Affect in psychology refers to an observable and outward expression of emotions. In psychology, we use the term to examine a person’s ability to demonstrate a typical and proportionate range emotional reactions to situations.
Kilgus, Maxmen & Ward (2015) differentiate affect from mood by highlighting that affect must be observable:
- Affect refers to “instantaneous, observable expressions of emotion.”
- Mood refers to “a pervasive and subjectively experienced feeling state.”
Similarly, Videbeck (2019) highlights that affect is an outward expression while mood is an internal state:
“Mood refers to the client’s pervasive and enduring emotional state. Affect is the outward expression of the client’s emotional state.”
While we often refer to two broad concepts of positive affect and negative affect, of more interest is the spectrum of affect regulation abilities of clients, which gives insight into their capacity to express emotions proportionate to the social context.
There are six main types of affect regulation, ranging from typical to atypical behaviors in humans:
- Broad affect – Demonstrating typical affective regulation
- Restricted affect – Demonstrating a narrow range of emotions
- Blunted affect – Demonstrating limited intensity of emotions
- Flat affect – Demonstrating no emotions
- Inappropriate affect – Demonstrating emotions that do not fit the context
- Liable affect – Demonstrating wild and unexpected swings in emotions
The psychological examination of affect can reveal patterns of emotional responses, which in turn could inform about individuals’ mental health conditions. The study of affect allows psychologists to understand and predict emotional reactions, thereby enabling the development of effective interventions and therapies.
Types of Affect
1. Broad Affect
Broad affect refers to the ability of someone to experience the typical range of affective states, from happiness and bliss to sadness, melancholy, and temporary depression (Videbeck, 2019).
Psychologists see broad affect as the expectation in a healthy and typical individual, as it shows the capacity to react proportionately to life circumstances.
Having a broad affect indicates an individual’s emotional responsiveness is functioning well. Therefore, psychologists use the presence of a broad affect as an indicator of good emotional health (Bernstein & Kaplan, 2022).
Example of Broad Affect: A person with broad affect would experience a range of expected emotions in reaction to stimuli. For instance, they might leave a social situation with an elevated mood, sadness when they hear distressing news, and contentment as they relax at the end of the day.
2. Restricted Affect
Restricted affect, also known as constricted affect, is when an individual experiences a reduced range of emotional expression, often finding it difficult to reach emotional expression on the extreme ends of negative and positive affect.
For example, they may not portray extreme emotions, whether joyful or sorrowful, when we might expect them to. Rather, their emotional expressions tend to fit within the middle range (Kaufmann et al., 2020).
A restricted affect can often be an indicator of certain psychological or emotional disorders. One such example is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), where individuals may exhibit a limited emotional range due to an overriding focus on particular thoughts or behaviors.
Example of Restricted Affect: An individual with restricted affect could hear both good and bad news and react with minimal emotional expression. Their reactions may not match the apparent intensity of the situation; for example, they may respond to exceptionally joyous news with a simple smile, or to distressing news with a mere sigh—showing limited expression.
3. Blunted Affect
Blunted affect implies a significant reduction in the intensity of affective responses (Kaufmann et al., 2020).
When a person has blunted affect, emotional reactions become less noticeable. Expressions of joy, sorrow, anger, or surprise may seem very subdued.
Note that restricted affect (above) is about the range of emotions whereas blunted affect is about the intensity of emotions. So, a person with blunted affect may theoretically be able to experience the extreme end of emotions, but their affective reactions will nonetheless appear quite understated and subdued (stony, stoic) in such situations.
Blunted affect is common in several psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It can also be observed in certain neurological conditions like Parkinson’s disease that impact motor control.
Example of Blunted Affect: An individual with blunted affect might struggle to exhibit appropriate emotional reactions to different situations. For instance, the person may appear remarkably stoic in the face of very funny jokes, or maintain a stony facade when receiving crushing news, revealing only the slightest hint of emotional perturbation.
4. Flat Affect
Flat affect refers to a sitaution where an individual does not show any significant signs of emotional response at all, positive or negative. They seem ‘flat’ at all times (Bernstein & Kaplan, 2022; Kilgus, Maxmen & Ward, 2015).
People with flat affect usually maintain an expressionless, non-communicative face, regardless of circumstances. This lack of emotional response can serve as a barrier to social interactions, making it difficult to form and maintain relationships.
Flat affect is often associated with conditions such as schizophrenia, severe depression, or traumatic brain injuries (Bernstein & Kaplan, 2022). It’s considered the most severe form of reduced affect, signaling a near-total lack of emotional reactivity.
Example of Flat Affect: A person with flat affect might seem unresponsive to different emotional triggers. They would maintain an impassive expression even when receiving extreme news, such as a family member’s death or winning a lottery. The flatness of their affect becomes a constant, irrespective of the situation or stimulus.
5. Inappropriate Affect
Inappropriate affect is defined as emotional responses that are unsuitable for the situation at hand.
With inappropriate affect, the emotions that a person expresses outwardly do not match the environment or stimuli. This mismatch can cause confusion, discomfort, or disruption in social communication (Baumann, 2007).
Inappropriate affect is often a symptom in several mental health disorders, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or certain types of brain injury. These individuals may laugh at a sad event or cry during a happy occasion due to their incongruent emotional responses.
Example of Inappropriate Affect: An individual with inappropriate affect may show signs of laughter during a solemn occasion such as a funeral, or may burst into tears during a joyful event such as a birthday party. These emotional reactions stand in stark contrast to the normative or expected reactions, indicating an inappropriate affect.
6. Labile Affect
Labile affect, contrary to forms of reduced affect such as blunted and flat affect, is characterized by rapid, unsystematic, and extreme changes in emotional states (Shives, 2008; Videbeck, 2019).
In labile affect, a person’s emotions may shift quickly from laughter to tears, from joy to sorrow, seemingly without apparent stimulus or in response to minor occurrences.
Labile affect can often be seen in certain clinical conditions such as bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and certain forms of dementia. It suggests an undermining of emotional stability and can present a significant burden in day-to-day life interactions.
Example of Labile Affect: A person exhibiting labile affect might appear to swing between different emotional states rapidly and unpredictably. For instance, in the span of just an hour, they might transition from exuberant laughter over a simple joke to deep sorrow without any obvious emotional trigger, and then back to an effusively cheerful state once more. The change in affect seems swift, intense and disorienting.
Understanding the main types of affect – broad, restricted, blunted, flat, labile, and inappropriate – provides insight into a person’s emotional health and possible psychological or neurological conditions.
Expressions of emotion, feelings, and moods that constitute our affective state play a crucial role in our well-being. Recognizing the variations in affect, distinguishing between appropriate and inappropriate responses, can aid in identifying mental health issues early and addressing them appropriately.
However, it’s worth reflecting on the fact that the diagnosis of disorders based upon affective expression may contribute to normative medical discourse, failing to accept that there may be a healthy diversity in emotional reactions across populations and that people shouldn’t feel social pressure to give emotional reactions that don’t feel natural to them in the situation.
Baumann, S. E. (2007). Primary Health Care Psychiatry: A Practical Guide for Southern Africa. Juta Academic.
Bernstein, K. S., & Kaplan, R. (2022). Psychiatric Mental Health Assessment and Diagnosis of Adults for Advanced Practice Mental Health Nurses. Taylor & Francis.
Kaufmann, C., Agalawatta, N., Bell, E., & S Malhi, G. (2020). Getting emotional about affect and mood. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 54(8), 850-852.
Kilgus, M. D., Maxmen, J. S., & Ward, N. G. (2015). Essential Psychopathology & Its Treatment (Fourth Edition). W. W. Norton.
Shives, L. R. (2008). Basic Concepts of Psychiatric-mental Health Nursing. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
Videbeck, S. (2019). Psychiatric-Mental Health Nursing. Wolters Kluwer Health.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]