In 1884, William James asked the fundamental question about the nature of emotions in his famous article “What Is an Emotion?” More than 130 years later, psychologists still wrestle with this question, and a single, precise definition has proven elusive. Definitional precision has been difficult both because emotion is a word lifted from common language—it is not a scientific term—and because scientists studying emotion approach it from many different perspectives. Psychologists from evolutionary, cognitive, and physiological traditions each focus on different antecedents, components, and outcomes of emotions. Further, an emotion is not one thing; it is a cluster of responses.

Defining Emotion

In light of these obstacles to a precise definition, however, most researchers agree that emotions have several characteristics. First, they include a subjective, experiential feeling ...

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