Evolutionary explanations of emotions

Randolph M. Nesse

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

518 Scopus citations


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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)261-289
Number of pages29
JournalHuman Nature
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1990


  • Adaptation
  • Anxiety
  • Emotion
  • Evolution
  • Fear
  • Feelings
  • Mental disorders
  • Mood
  • Natural selection
  • Psychiatry
  • Psychology
  • Reciprocity
  • Relationships

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Anthropology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Sociology and Political Science


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