William N. Morris (1992) More on the Mood-emotion Distinction. Psycoloquy: 3(07) Mood (6)

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PSYCOLOQUY (ISSN 1055-0143) is sponsored by the American Psychological Association (APA).
Psycoloquy 3(07): More on the Mood-emotion Distinction

Commentary on Nesse on Mood

William N. Morris
Department of Psychology
6207 Gerry Hall
Dartmouth College
Hanover, NH 03755-3459



Nesse fails to adhere to the accepted distinctions between mood and emotion, namely, that emotions are aroused by specific objects whereas moods have no such specific referent. Despite this point, we are remarkably close in our analysis of the function of mood. I find it reassuring that we end up with such a similar analysis given that we are relying upon such different sources.


Mood, evolution, natural selection, fitness, emotion, adaptation, function, depression, psychology, psychiatry.
1. As one who has been struggling to persuade the field of the importance and validity of a careful distinction between mood and emotion (Morris & Reilly, 1987; Morris, 1989, 1992), I have become habituated to cases of interchangeable usage and so was not aroused to respond to this in Nesse's original PSYCOLOQUY (2.9.2, 1991) target article. However, the query from Green and the reply by Nesse ( and, 1992) have exceeded my threshold.

2. For those who missed it, Green asked why Nesse fails to adhere to what Green deems an accepted distinction, namely, that emotions are aroused by specific objects whereas moods, though being similar to emotions in other respects, have no such specific referent. Nesse responds by saying that such a distinction is not routinely accepted in philosophy and is even less accepted in psychology, citing Thayer (1989), the various works of Plutchik [q.v., this issue], and Lazarus's (1991) recent monograph on emotion.

3. The value of the distinction will not be decided by a show of hands but I feel it is important to point out that those scholars of affect whose primary interest has been in mood rather than emotion generally accept the distinction referred to by Green, or one very much like it. I include Edith Jacobsen (1957), Vincent Nowlis (Nowlis & Nowlis, 1956), Alice Isen (1984), Alden Wessman (Wessman & Ricks, 1966), and myself in this list. Moreover, because of the stature of Lazarus, I feel it is necessary to comment that my reading of his opinion about the distinction differs from Nesse's. I would argue that Lazarus makes a clear (and conventional) differentiation between mood and emotion.

4. For example, in discussing the classification of various affective phenomena, Lazarus (1991) observes "If we distinguish moods from acute emotions on the basis of vagueness and lack of a contextual provocation in the mood, we may be more on target. Most moods do not seem to be clearly related to a single object or piece of business in an adaptational encounter, as is the case in acute anger or fear. When we speak of someone's being melancholy or cheerful, it is usually difficult to identify either a specific object (as in the target of anger) or cause of the state (as in a provocative act), to use Hume's famous distinction." (p. 48) And, contrary to Nesse's observation that Lazarus "makes little of the distinction", I would add that Lazarus goes so far as to suggest that "since moods are concerned with larger, longer lasting, existential issues about the person's life and how it is going, and acute emotions are apt to be brief and evanescent, I venture the thought that moods are transcendentally important ... in how we judge our adaptational status"(p. 49).

5. Moving beyond the question of who has or has not maintained a mood-emotion distinction, Nesse goes on to say that, in any case, the usefulness of the distinction is suspect if both states are regarded as adaptive means for adjusting to the environment. As an example, he suggests that little is to be gained by reclassifying anxiety from a mood to an emotion in the case of someone who suddenly realizes why he is nervous.

6. I would strongly disagree about whether nothing is to be gained by distinguishing these two states, one of which is associated (by the perceiver) with an object and the other not. Indeed, the major heuristic value of the mood concept lies in the fact that it has generated a great deal of research demonstrating that its effects are global and diffuse -- able to influence a broad range of cognitive, perceptual, and behavioral processes (reviewed in Morris, 1989). However, when the mood or its source is brought to a subject's attention, the mood effect disappears (e.g., see Schwarz, 1990). Thus, although moods do, of course, have sources, their characteristic effects may depend upon their sources going unnoticed. This is surely an important difference between mood and emotion. Finally, although insight into one's affective responses has had a checkered history as therapy, I would note that a central component of the successful cognitive therapy for panic disorder is providing an explanation to the patient for an otherwise inexplicable fear (panic) response.

7. Despite my disagreement with Nesse on this point, we are remarkably close in our analysis of the function of mood: Whereas Nesse believes that mood is a reflection of the "perceived propitiousness of current circumstances, "I (Morris, 1992) have defined it as a cue to the individual about the resources available to meet environmental demands. Like Nesse, my consideration emerges from an evolutionary perspective. However, whereas Nesse pays particular attention to the importance of mood within the social matrix, I have considered how a functional analysis of mood can help to explain diurnal and seasonal patterns of mood, mood-congruent memory and perception, the relation of mood to self-focussed attention (Ingram, 1990), and various aspects of the major affective disorders. I find it both exciting and reassuring that we end up with such a similar analysis given that we are relying upon such different sources and I look forward to seeing an expanded version of the original PSYCOLOQUY manuscript.


Ingram, R. E. (1990). Self-focused attention in clinical disorders: Review and a conceptual model. Psychological Bulletin, 107, 156-176.

Isen, A. M. (1984). Toward understanding the role of affect in cognition. In R.S. Wyer & T.K. Srull (Eds.), Handbook of social cognition (pp. 179-236), Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Jacobsen, E. (1957). Normal and pathological moods: Their nature and functions. In R.S. Eilser, A.F. Freud, H. Hartman, & E. Kris (Eds.), The psychoanalytic study of the child (pp. 73-113). New York: International Universities Press.

Lazarus, R. S. (1991). Emotion and adaptation. New York:Oxford University Press.

Morris, W. N. (1989). Mood: The frame of mind. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Morris, W. N. (1992). A functional analysis of the role of mood in affective systems. In M.S. Clark (Ed.), Emotion (pp. 256-293). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Morris, W. N. & Reilly, N. P. (1987). Toward the self-regulation of mood: Theory and research. Motivation and Emotion, 11, 215-249.

Nowlis, V., & Nowlis, H. H. (1956). The description and analysis of mood. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 65, 345-355.

Schwarz, N. (1990). Feelings as information: Informational and motivational functions of affective states. In E.T. Higgins & R. Sorrentino (Eds.), Handbook of motivation and cognition (pp. 527-559). New York: Guilford.

Thayer, R. E. (1989). The biopsychology of mood and arousal. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wessman, A. E., & Ricks, D. F. (1966). Mood and personality. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

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