When we think about emotions, we see them as being instant. All emotions seem to affect us immediately and be out of our control.

For this reason, it may look like they don’t follow any kinds of rules or regulations so that we can better control or understand them. Until recently, we have accepted that all emotions are laws unto themselves.

In 2006, Professor Nico Frijda from the University of Amsterdam put forward that there are twelve laws that govern all emotions. They make a lot of sense when we try to understand different behaviours and emotional states.

1. The Law of Situational Meaning

All emotions are derived from situations. Similar situations will produce similar emotional responses so that we can predict the same behaviours in the future. For example, a loss makes us sad and a gain makes us happy. This also allows us to feel empathy towards others because we understand our own emotional responses from similar situations.

2. The Law of Concern

When we care about something, our emotions are immediately invoked. If something happens to something or someone that we care about, then our emotions follow suit, whether it be good or bad. If we want to achieve something, then we are more motivated to work towards a certain goal because we care about it. This drives us forward and allows us to progress in life.

3. The Law of Apparent Reality

We can only react to things that we believe are real. Anything that we believe to be real can invoke an emotional response. The same is true when we interpret different situations. This is why we do not enjoy bad films or TV because it just doesn’t feel true. It’s difficult for us to connect with them and feel for the characters.

The same is true when we can’t see something that is obvious, such as the death of a loved one. Greif may not hit us until we try and get in contact with them, forgetting they are no longer around.

4. The Law of Change

All emotions quickly respond to change. It makes us feel uncertain and this can make us feel stronger emotional responses than if something were to happen when we are in a regular routine.

5. The Law of Habituation

If we are used to a habit or routine, then we may get comfortable and allow ourselves to relax. This relaxes our emotions and leaves them open to good and positive feelings.

6. The Law of Comparative Feeling

Once used to a routine, we build up emotional data of how we have been feeling in this routine. So when it changes, the emotional response can be powerful. If the routine has been highly stressful, a change can bring intense relief. If it has been a calm routine, however, incurring stress can bring about a very negative emotional response.

7. The Law of Hedonic Asymmetry

In some situations, it is impossible to become accustomed or used to what is going on. We will always feel stress or fear until the problem goes away. However, pleasure is different.

However, pleasure is different. Pleasurable feeling will always reduce over time and we will return to seeking out means of pleasure in order to make this feeling last.

8. The Law of Conservation of Emotional Momentum

Major events can retain their emotional power for years unless we re-evaluate them, or even re-experience them. This allows us to redefine a major moment in our lives.

Yet, the initial feeling will always affect us, which is why the feeling of rejection or heartbreak can still have their emotional power even years later.

9. The Law of Closure

Emotions are powerful things, and they occur immediately after an event and cause us to react instantaneously. These reactions take us down one path of emotional response and consequent behaviours until the emotion has been resolved.

In other words, if you are feeling sad, you will continue to feel sad and behave ‘sadly’, until another emotion pulls you in a different direction to a different set of behaviours.

10. The Law of Care for Consequences

Humans are naturally aware of consequences, as they tend to protect us from doing something dangerous or mean spirited. Although all emotions will produce a certain response, such as anger or fear, they will tend to mediate the response before dire consequences incur. So, we may argue, but we don’t tend to hurt one another.

11. The Law of the Lightest Load

The law of the lightest load is the generalisation that we move towards beliefs or interpretations that cause the least negative response or emotion. For example, we may create an illusion that Britain will be stronger after Brexit in order to mask the feelings of uncertainty.

12. The Law of the Greatest Gain

The reverse is also true for positive emotions. Whenever we can interpret something positive, we automatically will. We constantly re-evaluate situations to try and make ourselves feel better.

These laws that govern all emotions have been synthesised from years of psychological research and were collated in 2006. Although you may not agree with all of them, they give us a basis on which we can gauge emotional responses and better understand the nature and motivators of human behaviour.


  1. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu
  2. https://journals.sagepub.com

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