Evolution, Emotions, and Emotional Disorders

Randolph M. Nesse, Phoebe C. Ellsworth

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

247 Scopus citations


Emotions research is now routinely grounded in evolution, but explicit evolutionary analyses of emotions remain rare. This article considers the implications of natural selection for several classic questions about emotions and emotional disorders. Emotions are special modes of operation shaped by natural selection. They adjust multiple response parameters in ways that have increased fitness in adaptively challenging situations that recurred over the course of evolution. They are valenced because selection shapes special processes for situations that have influenced fitness in the past. In situations that decrease fitness, negative emotions are useful and positive emotions are harmful. Selection has partially differentiated subtypes of emotions from generic precursor states to deal with specialized situations. This has resulted in untidy emotions that blur into each other on dozens of dimensions, rendering the quest for simple categorically distinct emotions futile. Selection has shaped flexible mechanisms that control the expression of emotions on the basis of an individual's appraisal of the meaning of events for his or her ability to reach personal goals. The prevalence of emotional disorders can be attributed to several evolutionary factors.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)129-139
Number of pages11
JournalAmerican Psychologist
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2009
Externally publishedYes


  • adaptation
  • appraisal
  • emotions
  • evolution
  • natural selection

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychology(all)


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