e. Basic Emotions

Basic Emotions

In this article, I discuss what are thought by most researchers to be our core or basic emotions: Joy, Anger, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Surprise. Love is omitted by most but there is strong evidence that it too is a basic emotion. I have, therefore, included it at the end.


Joy is often cited as our only positive emotion. On the scale strong to weak, it can manifest as exhilaration, joy, happiness, pleasure, or satisfaction. When extreme, it is associated with positive stress and the release of hormones. We can then act precipitately and overconfidently. Facial displays of happiness signal approachability and can de-escalate tension.


Anger is a negative emotion associated with the harms caused specifically by people, or other agents with choice regarding their behaviour. It targets them with blame and will, for example, be aroused when we face an injustice. On the scale strong to weak, it can manifest as rage, anger, annoyance, or irritation. Facial displays of anger towards the target are a signal that alteration of their behaviour is required. When extreme, anger is associated with negative stress, the release of hormones, and precipitate behaviour. Because anger causes us to move towards its cause, it can result in aggression.


Sadness is another negative emotion but differs from anger in that it targets circumstances, rather than agents, with the blame. In situations where we are unable to experience anger, we will experience sadness. On the scale strong to weak, it can manifest as grief, sadness, or unhappiness. This, of course, suggests that it is the opposite of the positive emotion, joy. We can sometimes enjoy a mild state of sadness. This is because its contrast with happiness enables us to appreciate the latter emotion more fully. Facial displays of sadness, rather than signaling that the observer is the cause, can be a signal that we want them to make us happier. In the same way as other basic emotions, we can also experience empathic sadness and the facial display can also be a signal of this.


Fear is another negative emotion normally associated with threats to our more basic existence needs. Its strength varies on the scale: terror; fear; nervousness. When extreme, it is associated with negative stress, the release of hormones, and precipitate action. Fear triggers the fight or flight response in the face of a threat. Little is known about the signals given by its associated facial expression, but the purpose may be to alert others to the presence of a threat, to mitigate aggression, or both.


Disgust is also a negative emotion. It causes avoidance behaviour and is thought to have evolved as a defence against potential sources of illness or disease, e.g., spider bites or rotting organic material. However, disgust, in its learned form, can also target people who engage in harmful behaviour. It can even target oneself in the form of shame or guilt. It varies on the scale: abhorrence; disgust; aversion. Again, little is known about the purpose of the associated facial expression, but it seems likely that it signals to others the presence of a potential source of illness or disease. In its learned form it is likely that it signals unacceptable behaviour.


Surprise is probably regarded as basic because of its associated facial expression. It is an unusual emotion because it is neither positive nor negative. We can be surprised both by unexpected satisfiers and by unexpected contra-satisfiers. This results in greater attention being given to them. Thus, our facial expression, which can of course be feigned like that of any other emotion, is a signal of interest and attention. We can be very surprised or mildly surprised depending on how unexpected the cause is. We can also move quickly from surprise to the relevant positive or negative emotion. However, depending on the nature of the surprise, this will be at some point on their respective scales. Our response to surprise is learned depending on whether our experience has been largely positive or negative. Some of us will wish to avoid surprises if experience has been negative. Others will embrace them if it has been positive.


Until the mid-20th century, love was regarded as a core emotion, but, largely because it lacks an easily identifiable facial expression, it has since been omitted from the lists of most psychologists. They do not deny its existence, but rather believe it to be a combination of other emotions or not to be classified as an emotion at all. Nevertheless, it is popularly regarded as a core emotion. A more detailed discussion of this topic can be found in:

The word “love” is used in a wide variety of contexts. In its inherited form, it is a positive emotion associated with others. It varies on the scale: love; affection; liking. As we age, its focus moves from our parents to our siblings and close childhood friends, followed by our sexual partners in the form of romantic love, and finally to our children and grandchildren in the form of parental love. It generates true altruism, tolerance, and forgiveness. These create a strong social bond between the giver and receiver, facilitating the survival and propagation of our genome. It almost certainly has an evolutionary basis, therefore. Further evidence of love’s evolutionary basis lies in the fact that it is experienced as a “surge” or “upwelling” which seems to have a physical component.

It is possible that, in its learned form, it can also be an emotional attachment to places and objects of value.

The absence of a clearly identifiable facial expression can be explained by the fact that such expressions elicit a response. However, true altruism expects no response, except perhaps the absence of an injustice which might elicit anger, and a facial expression would have no purpose, therefore. Furthermore, unconscious facial expressions of love could also make us vulnerable to exploitation. For these reasons, a facial expression is unlikely to have evolved.

In the next few articles, I will discuss the part that emotions play in our decision making and behaviour, including how we can be influenced by external factors.

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