In control theory (a theory of sociology that examines controls on societal order), affect control theory proposes that individuals maintain affective meanings through their actions and interpretations of events. The activity of social institutions occurs through maintenance of culturally based affective meanings. Besides a denotative meaning, every concept has an affective meaning, or connotation, that varies along three dimensions: Evaluation (goodness versus badness); Potency (powerfulness versus powerlessness); and Activity (liveliness versus torpidity).
Affective meanings can be measured with semantic differentials yielding a three-number profile indicating how the concept is positioned on evaluation, potency, and activity (EPA). American psychologist Charles E. Osgood demonstrated that an elementary concept conveyed by a word or idiom has a normative affective meaning within a particular culture. A stable affective meaning derived either from personal experience or from cultural inculcation is called a sentiment, or fundamental affective meaning.
Affect control theory has inspired assembly of dictionaries of EPA sentiments for thousands of concepts involved in social life – identities, behaviors, settings, personal attributes, and emotions. Sentiment dictionaries have been constructed with ratings of respondents from the US, Canada, Northern Ireland, Germany, Japan, and China (both the People’s Republic and Taiwan).
Each concept that is in play in a situation has a transient affective meaning in addition to an associated sentiment. The transient corresponds to an impression created by recent events. Events modify impressions on all three EPA dimensions in complex ways that are described with non-linear equations obtained through empirical studies. Here are two examples of impression-formation processes: 1) an actor who behaves disagreeably seems less good, especially if the object of the behavior is innocent and powerless, like a child; and 2) a powerful person seems desperate when performing extremely forceful acts on another, and the object person may seem invincible. A social action creates impressions of the actor, the object person, the behavior, and the setting.
Deflections are the distances in the EPA space between transient and fundamental affective meanings. For example, a mother complimented by a stranger feels that the unknown individual is much nicer than a stranger is supposed to be, and a bit too potent and active as well – thus there is a moderate distance between the impression created and the mother’s sentiment about strangers. High deflections in a situation produce an aura of unlikeliness or uncanniness. It is theorized that high deflections maintained over time generate psychological stress. The basic cybernetic idea (related to systems of control) of affect control theory can be stated in terms of deflections. An individual selects a behavior that produces the minimum deflections for concepts involved in the action.
On entering a scene an individual defines the situation by assigning identities to each participant, frequently in accord with an encompassing social institution. While defining the situation, the individual tries to maintain the affective meaning of self through adoption of an identity whose sentiment serves as a surrogate for the individual’s self-sentiment. The identities assembled in the definition of the situation determine the sentiments that the individual tries to maintain behaviorally. Confirming sentiments associated with institutional identities (like doctor–patient, lawyer–client, or professor–student) creates institutionally relevant role behavior. Confirming sentiments associated with negatively evaluated identities (like bully, glutton, loafer, or scatterbrain) generates deviant behavior. Affect control theory’s sentiment databases and mathematical model are combined in a computer simulation program for analyzing social interaction in various cultures.
According to affect control theory, an event generates emotions for the individuals involved in the event by changing impressions of the individuals. The emotion is a function of the impression created of the individual and of the difference between that impression and the sentiment attached to the individual’s identity. Thus, for example, an event that creates a negative impression of an individual generates unpleasant emotion for that person, and the unpleasantness is worse if the individual believes she has a highly valued identity. Similarly, an event creating a positive impression generates a pleasant emotion, all the more pleasant if the individual believes he has a disvalued identity in the situation. Equations describing how transients and fundamentals combine to produce emotions have been derived in empirical studies.
Affect control theory’s computer simulation program uses these equations to predict emotions that arise in social interaction, and displays the predictions via facial expressions that are computer drawn, as well as in terms of emotion words. Based on cybernetic studies that utilize Perceptual Control Theory (from the PCT perspective, an organism controls neither its own behavior, nor external environmental variables, but rather its own perceptions) researchers hypothesizes that emotion is distinct from stress. For example, a parent enjoying intensely pleasant emotions while interacting with an offspring suffers no stress. A homeowner attending to a sponging house guest may feel no emotion and yet be experiencing substantial stress.
Others’ behaviors are interpreted so as to minimize the deflections they cause. For example, a man turning away from another and exiting through a doorway could be engaged in several different actions, like departing from, deserting, or escaping from the other. Observers choose among the alternatives so as to minimize deflections associated with their definitions of the situation. Observers who assigned different identities to the observed individuals could have different interpretations of the behavior. Re-definition of the situation may follow an event that causes large deflections which cannot be resolved by reinterpreting the behavior. In this case, observers assign new identities that are confirmed by the behavior. For example, seeing a father slap a son, one might re-define the father as an abusive parent, or perhaps as a strict disciplinarian; or one might re-define the son as an arrogant brat.
Affect control theory’s computer program predicts the plausible re-identifications, thereby providing a formal model for labeling theory (which holds that deviance is not inherent to an act, but instead focuses on the tendency of majorities to negatively label minorities or those seen as deviant from standard cultural norms). The sentiment associated with an identity can change to befit the kinds of events in which that identity is involved, when situations keep arising where the identity is deflected in the same way, especially when identities are informal and non-institutionalized.