Monday, May 2, 2016

The Rodney Dangerfield of the Six Core Emotions

Paul Ekman is a psychologist best known for his work on deception, polygraphs, and emotions. Back in the 1960s he surmised that there were six core emotions: Happiness (Joy), Sadness, Anger, Disgust, Fear, and Surprise. Each is associated with a universally recognized human expression. (If you see a basis for the animated film Inside Out in this, you’re right – Surprise was left out.) Some recent analysts narrow the list to four by combining fear with surprise and anger with disgust. Most, however, still go with six. What of love, hate, embarrassment, contentment, guilt, jealousy, pride, etc.? These are regarded as secondary emotions: they derive from the six, often mediated/altered/mixed/enhanced by an intellectual component. Ekman himself added Contempt as a seventh core emotion in the 1990s, but this is controversial; there may well be a distinct facial expression for it (sneer) but, like its dictionary opposite “respect,” the emotion involves an intellectual judgment. Most psychologists still classify it as a form of disgust. Hunger and lust are not emotions but drives.

It’s hard to miss that only one of the core emotions is positive; one is neutral and four are negative. This makes evolutionary sense. There are more things in the wild that will kill you than there are that will satisfy your wants. Fight or flight will keep you alive more often than will frolicking in the meadow.

Of the six, fear gets the worst rap, as in FDR’s line “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” which like all the best political rhetoric is untrue. There is plenty of reason for an unfriendly attitude toward fear, however, as anyone who has suffered from panic attacks, compulsive behaviors, or phobias can attest. Agoraphobes have trouble even leaving the house. It can be debilitating. Why evolve a debilitating emotion? There is an advantage sometimes to being frozen with fear as every opossum knows; predators often ignore what doesn’t move. Opossums have been around for 60 million years so they must be doing something right. But only sometimes is it advantageous. Fortunately, fear can be the most effective motivator, too. Legendary trial lawyer Gerry Spence lectures on the value of fear – the fear of losing a case with consequences to clients and oneself. A generalized fear of failure can improve our game, whatever it may be, and an immediate one gives us an adrenaline rush. This isn’t always a good thing either: fear of looking fearful motivates some people (young men especially) to do some very stupid things. Thrill seekers deliberately seek out fear with derring-do and sports such as base jumping. Freud explained the reward of this sort of thing in terms of the release of tension when it is over. Comments Michael Aptor, Ph.D, author of The Dangerous Edge: The Psychology of Excitement, "The safer we try to make life, the more people may take on risks."

Like most people, I’ve had a highly varied relationship with fear. I’ve let it keep me from doing what I should have done and at other times let it goad me into doing what I shouldn’t have done. But it stopped me from doing more than a few stupid things and on other occasions gave me a much needed kick forward. It’s ruined whole years of my life and vastly improved others. It even showed me the truth of Carl Jung’s dictum, “You meet your destiny on the road you take to avoid it.” Nowadays, fear and I are on much better terms than when I was young – a natural effect of aging. Knowing that, whatever happens, it won’t be for very long is oddly comforting.

As for the other core emotions…well, I’ll leave those for another day.

We All Have Fears


  1. I'm guessing those emotions have different priorities as one ages. As a child I mostly had happy, sad, and anger. Disgust and surprise don't seem that prevalent, unless taken on a subtle scale. Now that I'm older fear, which I normally didn't think about comes more into the picture. A small ache triggers some sort of fear and makes me wondered if I'm okay health-wise or whatever, and with more maturity I'm less angry.

    It's funny that love, hate, & guilt are thought of as secondary emotions, I'd I think they have something to do with happy, sad, etc.

    1. Core emotions, so the argument goes, are those that are basic enough for us to share with other mammals, and they should be manifest. Most of the time you can’t tell if someone is in love for example – s/he can exhibit any of the six core expressions while being so. Still, one is as likely to act irrationally from a secondary emotion as from a core one – maybe more so.

  2. That is very cool. I remember going over those emotions back in sixth grade. We had a teacher who was very much a hippy. She love to sing to us while strumming her guitar. But she was really big on getting to understand emotions. I don't remember disgust or surprise coming up, but she might have toned it down for our young minds.

    Yes, I had an "inside out" flashback when you started. I have to say that fear is a primary motivator for a lot of what I do (and don't do). It is also one of the reasons I could always related to Shinji from Neon Genesis Evangelion. His entire character revolves around fear, and achieving a kind of stasis in his life to avoid it. As the series progresses, he attempts to battle fear, but with mixed results. By the end he is either embracing his fear or closing down completely for good. Depends on how you look at the enigmatic and symbolic ending. Anyway, cool show. I should give it another watch.

    1. Very cool. My classmates were hippies, but not my teachers -- perhaps my classmates were your teachers.