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Nine affects, present at birth, combine with life experience to form emotion and personality

We are born into our human lives with the propensity to survive, and the nine innate affects kick in immediately to help us do so, moving us to cry, connect, and learn. There are nine affects, each containing its own unique experiential signature, each attaching a specific type of meaning to information as it is taken in, stored and recalled. Affects are the the inborn protocols that, when triggered, bring things to our attention and motivate us to act. Affects are not the same as emotion. They are the biological system that underlies emotion. Since the terms used to talk about feelings and emotions are often confusing, let’s take a moment to define a few of the terms of Tomkins’ system, and then we’ll return to focus on the nine innate affects.


  • Affect is the innate, biological response to the increasing, decreasing or persistent intensity of neural firing. This results in a particular feeling, facial and body display, and skin changes.

  • Affects feel rewarding, punishing, or neutral in their own ways.

  • Affect makes things urgent.

  • Awareness of an affect is a feeling.

  • A feeling plus memory of prior similar feelings is an emotion.

  • Often, without being aware, we develop “rules” to try to get more positive and less negative affect. Tomkins calls those rules scripts.

  • The pattern of scripts that a person uses to modulate affect make up his or her personality.


Emotions have a much bigger impact on our experience than affects. We notice emotions, we give them thousands of names, we write poems, books, and movies about them. And yet, in their bulk, they mask the much more fleeting workings of affect. These affects, hiding in plain sight, are often given short shrift by researchers who tend to study something their instruments can measure, and their subjects can name. But increasingly, with new developments in affective neuroscience, we are able to study smaller and smaller units of human experience.


Tomkins had a genius for noticing subtle changes in faces. He was gathering much more information than the prevailing psychological and philosophical theories were accounting for. Among the many influences that helped him to transform his intuition into theory was his infant son, Mark. Observing his infant son, Tomkins marveled at the amount of information an infant, fresh from the womb, could communicate. In the sabbatical year he took after Mark’s birth, he noted distinct differences in affective experience on the newborn’s face and in his body. Tomkins went on to spend years testing and refining his assumptions about affects. While there are other theories of basic emotion, there is as yet no consensus among theorists on the building blocks of emotion. We find Tomkins’ naming of the affects to be the most complete, explanatory and predictive.


Each innate affect has a unique trigger, a level and pattern of intensity of neural stimulation over time. The stimulus may be inside the body or outside. When we observe babies, how they smile, cry, and gaze intently, we can see evidence of Tomkins’ theory of the innate activation of affects. He proposed that innate affects are triggered, not by the specific content of experience as Freud suggested with breast feeding or potty training, but by the increasing, decreasing or level intensity of neural firing. There is something fundamentally neutral in the pure biology of Tomkins’ vision of the affect system which many find a welcome lens for understanding our emotional lives.


The affects are analogues of their stimuli, and they amplify the stimulus, to bring it to our attention. For example, surprise-startle is triggered by a very short, abrupt stimulus (anything from a sharp pain to a tap on the shoulder or the sound of a gun firing.) The affective response is also very brief: blink, eyebrows up, eyes wide, mouth open, and perhaps even flinching. Similarly, shame-humiliation is triggered by a partial impediment to positive affect, and it causes further impediment—for a time we usually want nothing to do with the previously exciting or joyful thing that is now tainted by shame. Any affect can amplify an affect, a drive, or any mental content or experience. Affects can be combined.


Let’s look at the innate affects as they might appear in infants, before a lot of learning has kicked in. distress


Distress-Anguish: The cry for help

Inherently punishing


The crying response is the first response the human being makes upon being born. When the affect reaches full intensity, it is expressed with crying, corners of the lips pulled down, the inner eyebrows arched up, red face, and breathing turns into rhythmic sobbing. Tears come into the picture about six weeks after the baby is born. The purpose of distress is to signal that all is not well. The birth cry is a cry of distress. It is a response to the excessive, inescapable level of stimulation the baby is exposed to upon being born. When you experience and express distress you are alerting yourself and others that something is amiss and help is needed. Hunger, a pinching diaper, or a painful gassy tummy can all cause a distress cry that is designed to summon a caregiver who attempts to make crying stop, preferably by improving the conditions. Distress is triggered by a persistent, too high level of neural firing. Any steady stimulus that is “too much,” such as pain or bright light, could trigger distress.


Interest-Excitement: The pull toward mastery

Inherently rewarding

An intensity of gaze, eyebrows down, “track, look, listen” is the face of interest. 

High intensity excitement usually involves muscle movement and vocalization.


The purpose of interest is to make learning rewarding. Interest is the most seriously neglected of the affects, possibly because it doesn’t disrupt thinking, but often fuels it. And since emotions are so often seen to be at odds with rational thought, it has escaped the attention of devoted thinkers that there is a good feeling associated with thinking. That good feeling is interest. “The interrelationships between the affect of interest and the functions of thought and memory are so extensive that the absence of the affective support of interest would jeopardize intellectual development no less than destruction of brain tissue. To think, as to engage in any other human activity, one must care, one must be excited, must be continually rewarded.” (Affect Imagery Consciousness, Vol. I p. 343) Interest is triggered by a gradual, manageable increase in neural firing. We can see it on infants’ faces as they encounter new sights, sounds and sensations.


Enjoyment-Joy: The social bond

Inherently rewarding

The smile, lips widened up and out, is the visible evidence of joy.


The innate affect is triggered by a decreasing stimulus—perhaps a reduction in hunger or loneliness, or relief of pain. The infant smiles; affect is contagious, so the caregiver smiles also. This mutually rewarding system of shared joy makes humans want to be social. We will seek to help and be helped by other humans who smile at us. Moreover, experiencing joy in association with people, objects, and activities creates a sense that there is a domain of the familiar, trustworthy, and good. And then is generated a commitment and attachments to those joy-inducing people, objects, and activities. Innate joy is triggered by a decrease in neural firing.startleSurprise-Startle: The reset buttonInherently neutralEyebrows up, eyes wide, and blink are the facial signposts of the startle response. Its purpose is to get you to stop what you are doing and pay attention to something new. In its intense form, startle, it is a massive contraction of the body which momentarily renders the individual incapable of either continuing whatever he was doing before the startle or initiating new activity so long as the startle response is emitted. (AIC VI p. 499) It is triggered by a sudden, brief stimulus.


Anger-Rage: The demand to fix it

Inherently punishing

The infant’s swollen, reddened face, muscle tension and scream are the obvious signs of anger.


Tomkins sees anger as caused by overload; it is triggered by persistent high-density neural firing. If distress is a signal that things are “too much”, anger is a signal that things are “WAY too much.” Tomkins writes at length about how managing anger and the violence associated with it are crucial for civilization. Systems of wealth, religion, and laws are all collective responses to anger.


Fear-Terror: The signal to flee or freeze

Inherently punishing

Fear displays itself as eyes open wide, lower eyelids tensed; eyebrows raised and drawn together; face pale, cold and sweaty; and the hair standing on end, especially on the back of the neck.


Fear is designed for emergency life and death situations, and it recruits an intense biological response so as to guarantee that our attention goes entirely toward survival. As such, it is highly punishing and intended to be briefly experienced. Tomkins writes that fear, like other affects, can also be triggered by internal stimuli such as memory or other affect. Fear is triggered by an intense, rapid increase in neural firing.shyfaceShame-Humiliation: The self-protection signalInherently punishingTomkins defines this affect in a way that is significantly different from the mainstream use of the word. The trigger for innate shame is the incomplete interruption of excitement or joy. And even though infants don’t yet have a sense of their own social lives, they experience the affect of shame whenever their experience of joy or excitement is thwarted. The facial display might be quick and fleeting, and it is less about broadcasting a feeling and more about hiding. The eyes look down and away, the neck muscles give way and the head falls. The purpose of shame is to be sufficiently negative so as to bring attention to whatever might have caused the positive affect to be impeded, so that we can learn how to avoid the loss of the positive in that moment or in the future. Shame affect exists to help us foster our sense of belonging and mastery by asking us to make sense of and overcome what might get in the way.Unlike the previously described affects, shame is an affect auxillary. It is triggered by the incomplete reduction of interest-excitement or enjoyment-joy, and like other affects, it is an analog of its trigger. Once triggered, shame-humiliation further impedes postive affect. While shame can operate when the individual is alone, it is tremendously important, and often unacknowledged, in relationships throughout life.


Disgust: The need to expel

Inherently punishing


Disgust is an auxiliary of the hunger drive, an impulse to expel a noxious item that has been ingested. It functions as an affect because there are many things that we figuratively ingest (people, thoughts, sights, noises) that, when found to be toxic, need to be expelled. So this affect is experienced at the back of our throats, our gorge rises, the head moves forward, tongue projects, and lower lip protrudes. The ultimate expression of disgust is vomiting. Disgust starts out to be about hunger, and soon is applied to people and non-food things.dissmell


Dissmell: The avoidance signal

Inherently punishing


Dissmell is another auxiliary of the hunger drive, but this is an impulse to pull away from or push away a noxious item that shouldn’t be ingested such as dead animals, fresh feces, or sour milk. It functions as an affect when non-food items or people are kept at a distance. Tomkins created this word to capture the biological response of repulsion. When dissmell is combined with anger, we call it contempt. Dissmell appears on the face as the head pulled back, the upper lip raised, nose wrinkled and inner eyebrows lower.


The Tomkins Blueprint


Because we have evolved with an affect system with some affects that feel good and some that feel bad, each human is motivated to:

  1. Maximize positive affect

  2. Minimize (reduce) negative affect

  3. Both of these actions work best when all affect is expressed.

  4. Anything that helps the performance of these three rules is good for human life; anything that interferes with them is bad for us.This is how we are wired, and this is what humans “want.”

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