What is Instrumental Emotions and Components of limbic system

Instrumental Emotions

Instrumental emotions are the designation given to an emotional behavior that is intended to play a social role or to obtain certain gains from others. This concept is addressed in experiential aspects, specifically in therapy focused on emotions developed by Greenberg and collaborators.

The concept of instrumental emotion highlights emotional expressions learned by the individual as a means of achieving a certain impact on others. Instrumental emotion is not restricted to a set of emotions , ie, different emotions can be expressed instrumentally (eg expressing sadness to obtain sympathy or care from others; expressing anger to obtain control and domination).

Instrumental emotion can be expressed consciously or unconsciously, with the latter not being aware of the tendency towards instrumental expression of a given emotion. These forms of expression prove to be dysfunctional, often having a manipulative character, becoming more or less rigid ways – turned into habits – of communicating certain needs with others.

These means of expression often contribute to the development of dysfunctional interpersonal cycles, in which the individual repeats this tendency of expression and action, despite the fact that their goals and needs may not be achieved or supplied in this way. Failure to obtain gains stems precisely from the perception, on the part of others, that this behavior is manipulative or theatrical.

In other situations, instrumental emotions can be expressed in order to establish a certain social image, according to moral and social rules or values.

In general, instrumental emotions differ from primary adaptive emotions (eg, primary adaptive sadness emotion differs from instrumental sadness emotion), and it is important to be aware of these emotional expression trends.

Once you become aware of this trend and what you want to achieve with it, it is possible to change forms of emotional expression, making them more adjusted, including the possibility of adapting to the needs of the individual.

Emotions and feelings

Many theorists have tried to explain what emotions are . For psychologist David G. Meyers, emotions are composed of “physiological arousal, expressive behavior, and conscious experience”.

It is now believed that emotions originate in the limbic system and that these complex states have these three components:

  • physiological : It is the first reaction to a stimulus and they are involuntary: increased breathing, hormonal changes, etc.
  • cognitive : Information is processed at a conscious and unconscious level. This influences our subjective experience.
  • Behavioral : Causes a change in behavior: facial gestures, body movements…
  • Over the years, there has been a debate between what is an emotion and what is a feeling. You can find out the difference in our article: “The 16 types of feelings and their psychological function”


In fact, different theories about emotion have been formulated for decades. The most important ones are classified in three ways: physiological, neurological and cognitive.

  • Physiological theories : They claim that intracorporeal responses are responsible for emotions.
  • Neurological theories : They argue that brain activity leads to emotional responses.
  • Cognitive theories : They suggest that thoughts and other mental activities are responsible for the formation of emotions.
  • You can delve deeper into these theoretical models in our article: “Emotional Psychology: Main Theories of Emotion”

Components of the limbic system

The limbic system has three types of components:

  • Physiological: Physical and involuntary reactions that are generated against a stimulus.
  • Cognitive: The conscious and unconscious way in which these stimuli are processed.
  • Behavioral: The changes generated in the behavior of the person in the face of a given stimulus or situation.

Theories of emotion

There are three theories that explain the appearance of emotions in humans:

  • Physiological Theory: It is based on internal bodily responses.
  • Neurological Theory: It is based on a certain activity generated by the brain .
  • Cognitive Theory: It is based on the person’s thoughts and mental activities.

How many emotions are there?

There are eight types of emotions and feelings: primary, secondary, positive, negative, ambiguous, static, social, and instrumental .

Primary emotions —or basic emotions— are the immediate reactions experienced to an event. They are usually bodily responses and due to their intensity they are easy to identify.

Secondary emotions are learned. They are obtained socially, through interaction with parents or other close people. It is not a reaction, but a response that is generated once the main emotion is understood.

The perception of what are positive emotions and what are negative emotions is socially acquired. However, identifying 10 positive and negative emotions is not so easy without emotional education.

Positive emotions are considered healthy. They have a good impact on well-being, thinking and the way of behaving in certain situations.

On the contrary, negative emotions cause discomfort in the person. That’s why they are also known as toxic emotions . They affect the way of acting, the way of thinking and behaving.

Ambiguous—or neutral—emotions are neither negative nor positive. They are proof of the complexity of human emotions.

On the other hand, the static ones are those reactions and responses that are experienced in front of the artistic expressions. A clear example is the positive or negative impact that music can have on someone.

Some emotions cannot be had alone, it is necessary for another person to intervene for them to develop . They are called social emotions and some examples are pride or revenge.

Finally, instrumental emotions are perhaps the most difficult to identify. They are used to manipulate or achieve a specific target. However, they can be disguised as the real thing, causing confusion for the person.

Thanks to this classification it is possible to have a list of emotions and a list of positive feelings, which are very useful for learning to distinguish between them.

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