Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: Joy/Surprise

Let’s analyze some affects according to the Silvan Tompkins theory of affects!

I talked about Silvan Tompkins and his understanding of basic, evolutionary affects in a previous blog post (The Screaming Child: Affect and “Innocence” In John Moore’s Photograph) but I didn’t actually analyze any photograph for affects. In that case, I was afraid that analyzing the over-saturated photograph of the toddler in the pink jacket screaming for her mother at the Mexican-US border was garish, creepy, and tactless.

But here are some images that has been circulating with decidedly happy affects in which I do feel comfortable analyzing:


Image from Spectrum News, NY1. Photographer not listed.

A video including this image can be seen here, as well as many other media outlets.

The image is, of course, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez learning she has just won the Democratic Primary for 14th Congressional District. Her success has been described as a “major upset” (The New York Times), “remarkable” (CNN), and a “shock [to] the country” (City and State New York).

Whatever one’s feelings about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may be (as a leftist I am unsurprisingly a fan) the fact that her win was an upset, a surprise, matters when looking at her affects.

Here, she looks shocked, startled. The Tompkins Institude describes Tompkins’s understanding of the startle/surprise response:

Eyebrows up, eyes wide, and blink are the facial signposts of the startle response. Its purpose is to get you to stop what you are doing and pay attention to something new. In its intense form, startle, it is a massive contraction of the body which momentarily renders the individual incapable of either continuing whatever he was doing before the startle or initiating new activity so long as the startle response is emitted.

In the above image her eyebrows are indeed raised, her eyes huge. She is so startled she instinctively covers her mouth, unable to speak. She can do nothing but be alarmed and take in the fact that she won.

If you watch the video of this event, it is clear that the Surprise/Startle affect is mixed with Enjoyment/Joy. However, in this still it is hard to see if she is happy or horrified. Imagine just her body cut out of the rest of the photograph,  it might not be easy to see if she was startled for good or devastating news.


Photograph from City and State New York. By Corey Torpie/Courtesy Ocasio 2018.

Here, she looks happy.

Again, from the Tompkins Institute’s discussion of Enjoyment/Joy:

The smile, lips widened up and out, is the visible evidence of joy. The innate affect is triggered by a decreasing stimulus—perhaps a reduction in hunger or loneliness, or relief of pain.

Her smile is huge here! The “relief of pain” gone from the exhaustion of the election, to the stress of not-knowing… that releases, yielding joy. The Tompkins Institute continues on the social aspect of enjoyment/joy:

Moreover, experiencing joy in association with people, objects, and activities creates a sense that there is a domain of the familiar, trustworthy, and good. And then is generated a commitment and attachments to those joy-inducing people, objects, and activities. Innate joy is triggered by a decrease in neural firing.

All of the left-leaning Democratic folks sharing these photos of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez smiling happily causes us to smile, and we start to feel attached to her. People are already wondering if she will be the “New Face of the Democratic Party” (Vogue) and other such accolades. That’s a lot for someone who hasn’t even been elected into office yet! And yet, we conjecture, we wonder, we attach emotions to Ocasio-Cortez… in part, I think, because we are so eagerly sharing these images where she is smiling ear-to-ear.


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