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Categories of Emotion: 6 Basic Emotions, Oppositional Pairs & Biology

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  • 0:24 Learned vs. Biological…
  • 2:35 6 Basic Emotions
  • 4:40 8 Basic Emotions
  • 7:00 Emotion Processing Speeds
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

Have you ever wondered why you can react to danger before you even really realize it's there? Or why you can recognize an expression of happiness on someone's face, no matter where the person is from? Find out the answers to these questions and more in this lesson about the different types of emotions and how the brain processes them.

So we're going to talk about how we categorize emotions. This is something that you really do all the time. If you ever say, 'I'm happy, I'm sad,' congratulations, you've categorized some emotions. But what psychologists are trying to do is get a little beyond that and really start to think about which emotions are sort of fundamental and how to categorize those - so how to come up with a list of emotions that are more fundamental than others. Is it happiness? Is it sadness? Those are common ones but are they really distinct in a way that's not just because we decided to name them that way?

Fundamental vs. non-fundamental emotions
Categorizing Emotions Graph

For a while, anthropologists really thought that a lot of emotions were learned, that there really weren't such a thing as innate emotions. There's a certain amount of evidence for this; in languages that aren't English, there are words for emotions that we don't have. The classic example is the German word, 'schadenfreude,' which means 'joy at the misfortune of others.' We obviously have a way of explaining that but we don't have a word for it like the Germans do. That's a more fundamental emotion for them, I guess than it is for us, at least enough so that they made a word for it.

There's tons of other examples of this. There's one called 'gezellig.' That's a Dutch word that means 'cozy' but it inherently refers to other people being around; it's a coziness due to other people. Again, that's something that I can explain, but I don't have a word for it, so it's not really as fundamental in English maybe.

There's 'ijirashi' in Japanese and that's a feeling that you get when you see someone who is praiseworthy. You see someone who is praiseworthy overcoming an obstacle, so that makes you feel ijirashi. I don't think we really talk about feeling that way in English so much.

So these are some examples that anthropologists would point to to say that there's really something cultural about emotions. But a lot of psychologists have been doing research to try to figure out if it's all this or if there really is some biological component to at least some of these emotions. There's a certain amount of evidence that there is.

One of the main dudes involved in this is a guy named Paul Ekman. What he did was he went down to Papua New Guinea and he decided he was going to study a people known as the Fore. These are tribes of people who had no contact with people from the outside world before Ekman showed up. This was important because what he was going to do was show them pictures of people expressing emotions - someone frowning, someone smiling - and basically see if they recognized that as the emotion that is was.

He found out that there were emotions that they recognized and he calls these the six basic emotions. The ones he identified were anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise. So if he showed a picture of someone looking sad, they would recognize it. So maybe if he showed them a picture of someone looking contemptuous or looking generally upset, that wouldn't be quite as fundamental as these ones that he identified that the Fore people were able to figure out without having been exposed to our culture. So these six ones, he thought, were more basic than maybe some of the other emotions that we have named in our language.

He ended up doing a lot of work with figuring out what kind of people basically emotionally experience and how they express things in their face. He ended up doing a lot of work with lie detection, actually, as an extension of this. He famously weighed in on Bill Clinton and said that he was definitely lying about Monica because he was using distancing language.

So the emotion side of things was a huge part of his research, but he's really just interested in figuring out how people express what they're doing in their face and in their actions, and in the process of that, he identified these six basic emotions.

Another dude who came up with his own theory about emotions and how to name them and categorize them was a guy named Robert Plutchik. He had a different theory about what makes a fundamental emotion. What he thought it was was that these are things that would had to have evolved to increase evolutionary fitness. So for an emotion to be considered basic, for it not to be considered culturally learned, it's going to have to give us some sort of advantage evolutionarily. Anger and fear are on his list as well; that's his classic example is the fear one. It inspires the fight or flight response and that's key for survival. If you don't have it, you'll probably die.

His list that he came up with using this criteria - he came up with these in oppositional pairs - so he had anger vs. fear, joy vs. sadness, trust vs. disgust and surprise vs. anticipation. These are the eight that he thought were fundamental, and what he does is he organizes them into a little wheel. He has these opposites that he identified as being opposite each other, essentially, on the wheel. Then he has levels of intensity that go in. Anger intensifies into rage and de-intensifies into frustration and annoyance.

Plutchiks wheel of emotions
Plutchiks Wheel of Emotions

The wheel allows him to show how he thinks these emotions blend with each other to form more complicated ones. Joy blended with trust and equals love. Love isn't a fundamental one, it's not one that increases our fitness, but it is a combination of these fundamental ones that he identified. So that's Plutchik's basic theory; he has this wheel and the ones that are on the wheel are the ones he thinks are somehow evolutionarily advantageous.

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