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Hum Nat. 1990 Sep;1(3):261-89. doi: 10.1007/BF02733986.

Evolutionary explanations of emotions.

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Department of Psychiatry, The University of Michigan Medical Center, Med-Inn Building, Room C440, 48109-0840, Ann Arbor, MI.


Emotions can be explained as specialized states, shaped by natural selection, that increase fitness in specific situations. The physiological, psychological, and behavioral characteristics of a specific emotion can be analyzed as possible design features that increase the ability to cope with the threats and opportunities present in the corresponding situation. This approach to understanding the evolutionary functions of emotions is illustrated by the correspondence between (a) the subtypes of fear and the different kinds of threat; (b) the attributes of happiness and sadness and the changes that would be advantageous in propitious and unpropitious situations; and (c) the social emotions and the adaptive challenges of reciprocity relationships. In addition to addressing a core theoretical problem shared by evolutionary and cognitive psychology, explicit formulations of the evolutionary functions of specific emotions are of practical importance for understanding and treating emotional disorders.


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