Affect control theory

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In control theory Affect control theory proposes that individuals maintain affective meanings through their actions and interpretations of events. The activity of social institutions occurs through maintenance of culturally based affective meanings.

Affective meaning

Besides a denotative meaning, every concept has an affective meaning, or connotation, that varies along three dimensions [1]: evaluation — goodness versus badness, potency — powerfulness versus powerlessness, and activity — liveliness versus torpidity. Affective meanings can be measured with semantic differentials yielding a three-number profile indicating how the concept is positioned on evaluation, potency, and activity (EPA). Osgood [2] demonstrated that an elementary concept conveyed by a word or idiom has a normative affective meaning within a particular culture.

A stable affective meaning derived either from personal experience of from cultural inculcation is called a sentiment, or fundamental affective meaning, in affect control theory. Affect control theory has inspired assembly of dictionaries of EPA sentiments for thousands of concepts involved in social life — identities, behaviors, settings, personal attributes, and emotions. Sentiment dictionaries have been constructed with ratings of respondents from the U.S.A., Canada, Northern Ireland, Germany, Japan, and China (both the People’s Republic and Taiwan).[3]

Impression formation

Each concept that is in play in a situation has a transient affective meaning in addition to an associated sentiment. The transient corresponds to an impression created by recent events.[4]

Events modify impressions on all three EPA dimensions in complex ways that are described with non-linear equations obtained through empirical studies.[5]

Here are two examples of impression-formation processes.

  • An actor who behaves disagreeably seems less good, especially if the object of the behavior is innocent and powerless, like a child.
  • A powerful person seems desperate when performing extremely forceful acts on another, and the object person may seem invincible.

A social action creates impressions of the actor, the object person, the behavior, and the setting.[6]


Deflections are the distances in the EPA space between transient and fundamental affective meanings. For example, a mother complimented by a stranger feels that the unknown individual is much nicer than a stranger is supposed to be, and a bit too potent and active as well — thus there is a moderate distance between the impression created and the mother's sentiment about strangers. High deflections in a situation produce an aura of unlikeliness or uncanniness [7] It is theorized that high deflections maintained over time generate psychological stress.[8]

The basic cybernetic idea of affect control theory can be stated in terms of deflections. An individual selects a behavior that produces the minimum deflections for concepts involved in the action. Minimization of deflections is described by equations derived with calculus from empirical impression-formation equations[9]


On entering a scene an individual defines the situation by assigning identities to each participant, frequently in accord with an encompassing social institution.[10] While defining the situation, the individual tries to maintain the affective meaning of self through adoption of an identity whose sentiment serves as a surrogate for the individual's self-sentiment.[11] The identities assembled in the definition of the situation determine the sentiments that the individual tries to maintain behaviorally.

Confirming sentiments associated with institutional identities — like doctor-patient, lawyer-client, or professor-student — creates institutionally relevant role behavior[12]

Confirming sentiments associated with negatively evaluated identities — like bully, glutton, loafer, or scatterbrain — generates deviant behavior[13] Affect control theory's sentiment databases and mathematical model are combined in a computer simulation program[14] for analyzing social interaction in various cultures.


According to affect control theory, an event generates emotions for the individuals involved in the event by changing impressions of the individuals. The emotion is a function of the impression created of the individual and of the difference between that impression and the sentiment attached to the individual’s identity[15] Thus, for example, an event that creates a negative impression of an individual generates unpleasant emotion for that person, and the unpleasantness is worse if the individual believes she has a highly valued identity. Similarly, an event creating a positive impression generates a pleasant emotion, all the more pleasant if the individual believes he has a disvalued identity in the situation.

Non-linear equations describing how transients and fundamentals combine to produce emotions have been derived in empirical studies[16] Affect control theory's computer simulation program [17] uses these equations to predict emotions that arise in social interaction, and displays the predictions via facial expressions that are computer drawn [18] as well as in terms of emotion words.

Based on cybernetic studies by Pavloski[19] hypothesizes that emotion is distinct from stress. For example, a parent enjoying intensely pleasant emotions while interacting with an offspring suffers no stress. A homeowner attending to a sponging house guest may feel no emotion and yet be experiencing substantial stress.


Others’ behaviors are interpreted so as to minimize the deflections they cause.[20] For example, a man turning away from another and exiting through a doorway could be engaged in several different actions, like departing from, deserting, or escaping from the other. Observers choose among the alternatives so as to minimize deflections associated with their definitions of the situation. Observers who assigned different identities to the observed individuals could have different interpretations of the behavior.

Re-definition of the situation may follow an event that causes large deflections which cannot be resolved by reinterpreting the behavior. In this case, observers assign new identities that are confirmed by the behavior [21]. For example, seeing a father slap a son, one might re-define the father as an abusive parent, or perhaps as a strict disciplinarian; or one might re-define the son as an arrogant brat. Affect control theory's computer program predicts the plausible re-identifications, thereby providing a formal model for labeling theory.

The sentiment associated with an identity can change to befit the kinds of events in which that identity is involved, when situations keep arising where the identity is deflected in the same way, especially when identities are informal and non-institutionalized [22]


Affect control theory has been used in research on emotions, gender, social structure, politics, deviance and law, the arts, and business. A bibliography of research studies in these areas is provided by Heise [23] and at the research program's website.


  1. (Osgood et al. 1975)
  2. Osgood et al. (1975)
  3. Heise (2001) provides a detailed description of this work.
  4. (Gollob 1968; Gollob and Rossman 1973)
  5. (see Heise 1979, Ch. 2; Smith-Lovin & Heise 1988; Britt & Heise 1992; Smith et al. 1994; and Smith & Francis 2005).
  6. (Smith-Lovin & Heise 1988).
  7. (Heise & MacKinnon 1987).
  8. (Heise 2007, pp. 60-62).
  9. (Heise 2007, Part II).
  10. (Heise 2007, Ch. 5).
  11. (Heise 2007, Chs. 10, 16).
  12. (Heise 1979, Ch. 5; MacKinnon 1994, Ch. 6; Heise 2007, Ch. 7).
  13. (Heise 1979, pp. 118-124; Heise 2007, pp. 53-55).
  14. (Schneider and Heise 1995)
  15. (Averett and Heise 1987; Heise and Weir 1999; Heise 2007, Chs. 8, 14).
  16. (Averett & Heise 1988; Heise & Thomas 1989; Smith et al. 2001).
  17. (Heise 1997)
  18. (Heise 2004),
  19. Pavloski (1989) and Goldstein (1989), Heise (2007, p. 62)
  20. (Nelson 2006).
  21. (Heise 1979, pp. 86-89, 127-132; MacKinnon 1994, Ch. 8; Heise 2007, Chs. 9, 13)
  22. (Heise 2006).
  23. (2007, Chapter 19)

Further reading

  • Averett, Christine; Heise, David (1987), "Modified social identities: Amalgamations, attributions, and emotions", Journal of Mathematical Sociology, 13, pp. 103–132.
  • Britt, Lory; Heise, David (1992), "Impressions of self-directed action", Social Psychology Quarterly, 55, pp. 335–350.
  • Goldstein, David (1989), "Control theory applied to stress management", in Hershberger, Wayne, Volitional Action: Conation and Control, New York: Elsevier, pp. 481–492.
  • Gollob, Harry (1968), "Impression formation and word combination in sentences", Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 10, pp. 341–53.
  • Gollob, Harry; Rossman, B. B. (1973), "Judgments of an actor's 'Power and ability to influence others'", Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 9, pp. 391–406.
  • Heise, David (1979), Understanding Events: Affect and the Construction of Social Action, New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Heise, David (1997). Interact On-Line (Java applet).
  • Heise, David (2001), "Project Magellan: Collecting Cross-Cultural Affective Meanings Via the Internet", Electronic Journal of Sociology [1] External link in |periodical= (help).
  • Heise, David (2004), "Enculturating agents with expressive role behavior", in Payr, Sabine; Trappl, Robert, Agent Culture: Human-Agent Interaction in a Multicultural World, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 127–142.
  • Heise, David (2006), "Sentiment formation in social interaction", in McClelland, Kent; Fararo, Thomas, Purpose, Meaning, and Action : Control Systems Theories in Sociology, pp. 189–211.
  • Heise, David (2007), Expressive Order: Confirming Sentiments in Social Actions, New York: Springer.
  • Heise, David; MacKinnon, Neil (1987), "Affective bases of likelihood perception", Journal of Mathematical Sociology, 13, pp. 133–151.
  • Heise, David; Thomas, Lisa (1989), "Predicting impressions created by combinations of emotion and social identity", Social Psychology Quarterly, 52, pp. 141–148.
  • Heise, David; Weir, Brian (1999), "A test of symbolic interactionist predictions about emotions in imagined situations", Symbolic Interaction, 22, pp. 129–161.
  • MacKinnon, Neil (1994), Symbolic Interactionism as Affect Control, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
  • Nelson, Steven (2006), "Redefining a bizarre situation: Relative concept stability in affect control theory", Social Psychology Quarterly, 69, pp. 215–234.
  • Osgood, Charles; May, W. H.; Miron, M. S. (1975), Cross-Cultural Universals of Affective Meaning, Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
  • Pavloski, Raymond (1989), "The physiological stress of thwarted intentions", in Hershberger, Wayne, Volitional Action: Conation and Control, New York: Elsevier, pp. 215–232.
  • Schneider, Andreas; Heise, David (1995), "Simulating Symbolic Interaction", Journal of Mathematical Sociology, 20, pp. 271–287.
  • Smith-Lovin, Lynn; Heise, David (1988), Analyzing Social Interaction: Advances in Affect Control Theory, New York: Gordon and Breach. [This is a reprint of the Journal of Mathematical Sociology, Volume 13 (1-2), and it contains cited articles by Averett & Heise and Heise & MacKinnon.]
  • Smith, Herman; Matsuno, Takanori; Umino, Michio (1994), "How similar are impression-formation processes among Japanese and Americans?", Social Psychology Quarterly, 57, pp. 124–139.
  • Smith, Herman; Matsuno, Takanori; Ike, Shuuichirou (2001), "The affective basis of attributional processes among Japanese and Americans", Social Psychology Quarterly, 64, pp. 180–194.
  • Smith, Herman; Francis, Linda (2005), "Social versus self-directed events among Japanese and Americans: Self-actualization, emotions, moods, and trait disposition labeling", Social Forces volume = 84, pp. 821–830.

See also

External links