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Affects evolved as the system of motivation for human beings

An animal moving through space has a lot of information to keep track of. By contrast, a plant, rooted in the ground, responds to temperature, moisture, and ground nutrients, but it doesn’t ever really ask itself, “Should I stay or should I go?” It doesn’t have to evaluate the solidity of the terrain on which it chooses to step. It doesn’t much need to predict the outcome of its decisions nor react quickly. But something that moves has an enormous amount of information to process so that it can determine, “What do I want, and what do I need to avoid?” 

Such a creature needs a system, not just for responding to information, but for storing it, classifying it, retrieving it and ranking its importance. It needs much more than a simple stimulus and response mechanism, reflex or instinct. As it moves through space, it learns, it adapts, it predicts and it decides.

The answer to this particular need of a mobile creature is complex, involving multiple interdependent systems. And perhaps the most overlooked has been the affect system, according to Tomkins. The affect system evolved so that this creature can experience what is important about its world. Nothing becomes conscious without affect, nothing is remembered without affect, and nothing is sought or avoided without affect. Affect is what motivates us; affect makes things urgent. Each of the nine innate affects has a characteristic feeling, facial display, and body experience. Affects are the biological responses that attach meaning to the stimuli encountered from moment to moment. Affects are the origin of the experience of good and bad. Affects tell us what to pay attention to. They are the spotlights of our minds.

There are two positive affects, and they feel good in different ways. Enjoyment-joy helps to pull us toward each other to form bonds of mutual advantage. Interest-excitement drives us toward discovering our world and our experiences, understanding and mastering their rules. Both feel good to humans, and we seek joyful and interesting experiences, from the relief of hunger to solving a puzzle. On the negative side, we experience fear-terror, distress-anguish, anger-rage, shame-humiliation, disgust, and dissmell, all of which feel bad in different ways, and we try to avoid experiences that result in these affects. There is one neutral affect, surprise-startle, which serves as a reset button, getting our attention and making us look for the next stimulus. Notice that Tomkins describes most of the affects as if they were on a continuum to show that, while any given affect has a unique flavor, there can be a great deal of variation in the intensity of an affective experience.

Such nuance is characteristic of Tomkins’ theory, which takes pains to account for the fact that this system is keyed, not to static qualities, but to changes. Only a system that responds to the change in the intensity and quality of experience as an organism moves through time and space can serve its needs. Much like music exists as something that unfolds over time and ceases to become music when one note is isolated, the innate affects occur over time in response to changing stimuli.

Tomkins proposes that affects evolved to favor three outcomes:  survival, affinity with people and discovery of the new.

"It is our belief that...natural selection has operated on man to heighten three distinct classes of affect:  affect for the preservation of life, affect for people, and affect for novelty...He fears threats to his life, is excited by new information and smiles with joy at the smile of one of his own species. These constitute some of the basic blueprints for the feedback mechanism." (Affect Imagery Consciousness Vol. I page 26-27.)

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