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What is Affection?

M.P. González, E. Barrull, C. Pons y P. Marteles, 1998

(This is an English translation of the original Spanish text)

Approach to the affection

Affection is usually identified with emotion, but actually these are very different phenomena although closely related. Whereas the emotion is an internal individual response which informs of the survival probabilities that every concrete situation offers (see What is emotion?), affection is a process of social interaction between two or more organisms.

Considering the use that we make of the word 'affection' in every day's life, it can be inferred that affection is something that can be given to others. We say that we "give affection" or we "receive affection". This way, it seems that affection may be something that we can provide and receive. On the contrary, emotions are neither given nor taken, they are only experienced by oneself without the requirement of any other person. Emotions describe and appreciate the welfare state (survival probability) in which we are.

We usually describe our emotional state using expressions like "I feel tired" or "I'm feeling a great joy", while we describe the affective processes as "he gives me his love" or "I give her my trust". Generally, we don't say "she gives me her emotion" or " he gives me his feeling" but we say "he/she gives me his/her affection". But, when we use the word 'emotion' in relation to another person, we say "you move me" or "you produce me such and such emotion ...". In both cases, we refer, basically, to the effect of some transmission and not to the transmission itself. It looks, in every day's language, as if the fundamental difference between emotion and affection is that the emotion is something that takes place inside the organism, while the affection is something that flows and moves from one person to another, producing some emotion.

Unlike emotions, affection is something that can be stored (accumulated). We talk about holidays, for instance, as a time of "loading batteries", having in mind a better disposition to assist our children, friends, clients, students, partners, etc. This means that in certain circumstances, we store a high capacity of affection; affection that we can give to the other people. It seems that affection is a phenomenon like the mass or the energy that it can be stored and moved or transported.

On the other hand, our experience teaches us that giving affection is something that requires some effort. Taking care, helping or understanding another person cannot be carried out without an effort. Sometimes, we don't realize the effort made. For example, the illusion of a new relationship doesn't let us see the effort that we carry out to please our partner and provide his/her well-being. To understand this, we must distinguish between our good and happy predisposition to give affection (this is a positive emotion) and the physical amount of energy that we spend when we give affection. And that positive emotion may frequently hide the efforts made.

For example, caring for somebody that is sick requires an effort and it is a way of providing affection. Trying to understand the problems of the other people is an effort and it is another way of giving affection. Trying to please others, to respect their freedom, to make them happy with a gift, ..., all these are actions that require an effort (energy expenditure) and they all are different ways of providing affection.

In spite of the differences between emotion (see What is emotion?) and affection, it seems that affection is intimately related to emotions, given that similar terms can be used to express one or the other. This way, we say: "I feel very safe" (emotive fact) or "he/she provides me with full " (affective fact). It seems, then, that we designate the affection received by the particular emotion that it brings us.

Lastly, we all agree that affection is something essential in the humans. We won't hear any opinion that denies the necessity of affection that people have. In this sense, we all share the sensation that human species needs in great measure affection contrary to other species as cats or snakes, for example. This necessity is accentuated to the maximum in certain circumstances, for example, in the childhood and in the illness. 

In summary, our knowledge of affection allows us to point out some clear characteristics: 

- Affection is something that flows among people, something that one gives and one receives. 

- To provide affection is something that requires effort.

- Affection is something essential for human species, especially in the childhood and in the illness.

But now we still need to say what is affection, what is this something that we call affection and that it has, among others, the properties that we have seen.


Affection as social help

Living beings can be divided into social and asocial species. Asocial species are those whose individuals don't need the collaboration of other individuals of their species to survive. This means that an individual of an asocial species can obtain the resources needed by itself. It exists a great number of asocial species, such as mosquitoes, crabs or blackberries.

On the contrary, social species need, at least in some periods of their lives, the collaboration of other members of the same species to survive. A social individual cannot obtain by itself all the resources that it needs to survive.  Sociability is, then, the result of needing the others to survive. We define social interaction as any kind of interaction which shows a certain degree of help or cooperation. Help and cooperation is a requirement in all social species. Without help, without cooperation of the others, an individual of a social species cannot survive.

Social species have very different degrees of need and social organization. Many species are social only during a part of their life, normally while they are young, and later they become solitary individuals. Bears, for instance, are social only during the first few years when they need their mothers' help to survive. After being abandoned by their mothers, bears live in solitude, except for the unavoidable encounters with other bears that are always more or less aggressive.

Other species are social during all their life. Species like ants, lions or men are highly social, since they cannot survive without the collaboration and help of other individuals of their species. Of course, the degree of social complexity and social necessity varies at length from one species to another. Within mammals, human being is undoubtedly the most social species. This means that a human being cannot survive alone, without the direct or indirect collaboration of other persons. Since we are born, we constantly need the collaboration of our fellow men. This social dependence has its benefits because, as a result of collaboration, the group becomes stronger and the individual has more probabilities to survive and to reproduce.

Then, when people usually say that the human beings need affection for their well-being, we maintain that they are referring actually to the fact that they need the help and cooperation of other human beings to survive. That is to say, people express this need of social help as a necessity of affection. Hence, affection is considered something essential in the life of every human being. Giving affection means to help the others, provide for their welfare and procure their survival. 

Affection, defined as help or cooperation to survive, fulfills the characteristics that people attribute to it in daily language. Help to survive is something that somebody gives to the others, implies an effort from the person who provides it and is essential for the survival of the human especies.


Affection as non-remunerated work in someone else's benefit.

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But what does it mean to help to survive? In order to help another person to survive it is necessary to carry out some type of work in his/her benefit (survival), and this is why providing affection requires an effort. The nature of affection consists really of the work (energy spent) that every individual carries out in benefit of the others. We provide affection when we carry out a concrete work that benefits the survival of another person or another living being.

Of course, there are very many ways of providing affection, given that a person can carry out a lot of diverse activities that benefit the other people.

Fundamentally we can distinguish two main work types: muscular work and brain work. To carry out any task, it is necessary to carry out a muscular work. The single fact of maintaining the muscular tone or the breathing or the sanguine pumping requires some amount of muscular work. But also, it is indispensable a brain work, of processing information, of calculation possibilities, of taking decisions, etc. Brain is a wonderful computer, with an incredible capacity of processing data, but it is limited.

The Scientific and Industrial Revolution has liberated us in great measure of muscular work that is carried out by all type of machines. But cerebral work should still carry out by our brain. It is certain that the current computer systems begin to substitute some very elementary functions of our brain, but it is very far the day in that they can carry out the complex brain work to guide our behavior.

Therefore, although we should consider the two work forms, in the post-industrial human species the affection is almost exclusively determined for the brain work that is carried out in benefit of the other ones.

Also, we should distinguish affective work of what we know as remunerated work. In modern societies people talk very often about work referring exclusively to that work that is made in exchange for an economic remuneration. But we shouldn't forget that work as any action that consumes energy and then, in fact, we never quit working. Even when we sleep we carry out a little amount of work.

All the work (spent energy) that we make out of our labor timetable is non-remunerated. Some of that non-remunerated work is made in one's own benefit, such as eating, resting or going to the doctor. Another portion of non-remunerated work is made in someone else's benefit, for instance, washing the family dishes, accompanying someone to the doctor, making a gift, listening to the other's problems, etc. This portion of the non-remunerated work made in benefit of others, is what we consider as affective behavior or affection given.

We define affection, then, as the non-remunerated work done in benefit of the survival of other people or other living beings. Generally, this work consists of giving others, or helping them to obtain, some resources (food, territory, security or knowledge) needed for their survival. Indeed, we not only provide affection carrying out a work in another person's benefit, but also we give them affection providing them resources directly. In fact, when we give a resource to other people, we are providing them with the energy needed to make that resource.

Giving money or a good, helping to solve a problem, cheering people up when they are sad or teaching something unknown, means to carry out a non-remunerated work in benefit of the survival of the others and it means, therefore, giving them affection. In consequence the one who receives affection usually experiences a positive emotion, since his/her probabilities of survival have been improved (see What is emotion?). The relationship between affection and emotion lies in that we experience a positive emotion when we receive affection. This way, emotion and affection are intimately related, with the result that we refer to the affection received with a similar term to the one we use to call the emotion that it produces us.

Every individual's affective capacity is determined by its capacity to work in benefit of others in a non-remunerated way. The capacity of helping others that an individual has is limited, since it depends directly on the amount of resources he/she can obtain and on his/her work efficiency. Therefore, we can also say that the affective capacity (or social help capacity) is something that can be accumulated, that is to say, it is something that can vary in time and according to each individual, since both the available resources and the capacity of work are accumulative variables. If emotion behaves as an intensive state variable, affection does it as an extensive state variable (the total value is equal to the addition of the parts).

Lastly, the need of affection varies among individuals. This way, the most socially dependent individuals such as children, old people, sick people, etc., are groups that need more affection to survive. On the contrary, the mature individuals that have experienced an appropriate development, they need much less affection and so, they can provide more affection to the others.


Affection signs

We have expressed that affection is a necessity of all social species, since it refers to the help (work) that any social individual needs from the others to survive. With the evolution of the social species toward more complex social structures, appear new behaviors that have the purpose of maintaining the social structure achieved. In the human species appear rules, values, rituals, affective signs, etc., the function of which is the preservation of the social structure of the group. 

Particularly, affective signs are expressed in a wide repertoire of genetically and culturally stereotyped behaviors, whose function is to ensure the affective readiness of the one who emits them with regard to the receiver. Smiling, cordial greetings, signs of acceptance, promises of support, etc., they show the commitment of the person who emits them and they constitute a source of potential affection for the receiver. Both Ethology and Anthropology study profusely this type of signs or behaviors.

A social individual not only needs to ensure the support from his/her group in the present, but rather, it also needs to have some security that this support will be provided in the future. The function of the affective signs lies in satisfying this necessity. When people smile to others they transmit them the promise that they can count on them in the future. This means that they are and will be recognized as members of the group and therefore, that they are willing to provide their affection (work) when needed. The result is that the person that receives the smile experiences a positive emotion. 

Nevertheless, the fact of emitting affective signs doesn't assure a future transmission of affection in all cases, because this will depend on the real working capacity that the transmitter has. This explains why, in practice, people that emit affective signs (smiles, greetings, promises, etc.) not always can provide the help expected. This difference between affective intention and real affection given causes frequent and varied conflicts within the human relationships. 

The affective signs are also a way of stimulating the reciprocity in the affective exchange, since the receiver experiences an obligation to compensate the transmitter for the (potential) affection received. If an individual who carries out a work in benefit of another (that is to say, that provides real affection) doesn't emit affective signs, is in risk of not being compensated by the other one. This way, we not only help the others but we also make them know it, in order to activate the social processes (genetic and cultural) responsible for establishing a reciprocal exchange.

In summary, affection is the help and collaboration from others that all social individual need to survive. Affection is provided through the execution of any type of work (non-remunerated work in the modern human species) done in benefit of the survival of another individual and, therefore, it is transferable, limited and accumulative. As the social complexity of the species increases appear the affective signs, which are stereotyped behaviors to ensure the reciprocity in the affective exchanges in the group. 

The affection economy in human social relationships is extremely complex while the knowledge that we nowadays have about it is very general and rudimentary. Let us hope that the scientific attitudes towards affective exchange will significantly change during the next decades.


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