Theory Basics

What does it assume?

Affect control theory rests on the main assumption that all individuals understand and affectively respond to social experiences in a manner in keeping with cultural sentiments that they associate with social identities present within an an interaction. People want their experiences to reflect the way that they see the world, so that the "does" of human behavior matches the "should" of human behavior as they see it.

If behaviors don't work to keep reality in line with expectations, people will re-conceptualize or redefine behaviors or identities of self or other in the situation.

Emotions reflect identity sentiments along with the degree to which those sentiments are being confirmed by a given social experience.

As you work to create and structure events that confirm your sentiments, you perform social roles, and these social roles make up the basic institutions of society.

What it can do:

Affect control theory is mathematically expressed and rests on a measurement structure allowing quantification of the various elements of social experience. Consequently, the theory’s predictions can be explored through computer simulations.

Affect control theory driven simulations can tell us how observers of social behavior will interpret identities and behavior within particular interactions. They can tell us how those interpretations vary by culture. They can tell us what behavior people expect from certain types of actors and how those expectations differ by perspective. Affect control theory can tell us how people will treat and label a person based on that person's demeanor, and it can predict emotional responses to experienced social events. The theory is parsimonious and powerful, yet able to generate predictions in a vast array of social contexts


How it works:

Affect control theory equations describe how actors respond to social events. When social experiences are culturally surprising, that disrupts our definition of the situation and deflects the affective meanings away from their cultural defaults (sentiments) toward a transient set of meanings (impressions). Deflection is the distance between the transient impressions inspired by an experienced event and the fundamental sentiments associated with the original definition of the situation. Affect control theory describes how we seek new actions or new social interpretations that mathematically minimize that deflection.

Every social identity, behavior, emotion, mood, trait, place, has a cultural sentiment. Just as a computer can represent everything in binary code by using ones and zeros, affect control theory can represent every element of social interaction using numerical points along three explanatory dimensions: Evaluation, Potency, and Activity. These dimensions are universal and fully descriptive using direction and magnitude combinations along the three dimensions. For instance, very good, very powerful, very active identities include heros, firefighters, and winners, while very bad, very powerful, very active identities include drug dealers and brutes. The meanings of identities evoke expectations for identity consistent behaviors. A mother kissing a child is in keeping with cultural sentiments. A mother insulting and demeaning a child is not in keeping with cultural sentiments, and causes deflection. She has just done something much less good, powerful, and active than a mother normally does to a child. You may, as an observer, now have more negative feelings about this particular mother. That does not necessarily change your sense of how positive, powerful, and active "a mother" in general is supposed to be. By default, affect control theory assumes that your cultural sentiments about mothers remain stable, and become the reference points against which you unfavorably compare this particular mother. Affect control theory expresses these culture-specific process of responding to soial events mathematically, using weights to represent the cultural rules that govern the relationship between the identities and behaviors. These equations allow predictions of likely and unlikely ways that an interaction may play out in a given culture.

Affect control theory can be expressed entirely by its mathematical representation, or be translated into words.  Computer simulations allow users to explore the predictions of the theory using in both numeric and natural language output.