Affect Control Theory Essay

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Affect control theory (ACT) is grounded in symbolic interactionist insights about the importance of using language and symbols to define situations. The theory begins with the assertion that people reduce uncertainty by developing ”working understandings” of their social worlds. They label parts of social situations, using language available to them. After creating this definition, they are motivated to maintain it. ACT assumes that our labeling of situations evokes affective meanings.

These affective meanings, rather than specific labels, are what we try to maintain during interaction. The theory is formalized in three parts: the measurement of affect, event reaction equations, and mathematical statement of the control process.


Scope statements specify the conditions under which a theory applies. There are specific conditions that limit ACT’s applicability: a social behavior must be directed toward an object (e.g., another person); there must be at least one observer who is a member of a language culture already identified by ACT researchers (e.g., the USA, Canada, or Japan); and the theory only applies to labeled aspects of social experiences (e.g., identities and behaviors).


ACT assumes that people affectively respond to every social event (the affective reaction principle). The theory describes these affective responses along three dimensions of meaning: evaluation (goodness or badness), potency (powerfulness or weakness), and activity (liveliness or quietness). These are cross-cultural, universal dimensions describe substantial variation in affective meaning and can be measured mathematically. The affective meanings associated with labeled concepts (identities, behaviors, emotions, and so forth) are called sentiments. Although stable within a culture, sentiments vary cross-culturally. ACT researchers have used evaluation, potency and activity ratings to index meanings in different cultures, including the USA, Canada, Japan, Germany, China, and Northern Ireland.


Social interaction changes our perceptions of labeled actors and behaviors. In response to observing a Mother Dragging her Daughter through the park, our feelings about that mother, that daughter, and perhaps even what it means to drag someone may change. In ACT, we call these situated meanings impressions. To predict impressions, events are simplified into Actor Behaves toward Object sentences. Event reactions are quantified using impression formation equations created by regressing pre-event sentiments onto post-event impressions. Once generated, ACT can predict how people will feel after an interaction using only their initial definition of the situation.

Control and Reconstruction

ACT proposes that actors work to experience impressions that are consistent with their sentiments (the affect control principle). Discrepancies between sentiments and impressions reveal how well interactions we experience are confirming cultural prescriptions. Affect control theory defines deflection as the discrepancy (measured mathematically) between sentiments and impressions. Using mathematical equations that predict deflection researchers (using a computer program called INTERACT) can predict future behaviors that minimize deflection. However, when deflection is inexorably large, the observer may need to reconstruct the event using different labels (e.g., using Scrooge instead of Businessman) in order to reduce deflection.

Traits, Emotions, and Other Theoretical Elaborations

If we take these same equations and hold the actor’s identity constant, we can solve for a trait that can be added to the actor’s identity to make ”sense” of experiences (e.g., adding the trait Bad to Mother to produce the identity Bad Mother). ACT also uses these equations to make predictions about the emotions that actors and objects are likely to feel in social interaction. Researchers have elaborated the basic Actor-Behavior-Object grammar of ACT to include settings and nonverbal behaviors.


  1. Heise, D. R. (1979) Understanding Events: Affect and the Construction of Social Action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Heise, D. R. (2007) Expressive Order: Confirming Sentiments in Social Actions. Springer, New York.
  3. MacKinnon, N. J. (1994) Symbolic Interactionism as Affect Control. SUNY Press, New York.
  4. Osgood, C. E., May, W. H., & Miron, M. S. (1975) Cross-Cultural Universals of Affective Meaning. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, IL.

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