a situation (Chen & Ayoko, 2012, p. 22)

Distinguishing Emotions from Affect and Stress

It is useful to distinguish emotions from several terms that are often used interchangeably but mean different things. We will distinguish some of these terms below.


One distinction that appears to be particularly important to make sense of past and current research and resulting theories of emotions is the distinction between affect and emotion (Clore & Ortony, 2008). Affect is the general sense of feeling that you experience throughout the day. Affect is less complex than an emotion and has two features:

  1. valence (including positive and negative valence) and
  2. arousal (ranging from low arousal to high arousal)

Figure 3.1.1 represents the two dimensions of affect graphically:

Figure 3.1.1. Circumplex model of emotion developed by James Russell. Image by mrAnmol used under CC BY-SA 4.0 licence

While the neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barret (2017a), who we will cite several times during this chapter, challenges the idea of universality of emotions, she notes that affect with the two dimensions of valence and arousal seems innate and universal.

There are different “affective states” that a person can experience, including stress (explained in more detail below), mood, and affect dispositions – Lempert & Phelps (2016) distinguish transient emotional responses from stress.


The term “stress” can mean multiple things and be interpreted in multiple ways. For example, it may be defined asan unpleasant and disruptive state that may follow the perception of danger and threat” (Freberg, 2019, p. 513).

Other definitions focus less on the context in which stress may be experienced, but highlight the physiological dimension of stress, such as the definition used by Lempert and Phelps (2016):

Stress is the induction of a response that results in an increase in physiological arousal, glucocorticoid release, and ratings of negative affect. (p. 100)

In the context of emotions, both the causes of stress and the physiological side of it are important, which is why we will take a broad approach to stress, including that:

  • It may be experienced by a discrete stimulus, which may include an event, person, object, situation, memory, especially those that a person may perceive as dangerous or threatening to their physical and psychological wellbeing.
  • Stress includes a cascade of physiological and neurohormonal changes and the impact of these changes leads to a longer-lasting affective state (Lempert & Phelps, 2016).
  • The experience of stress and the resulting bodily changes can range from mild to extreme, depending on everyone (e.g., their previous experiences with the same or similar stressor).
  • Can be experienced quickly and for a short period of time (minutes to hours) as well as for an extended period (chronic stress) with implications for a person’s health.


Many publications seem to use the terms affect and mood interchangeably. Lempert and Phelps (2016) describe mood as a specific affective state. Their definition of mood highlights the difference between mood and stress, noting that mood:

…may or may not be triggered by a stimulus, and is primarily characterized by subjective feelings. Unlike stress, moods do not have a well-defined neurohormonal or physiological substrate. Furthermore, while stress results in a negative affective state … there is greater variation in the valence and nature of mood states. (p. 99)



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3.1 Foundations of Emotions Copyright © 2024 by Judith Rafferty is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.