Silvan Tomkins groups individual affects into three categories, which he separates according to the type of influence they have on an individual. Within each category, there exist specific scales based on levels of intensity and duration. The intensity of the affect is the potency attributed to an affect. The longer an affect holds an individual’s attention or the stronger the impact it has on the individual, then the more intensity it possesses. This level of intensity will determine the affect one experiences. Interest and excitement comprise the first grouping in the category of positive affects.
These affects stand at opposite ends of intensity, with interest at the end of lower intensity and excitement at the end of higher intensity. Both sensations generally affect an individual in the same manner, but with differing degrees of strength. Therefore, an individual cannot experience the affect of excitement without first undergoing some version of interest, no matter how minute or brief the amount of interest.
Throughout the day, countless objects catch our attention and we become interested by them to varying degrees. Vernon Kelly claims these objects of our perception are what actually “direct [our. . .] attention from one task to the next” (9). Interest has simply become such a common part of our everyday lives that we do not overtly notice it. When one object or another holds our interest for longer than a few seconds, then our positive affect of interest strengthens in intensity. If interest is held for a substantial length of time, then interest can become actual excitement. While excitement is a more intense form of interest, it can stand alone as an affect all its own.
Like other affects, excitement also becomes experienced involuntarily in and expressed through an individual’s body. Excitement most often appears through an individual’s facial expressions, manifesting itself in physical alterations such as flushed skin and a focused gaze (tension in the forehead and possible squinting of the eyes). Tomkins claims that most physical reactions register on the face and interested and/or excited individuals will often lower their eyebrows in a manner that reflects a “track, look, listen” reaction to a stimulus (74). While Tomkins focuses on facial reactions to an exciting stimulus, an individual can also respond to an object with a slight trembling of the body.
Affects with positive results such as interest and excitement are the most desired affects because they provoke pleasure in the individual. This response motivates people to place themselves in situations that will result in a maximizing of positive affects and a minimizing of the negative ones. Tomkins describes how humans come to seek excitement and joy: since “positive affects are activated by any sudden reaction of [. . .] negative affects, one can learn to regard affect as a transitory state, a problem to be solved” (57). In this way, excitement, as an intense positive affect, serves as a constant goal for all individuals.
Kelly, Vernon C. A Primer of Affect Psychology. The Tomkins Institute, 2009.
Tomkins, Silvan. Shame and Its Sisters. Durham: Duke UP, 1995.