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How emotions affect learning: the impact of emotions

January 23, 2023 - 18 min read


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What are emotions?

The 8 basic emotions

How emotions affect learning

Examples of how emotions affect learning

4 ways to use emotions to promote learning

Embrace every emotion

Let’s face it — we’re emotional beings first, rational beings second. Our emotions dictate how we react to situations, decide where to focus our attention, and decipher information. 

Neuroscience has proven that emotions significantly influence our cognitive functions, including the decision-making and problem-solving skills that impact our learning experiences.

But you can regulate your emotions to improve your learning process. We’ll discuss different types of emotions, how emotions affect learning, and how to use your feelings advantageously.

What are emotions?

Emotions are physiological states we experience when introduced to different stimuli. Each emotion usually provokes pleasure or displeasure. For example, happiness feels good, while sadness doesn’t. 

Some emotions may be collectively shared. News of a big promotion can elicit positive feelings for everyone involved, and an individual’s death affects all loved ones.

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The 8 basic emotions

Psychologist Robert Plutchik defined eight core emotions believed to be universally experienced by all human beings

  1. Sadness occurs when we experience a loss or disappointment

  2. Anger drives us to act when we're frustrated

  3. Fear is our response to danger, real or imagined

  4. Joy appears when we’re grateful and experiencing things we enjoy

  5. Disgust is our response to unpleasant things

  6. Surprise occurs when we’re startled or introduced to unexpected information

  7. Anticipation is experienced when we expect a certain event or outcome

  8. Trust occurs when we feel safe and supported

Each emotion can be categorized as negative or positive, depending on whether they’re experienced pleasurably or dis-pleasurably. From these core emotions, all other feelings stem.

Sadness, fear, disgust, and anger are typically considered negative since we don’t feel great when experiencing them. 

Joy and trust are always positive, and surprise and anticipation are situation-dependent. For example, most people feel positive surprise when receiving a promotion, and negative surprise at a jump scare. We feel positive anticipation before a celebration and negative anticipation before a difficult conversation.


How emotions affect learning

All of our emotions can either improve or weaken our learning capabilities. Positive emotions affect our learning in the following ways: 


Negative emotions also affect our learning capabilities. Here are a few examples: 

Examples of how emotions affect learning

Here are a few examples of how positive and negative emotions impact learning:

Disappointment at work

Disappointment occurs when an outcome you hoped for doesn't occur. Tolerance to disappointment is highly subjective. One person might dwell on this surprise for days, while another might see the silver lining immediately and move on. 

Disappointment affects what you learn from a situation. Imagine you found out a promotion you wanted was offered to a coworker. Your disappointment might transform into a fear of failure or encourage you to be more reserved and share less often.

Or, it might motivate you to ask for feedback to improve your skills and gain your supervisor's attention.

Shame in social interactions

We’ve all felt the stir in the pit of our stomachs when we know we’ve done something hurtful. This feeling can make us learn to adjust our actions or avoid social interactions altogether. 

Imagine you fumble your words during a presentation, which causes you embarrassment. To avoid repeating the same negative experience, you might avoid presentations altogether or push yourself to gain more public speaking practice.


Surprise when meeting new people

Feeling a sense of surprise, awe, or excitement by something new is an important part of memory retention. Humans tend to record unexpected information in their long-term memory better than unsurprising things. 

Imagine being introduced to new team members via an ice-breaker game like “Two truths and a lie.” You’ll remember facts about people better because their answers are unexpected.

Frustration when confronted with conflict

We often try to avoid conflict because it causes uncomfortable emotions like frustration. While one avoidance tactic is to steer clear of challenges, a more common one is to try to solve the problem so we can return to our comfort zone

Imagine you’re a software engineer frustrated with a new coding language. This frustration can motivate you to seek help, take a class, or practice until you get it right. 

Happiness that improves performance

Hormones such as serotonin and dopamine cause the feeling of happiness, and they positively affect the brain's ability to process and connect information faster. When we decipher and retain information at a higher rate, our performance levels improve. That means the happier we are, the better we do. 


Say you’re a software engineer learning a difficult coding language. If you enjoy computer languages generally and find the learning process fun, you’re more likely to perform better than other employees.

You’ll spend more time practicing because you enjoy it and feel capable of working on more challenging iterations.

4 ways to use emotions to promote learning

Yes — emotions affect learning capabilities. That can seem overwhelming, but you can regulate your emotions to take advantage of learning opportunities.

Here are four ways to use emotions to encourage positive learning experiences:

1. Promote leadership skills

Managers often set the emotional tone of an experience. That’s why leadership skills typically involve regulating emotions. For example, excelling during confrontational situations like firing an employee demands remaining calm and controlling frustration or anger. 

Anyone in a leadership role (managers, teachers, parents) who wants to promote collaborative work, innovation, and creativity should focus on emotional regulation. Practice this by developing skills like giving positive and negative feedback effectively and making work problems fun and entertaining.

2. Take a break from negative experiences

If a task is frustrating or unexciting, the "reappraisal method" suggests that you turn your motivation and perspective around by pausing to do something that makes you happy. Physical activity can clear your mind and pump you with feel-good hormones.

If you don’t have the time, try recalling a pleasant memory (like overcoming a challenge in the past) to remove frustration enough to tackle the task at hand.


3. Practice positive thinking

Negative emotions typically prompt negative thoughts, and vice versa. It’s a never-ending cycle — but promoting positive thinking can get you out of it.

The more you replace negative thoughts with positive ones, the more your emotions will improve. Strengthening this habit creates a mental bias toward positivity.

Negative experiences will more often cause positive self-talk instead of negative, encouraging you to take on new — potentially disappointing — challengings and learn more quickly from your experiences.

4. Show gratitude

Gratitude is an important life skill. Feeling grateful improves mental well-being and makes us feel more positive about ourselves. Research has found that 49% of unappreciated workers didn't feel up to performing their work responsibilities, and 48% stopped caring about good performance at work.

You can encourage yourself to learn more and perform better by feeling grateful for each learning opportunity. And managers can promote peak performance and a healthy learning environment by giving thanks and showing gratitude for progress.

Embrace every emotion

While many often categorize emotions as negative or positive, every emotion has a purpose. Disappointment reminds us we really did want something — we can use this to motivate ourselves to try harder next time. Happiness can make us feel more productive and capable at work. 

It’s great understanding how emotions affect learning and using this knowledge to improve our capabilities. But this also means we’re responsible for putting in the work necessary to see change.

In the long run, our efforts are worthwhile. We’ll retain information better, improve our well-being, and tackle problems head-on.

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Published January 23, 2023

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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