In an excerpt taken from “The Nature Of Emotion“, Dr. Ekman lays out five factors of mood vs. emotion. Variations in duration, provocation, modulation, facial expression, and awareness of cause support Dr. Ekman’s argument for the difference between mood and emotion.
Moods can last for hours while emotions last anywhere from seconds to minutes, at most. This is why it’s typically easier to identify emotional triggers but difficult to pinpoint the trigger for our moods. Moods also don’t have their own unique facial expressions whereas the universal emotions do.
In the debate of mood vs emotion, moods can be distinguished from emotions in terms of their duration and, presumably, also in terms of… the neural circuitry that directs and maintains each of these affective states. While there is no agreement about how long an emotion lasts, most of those who study the difference between mood and emotion recognize that moods last longer. I have maintained (Ekman, 1984) that emotions are brief, typically lasting anywhere from a matter of seconds to minutes, at most.
So, when we speak of an emotion lasting for an extended amount of time (hours),it’s more likely that we are summating recurrent emotional episodes within that timeframe and not actually experiencing a constant and consistent emotion. Moods, however, can last for hours, sometimes even days, and can be difficult to shake. It’s important to note that if a particular state endures for weeks or months, though, it is not a mood but more properly identified as an affective disorder.
Provocation of emotion
To add to the complexity of their relationship, moods appear to lower the threshold needed to arouse related emotions. An example of this would be when you’re in an irritable mood and finding yourself feeling angry much more readily than usual.
When in an irritable mood, people construe the world around them in a way that permits, if not calls for, an angry response, as if they are seeking an opportunity to indulge the emotion relevant to their mood.
Modulation of emotion
Looking at the management of emotions vs. moods, it becomes significantly more difficult to modulate (regulate) one’s emotion(s) if they occur during or within a mood. Presumably, a person in an irritable mood will not be able to modulate an episode of anger as easily or quickly as they would otherwise. Not only should the anger during an irritable mood be more intense and less controlled, it should decay more slowly (last longer).
Another feature used to argue the difference between moods and emotions is expression. Moods do not own their own unique facial expression while many of the emotions do (in fact, there are seven universal emotions that present with the same expressions regardless of age, sex, and social environment).
One infers an irritable mood by seeing many facial expressions of anger, but there is no distinctive facial expression of irritability itself, nor is there for any other mood, emotional traits, or affective disorders.
Awareness of cause
Although I know of no direct evidence to support this final claim, I propose that most people can specify what triggered an emotion but are unable to do so for a mood. Triggers can come from the environment we’re in or from our memory. They can even be imagined.
To say that a person can specify what called forth their emotional reaction is not to suggest that people are typically aware of that event provoking the emotion as it is occurring. If they are, it is likely that the event is unfolding slowly. For most of us, our awareness of the source for that emotional reaction doesn’t occur much before the emotional episode is over, if not much alter. Moods, however, are more opaque in this regard.