Last update: October 04, 2016
If you pause for a moment to reflect, you will realize that emotions dominate a large part of our life. Yet, have you ever wondered how many emotions actually exist?
Can you explain how you feel when you experience certain emotions or what they really are? Would you be able to describe those emotions using a metaphor like, for example, "I feel butterflies in my stomach" or "I have a lump in my throat"?
Psychologist Robert Plutchick argues that there are more than 90 different definitions of the term "emotion," all suggested by different psychologists. For this reason, the difficulty in defining and identifying emotions increases, especially if we consider them as a very personal experience. Not even the fact that they often mix with each other facilitates the task of listing the amount of emotions that exist.
A very old question
The question we asked ourselves today in this article has already existed for hundreds of years. In the fourth century BC, in fact, Aristotle he tried to identify the exact number of basic human emotions. The Greek philosopher speaks of 14 basic emotions: anger, meekness, friendship and enmity, love and hatred, fear, shame, kindness and rudeness, pity, sorrow, envy and emulation.
Centuries later, Charles Darwin, in his essay The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), suggested that the ability to express one's emotions through the face has evolutionary advantages. He also stated that many of these emotional expressions are universal.
In more recent times, psychologists have tried several times to classify and identify the exact number of emotions. It is surprising to note that, after all, when it comes to basic and universal emotions, the number is much smaller than what one thinks. According to the most well-known theories that classify the human emotional experience, there are about four to eight basic emotions.
Contemporary theories on emotions
The wheel of emotions
One of the most important theories is that of the wheel of emotions, formulated by Robert Plutchik, which recognizes eight basic emotions: joy, sadness, trust, sorrow, anger, fear, surprise and anticipation. The wheel of emotions resembles the color wheel in which the primary hues overlap to form the secondary and tertiary colors. These basic emotions mix and come together to form a wider range of feelings.
The six universal emotions
According to other scholars, however, they only exist six or seven basic emotions found in all cultures of the world. Psychologist Paul Ekman developed what is known as the Facial Action Coding System (FACS), a system that measures the movements of the 42 muscles of the face, as well as the movements of the head and eyes. In this way, Eckman found that there are 6 universal facial expressions.
The six original emotions recognized by Eckman are joy, sadness, surprise, fear, anger and sorrow. Later, he also added a seventh emotion: contempt.
Only four basic emotions. It's possible?
More recently, other studies have reduced the number of basic emotions to four. In a study conducted by the University of Glasgow, researchers asked participants to identify emotions reflected in the expressions of a realistic model. What they found was that fear and surprise involve movements of the same muscles.
Instead of representing two different emotions, experts suggest that fear and surprise are mere variations of a single basic emotion. Likewise, sorrow and anger activate the same muscles and, therefore, again, they are shades of a single emotion.
Based on these studies, Researchers argue that instead of six basic emotions, there are actually only four: joy, sadness, anger and fear. They also claim that the more complex variants of emotions have evolved over the millennia from these basic emotional blocks.
On the other hand, most of us would quickly say that fear and surprise are two different and distinct emotions, as are anger and sorrow. Despite this, experts specify that when one of these emotions occurs, whether it is fear or surprise, the same muscles are activated.
Researchers also think that this difference between fear and surprise and between anger and sorrow arises from a social basis.. Only later the emotion is fully expressed and the difference is born.
They also argue that the manifestation of basic emotions is a consequence of biological survival, while the differences that exist between fear and surprise and between sorrow and anger have developed for more than social reasons.
Does all this mean that there are only four emotions? Certainly not. These studies argue that there are four basic emotions, but that doesn't mean that people are only able to experience four different emotional states.
The researchers, in fact, stated that: "no one who has any common sense would say that there are only four emotions, since human beings experience very complex emotions".
While we can identify these general emotions, Eckman's research has shown that the human face is capable of creating more than 7000 different facial expressions.
Emotions, and the way we experience and express them, can be abundant and subtle. Despite this, it is the basic emotions a serve as a starting point for the other more complex and particular emotions that make up the human emotional experience.