Affect (Psychology): 15 Examples and Definition

definition and example of affect in psychology, explained below

The term “affect” refers to an underlying state or feeling a person has that is connected to their emoitons. Affective states are usually described along two dimensions: valence (from positive to negative) and arousal (from high to low).

In common parlance, the terms affect and emotion are often used interchangeably. Even academics use the two terms interchangeably, but they are slightly different. Generally, emotion is our immediate conscious feeling: fear, anger, etc. while affect is our base state at the time: irritability, pleasure, melancholy, etc.

These terms are, of course, very closely related. Check out the examples of affect below for some distinct cases of affect as opposed to emotion.

Affect vs. Emotion

The distinction between affect and emotion is an elusive one. First, I’ll present a table summary of my thoughts on the differences between the concepts to try to achieve some clarity for you, before wading into the admittedly murky literature on the topic.

DefinitionBasic, often unconscious, feeling states, that are felt at our ‘core’ (which is why Russell and Barrett (1999) call it ‘core affect).Complex psychological states that are often more consciously and acutely felt, but which then fade away more quickly.
Relation to stimuliMay not be tied to specific stimuli – i.e. a full day feeling melancholic.Often tied to specific external stimuli. Once the stimuli are remove, the emotion will likely rapidly fade.
IntensityUsually less intense but more sustained.Usually more intense but shorter in duration.
DurationPervasive and continuous, lasting all day, all week, or even longer, to extreme cases where they may be identified as reflecting a person’s temperament or identity (e.g. “they have a negative affect”).Episodic and momentary, where multiple sharp emotions may be felt in succession, such as while watching a film.
Conscious AwarenessOften unconscious unless we’re asked to reflect upon our affective state (i.e. when engaging in metacognition)Typically conscious – we can instantly state our emotional state.
Physiological ResponseMay or may not be observable.Typically observable and identifiable by all.
ExamplesPleasure, displeasure, melancholy.Happiness, anger, sadness, fear.

For more on the difference, I’ll present a more detailed account on the literature comparing to the two topics later in this article.

Affect Examples

Affect can be expressed along dimensions of valence (from positive to negative) and arousal (from high to low), giving us a range of affective states that can be described in terms of these dimensions:

examples of affective states, explained below
  1. Content: This affective state is associated with feelings of peace and satisfaction, such as a longstanding feeling of contentedness in old age because of your belief you have achieved what you wanted in life. Dimensions: positive valence, low arousal.
  2. Relaxed: Relaxation is characterized by a sense of calm and ease that you may have reached after spending time on a meditation retreat, and which may linger with you until you return to work, when this affective state is disrupted by the bustle of the workplace. Dimensions: positive valence, and low arousal.
  3. Bitter: The feeling of bitterness is characterized by prolonged resentment or dissatisfaction, often due to a perceived injustice. For example, we may come across a person who appears generally bitter about their place in life, the sense that the world is against them, etc. Dimensions: negative valence, low arousal.
  4. Anxious: The state of anxiety is marked by feelings of worry and unease, such as the constant state of concern a parent may have for a child who is struggling at school. Dimensions: negative valence, high arousal.
  5. Depressed: The state of depression is characterized by deep feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and disinterest. Someone might display a depressed affect after a significant loss, like the death of a loved one, or due to a mental health issue that keeps them in a depressed state for prolonged periods. Dimensions: negative valence, low arousal.
  6. Apathetic: Apathy is characterized by a lack of interest or motivation. For instance, an employee stuck in a dead-end job might develop an apathetic affect towards their work. Dimensions: negative valence, low arousal.
  7. Irritable: Irritability is marked by impatience and annoyance, such as the general state of irritability a person might experience when they are overworked or underslept. While it may be expressed by their emotions – like anger and frustration – the irritability is the underlying affect. Dimensions: negative valence, high arousal.
  8. Melancholic: Melancholy is characterized by deep, reflective sadness. Someone may experience a melancholic affect during a period of loneliness or after reading a deeply moving book. Dimensions: negative valence, low arousal.
  9. Absent-Mindedness: Being absent-minded is marked by a general lack of focus or attention, like the feeling when you’re daydreaming or lost in thought, neglecting immediate tasks. Some people, like the cliché absent minded professor, seem to be able to embody this affect their whole lives. Dimensions: neutral valence, low arousal.
  10. Despairing: Despair is marked by a profound sense of hopelessness and defeat, such as the long-lasting feelings someone might experience after a major personal failure or disaster, or if they have come to terms with a negative fate. Dimensions: negative valence, high arousal.
  11. Restless: Restlessness is marked by a feeling of being unsettled or unable to relax, such as when a young adult feels a bubbling urge to go backpacking around Europe, which they promise themselves they will do as soon as the university semester ends. Dimensions: negative valence, high arousal.
  12. Optimistic: Optimism is marked by a positive outlook and expectation for future events, which some people may feel seasonally (often, during spring) or as a general disposition – by which we might say someone has a ‘positive affect’. Dimensions: positive valence, high arousal.
  13. Calm: Calmness is marked by feelings of peace and tranquility, which is an affective state some people manage to master as part of their identity, such as when we say ‘he has a calm demeanour’. Dimensions: positive valence, low arousal.
  14. Aloof: Aloofness is characterized by a state of being distant, detached, or uninvolved, and is similar to absent mindedness discussed above. For instance, a person may exhibit an aloof affect in social situations where they do not feel comfortable or interested in engaging with others. This state can sometimes be interpreted as a lack of interest or a sign of self-reliance. Dimensions: neutral valence, low arousal.
  15. Pessimistic: Pessimism is marked by a tendency to see the worst aspect of things or believe that the worst will happen. A person might show a pessimistic affect when discussing future events, often anticipating negative outcomes. This could be a prolonged state for someone who habitually expects unfavorable results. In fact, this affect is so common that it’s often what we mean when we talk about someone with a generalized negative attribution bias (see here). Dimensions: negative valence, low arousal.

Dimensions of Affect

It is possible to consider affect as comprising three dimensions. The first two may sit along a cross-sectional plane, whereas the third (motivation) reflects strength with which the affective mode is experienced.

  1. Valence: This refers to the subjective experience of affect which exists on a continuum from positive to negative. In reality, many complex affective states such as embarrassment or pride are more nuanced than purely positive or negative.
  2. Arousal: this refers to the level of physiological activation associated with the affect. It can be measured directly with equipment that assess heart rate and galvanic skin conductance, or paper-and-pencil measures such as a questionnaire.
  3. Motivational: affective states can be strong or weak drivers of behavior. Generally speaking, stimuli that create positive affect lead to approach behavior while negative affect-inducing stimuli lead to avoidance behavior. Each direction can vary in strength of force.

See More: The 6 Types of Affect

Research on Affect vs Emotion

Okay, we’re about to get really into the weeds. Buckle up.

1. Russell and Barrett (1999) – Core Affect

Russell and Barrett (1999) point out that even among researchers, it’s hard to draw a clear line between the terms affect and emotion.

As Russell and Barrett (1999) argue:

“The experts do not agree on what is an emotion and what is not” (p. 805).

To add to the confusion, instead of the term affect, Russell (2003) prefers the term core affect, which he consistently states consists of two dimensions: pleasure-displeasure, which ranges from ecstasy to agony, and activation level, which ranges from sleep to “frenetic excitement.”

“Core affect is that neurophysiological state consciously accessible as the simplest raw (nonreflective) feelings evident in moods and emotions” (p. 148).

2. Clore and Ortony (2008)

Clore and Ortony (2008) believe that emotion is the cognitive appraisal of the situational factors which activate the physiology associated with the affect.

Subsequently, emotions are labeled and defined with more descriptive terms such as anger or fear.

These labels are based on our perception of situational parameters which serve to categorize and label the emotional state, not precede it.

However, James (1890) disagrees:

“Our natural way of thinking about …emotions is that the mental perception of some fact excites the mental affection called the emotion, and that this latter state of mind gives rise to the bodily expression. My theory, on the contrary, is that the bodily changes follow directly the perception of the exciting fact,” which means that we are “afraid because we tremble” (p. 743).

How to Measure Affect  

Studying affect scientifically requires measurement that is reliable and valid. To date, there are numerous paper-and-pencil self-report measures, which generally conceptualize it as a positive-negative state.

The Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS) (Watson et al., 1988) contains a list of 20 words that describe either positive (excited, alert, determined) or negative affect (upset, guilty, jittery).

Although there has been debate regarding various psychometric properties of the scale (Crawford & Henry, 2004), it has proven a popular measurement tool.

The scale has been shortened, lengthened, made suitable for cross-cultural contexts (Thompson, 2007), and modified to be applicable for children (Hughes & Kendall, 2009).

Applications of Affective Research

1. In Interpersonal Relations

The display of affect plays a critical role in interpersonal dynamics. It represents a highly effective non-verbal channel of communication that is central to a wide range of psychological phenomenon.

For instance, affective states and subsequent behavioral patterns form the basis for emotional attachment between mother and infant (Bowlby & Ainsworth, 2013).

Affective exchanges within an organization also have implications for leadership and coworker dynamics.

Research has demonstrated that affective displays can influence motivation and decision making (Forgas & George, 2001), be a source of information regarding group dynamics (Magee & Tiedens, 2006), or ignite a cycle of emotion interchanges among colleagues (Smith & Conrey, 2007).

2. In Consumer Behavior

According to Cohen et al. (2018), “research in consumer behavior dealing with affect has exploded, making it one of the field’s central research topics” (p. 2).

Some lines of research have examined the role of positive and negative affect that were induced outside conscious awareness on preferences. For example, Strahan, Spencer, and Zanna (2002) found that affective stimuli can influence participants’ evaluations even though the manipulation had no effect on their reported feelings.

Researchers in this area make a distinction between integral affect, incidental affect, and task-related affect.

Integral affect refers to feelings experience through direct contact with the product itself, such as tasting a fine wine. It also includes affect induced as a result of a TV commercial.

Incidental affect refers to affective experiences where the source of the mood is unconnected to the product being evaluated. It can come from personality-based dispositions, temperament, or facets of a situation such as the presence of background music in a store.

Task-related affect refers to when the individual’s emotional state is triggered by the process of making a judgment or decision. This could include the stress that occurs when having to choose between two highly attractive options.

As Cohen et al. (2018) summarize in their extensive review of the literature:

“Numerous studies across various disciplines show that integral affective responses to a target object—whether the object is a product, a person, or a company—are often incorporated into a summary evaluation of the object” (p. 27).

A large number of studies have identified a direct link between integral affective responses to ads and consumer attitudes toward the ad and indirect effects on attitudes toward the brand.

Results on incidental affect and task-related affect and consumer attitudes are more complex.


Affect is a subjective experience which we are all familiar with. We experience its variety and valence on a nearly second-by-second timeframe.

And yet, a clear definition of the construct has escaped scientific researchers for decades. Although its role in various psychological phenomenon have been studied extensively, there is some disagreement has to its most fitting conceptualization.

Despite this quandary, affective state is central in interpersonal relations. It serves as a communicative signal to others and plays a role in shaping the emotional bond between mother and infant.

It also has implications for how coworkers function in organizations, effecting their productivity, decision-making, group dynamics, and interactions with others.

The study of affect has been extensively studied in consumer research. Generally speaking, the affective valence of the consumer will affect their attitudes toward a product and brand, and by extension, possible influence purchase behavior as well.


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Dr. Cornell has worked in education for more than 20 years. His work has involved designing teacher certification for Trinity College in London and in-service training for state governments in the United States. He has trained kindergarten teachers in 8 countries and helped businessmen and women open baby centers and kindergartens in 3 countries.

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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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