Emotion Fingerprints or Emotion Populations? A Meta-Analytic Investigation of Autonomic Features of Emotion Categories

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The classical view of emotion hypothesizes that certain emotion categories have a specific autonomic nervous system (ANS) “fingerprint” that is distinct from other categories. Substantial ANS variation within a category is presumed to be epiphenomenal. The theory of constructed emotion hypothesizes that an emotion category is a population of context-specific, highly variable instances that need not share an ANS fingerprint. Instead, ANS variation within a category is a meaningful part of the nature of emotion. We present a meta-analysis of 202 studies measuring ANS reactivity during lab-based inductions of emotion in nonclinical samples of adults, using a random effects, multilevel meta-analysis and multivariate pattern classification analysis to test our hypotheses. We found increases in mean effect size for 59.4% of ANS variables across emotion categories, but the pattern of effect sizes did not clearly distinguish 1 emotion category from another. We also observed significant variation within emotion categories; heterogeneity accounted for a moderate to substantial percentage (i.e., I2 ≥ 30%) of variability in 54% of these effect sizes. Experimental moderators epiphenomenal to emotion, such as induction type (e.g., films vs. imagery), did not explain a large portion of the variability. Correction for publication bias reduced estimated effect sizes even further, increasing heterogeneity of effect sizes for certain emotion categories. These findings, when considered in the broader empirical literature, are more consistent with population thinking and other principles from evolutionary biology found within the theory of constructed emotion, and offer insights for developing new hypotheses to understand the nature of emotion.

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