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Perceiving Emotions


Emotional intelligence refers to the ability to perceive, evaluate, express and control emotions. Some people claim that emotional intelligence is an acquired trait and can be built while others suggest that it is an inborn ability that comes only through the genes. In the modern world, the need for being emotional is important not only to the personal life but also the professional lives of people. Some psychologists even suggest that emotional intelligence (EQ) is more important than the Intelligence Quotient (IQ) for a person.

Emotional Intelligence involves a series of processes to make sense of the emotions that we encounter in real life. These processes include - perceiving, understanding, using and managing emotions. The first step to emotional intelligence is thus, perception of emotions.


Perceiving emotions is the basic ability of a person to register and recognize emotions in themselves and in others. A major part of this process is also to be able to accurately perceive emotions through verbal and no-verbal cues so that understanding, responding to and managing them becomes easier.


During the older days of psychology, perceiving emotions was limited to effectively receiving behavioral cues and being able to label them with a generic emotion. For example, you could look at a person frowning and say, “Oh, he/she/they is sad.’

However, recent research in the field of emotional intelligence and a plethora of evidence suggest that emotions are not individualistic or simple, rather they exist in a complex combination or as points on a spectrum.

This leads to a more complex ability of being able to perceive the shades or tints of various emotions a person is experiencing/ displaying at a given point of time. It also suggests that identifying this coloring of emotions is different from labeling a single pure emotion.

Over the years, there are three different types of approaches that have been used to explain the perception of emotions. They are as follows:

  • IMPRESSIONISTIC STYLE: This style of perceiving emotions was advocated by Darwin and his contemporaries. It refers to the signs of emotions that people can recognize once they are alerted to them, but might not notice spontaneously. This method focuses majorly on the premise that the experience of emotions usually comes with smaller signs and cues that help understand and perceive these emotions in an extensively efficient way. The major method of study that impressionist researchers undertook was observation, which meant that although the findings make sense and can provide a lot of meaning and depth, they can’t be accepted as completely objective. It is also difficult to generalize these findings on a larger population because the mode of data collection is slightly informal.

  • EXPERIMENTAL STYLE: As a result of the criticism of the impressionistic method for it being subjective, more formal and objective methods entered the scenario. Experimentalists paid attention to objectively formulating emotions, formalizing the different kinds of stimuli and their respective emotional perceptions. This function of elements produced a method of perception with a completely different emphasis. The experimentalists focus on the relationship between perception and cognition. Lazarus (1999), suggested that perceptions of emotions can be formed even without conscious effort. Although this felt largely implausible in the beginning, later researchers also discovered that emotional perception had little or nothing to do with cognition and that we do perceive emotions without consciously paying attention to them. This method thus drove a wedge between the unconscious emotional processes and the more conscious behavioral cues of emotions, contradicting the impressionistic view. Although this theory places a lot of emphasis on stimuli and appropriate emotional responsive emotions to these stimuli, it does not take into consideration the social and cultural factors affecting our perception and display of emotions. For example, while conversing loudly might be a sign of happiness and excitement in south-east Asian cultures, raising your voice is considered disrespectful and aggressive in East Asian and Western cultures.

  • TECHNOLOGICAL STYLE: With the technological advancements in the modern era, it was only foreseeable that comprehension of emotions would gradually be automated. Picard’s book “Affective Computing” provided an automated standard way to comprehend emotions and also to respond to these emotions respectively. A lot of psychologists slowly moved in this direction because of the society shifting its focus more on technological aspects. Researches were conducted in the sub-fields of emotional expression through speech, vision and other physical signs. Campbell’s studies (2004) of people over the telephone suggested that very little emotion is expressed verbally while the most of it comes in the form of body-language and other non-verbal cues. However, the most common emotion expressed via the telephone was frustration. This holds true for modern times too where most people vent out their frustration on call. As is evident from the above pieces of information, the perception of emotions can be undertaken in multiple ways depending upon how we approach them.


The perception and appraisal of emotions happens through a variety of ways. The perception of emotions could be through auditory, visual, olfactory and physiological sensory processes. Both verbal and non-verbal expressions of emotions trigger different areas of the brain. These different areas of the brain help in different aspects of perceiving emotions. Following are the different aspects/factors that affect our perception of emotions.

VISUAL: Many times, emotions are displayed in the form of facial expressions, visual physical cues. A visual appraisal of these signs help in knowing the affective state of the concerned individual. Although the appraisal of emotion is only at the base level, the cognitive processing which happens later assigns meaning to this interpretation. AUDITORY: Voices, Screams, Intonation and Music can all convey important emotional information. Parameters like pitch, pause, intonation, can give more clarity to emotional recognition. Researchers have suggested that certain basic emotions like happiness, sadness, fear and peacefulness can all be perceived through as little as 4-16 seconds of instrumental music. OLFACTORY: Aromas and scents also serve as important supporting cues to emotional perception. Positive and negative scents are associated with positive and negative emotions respectively. Aromatherapy works on this basic premise that smell affects emotion. SOMATIC: Although not a lot of research has been conducted on somatic cues affecting emotional perception, there is a large possibility that perception could be affected by how “something feels”.


(this section is for those who are curious to know how psychology is connected to our biological system)

There are specific brain systems involved in the process of emotional perception. Following are the main parts of the brain system involved in emotional appraisal.

  1. FUSIFORM FACE AREA - This region of the brain is specialized in perceiving human faces but necessarily not other information. While this might seem like a non-significant person, if we would lose the ability to sense facial changes, a lot of important information regarding the emotion would be lost.

  2. HPA AXIS - The hypothalamus, pituitary, adrenaline axis within our brain reacts majorly to stress response. Certain basic emotions like fear, excitement, anxiousness, shock, etc. are all part of the human stress response.

  3. AMYGDALA - The Amygdala is part of the temporal lobe and is important in understanding how we pay attention to emotional stimuli. It also aids the perception of emotions through auditory, olfactory and gustatory stimuli.


A lot of patients with existing base-level psychological issues have a difficulty in perceiving emotions. Improper emotional perception and appraisal can have majorly adverse consequences on an individual’s professional and personal life. The first step to emotional intelligence is carefully perceiving emotions and labeling them. If this step is missed, there are high chances that the processing, regulation and response to emotions will be hampered, thus hampering the person’s emotional intelligence as a whole.


Through a brief reading of this article, we realize that a multi-dimensional perception of emotions is crucial to human beings. From using ambient music to create a pleasurable vibe in restaurants to wearing the right clothes to the right occasions (for example, wearing black to symbolize sadness and death in western cultures, wearing a blazer to symbolize authority, etc.), emotional cues are present all around us and hold a lot of importance in our daily lives.


Hope you found this article helpful. If you or your organization is interested to learn more about such attributes and behavioral skills at the workplace, feel free to get in touch with us at RGB Training Services!


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