What Makes Us Human—Identifying a Universal Set of Emotions

From the Lecture Series: Psychology of Human Behavior

By David W. Martin, Ph.D., North Carolina State University

When it comes to measuring emotions, the first question we should address is whether or not there’s a basic, universal set of emotions across cultures. If so, which ones are they?

Different emotions drawn on notes, dark background.
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Universal Emotions

Paul Eckman, now an emeritus professor at UCSF, who addressed exactly this question of whether or not there are universal emotions, and if so, which ones. He decided to focus on facial expressions, given that across all cultures all individuals have the same facial musculature.

Photo of Paul Ekman, pioneer in the study of emotions and their relation to facial expressions.
Paul Ekman, pioneer in the study of emotions and their relation to facial expressions (Image: By Momopuppycat/Public domain)

What he did was to take pictures of his graduate students making different facial expressions. He then traveled to different countries and different cultures around the world. He would show the picture of an angry face, for instance, and ask them “What just happened to this man?” In their own language, in their own terms, from their own cultural perspective, they would then tell a story that was representative of anger, for example.

This is a transcript from the video series Psychology of Human Behavior. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

After doing many iterations of this particular study, he was able to deduce that there are six primary emotions, which he sometimes calls the six primary colors:

  • happiness
  • surprise
  • sadness
  • anger
  • disgust
  • fear

Now, obviously there are many more than six emotions, so he came up with the idea of blended emotions, such as envy, hope, despair, and love, that take those basic emotions and mix them together in different proportions. For example, the emotion of contempt is most likely composed of a blend of anger and a blend of disgust.

Learn more about the recent trend to view behavior within an evolutionary context

Person, emotions, mask, face, mood concept
(Image: Drawlab19/Shutterstock)

Atlas of Emotions

An interesting way to visualize the groupings or relationships between emotions is with something called the Atlas of Emotions, also created by Paul Eckman along with his daughter, Eve Eckman. What you’ll see are family groups of emotions, which will help you build your emotional vocabulary. You’ll see linkages to emotional states, actions, triggers, and moods.

For example, if you click on sadness, you’ll see a range of sad-related states based on least to most intense. We have disappointment, resignation, and anguish as the most common. It’s a great tool to begin exploring emotions and to start building a foundation for more emotional awareness and emotional intelligence.

Now we have a sense about what the basic emotions are and the families that they belong to. We have a range of different emotions because each has a different function. For instance, sadness is often a consequence of loss. It triggers reflection and support seeking. Anger emerges in reaction to perceived injustice or violation. It gives you strength in order to correct that injustice or violation.

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As you explore different emotion families, consider their functions and how or when that might be helpful or hurtful.

Russell’s Circumplex Model of Affect

I want to show you a simpler, more commonly used alternative model called Russell’s model of affect. In this model, you have two orthoganal lines that create four quadrants. You have a level of arousal from high to low, and you have valence from positive to negative.

Fairly simple, two quadrants. You would just rate an emotion high or low arousal, positive or negative by placing a dot in one of those quadrants.

The most commonly used measure of positive and negative affect is called the PANAS or the positive and negative affect scale, cited over 23,000 times the last time I checked. There are two scales as the name implies, one for positive affect and one for negative affect. It’s composed of 20 items. The items present a single emotion or a feeling word and ask you how strongly you felt that word in a specified time range. Examples include how much have you felt distressed, guilty, ashamed, hostile, interested, excited, or enthusiastic.The PANAS is owned by the American Psychological Association, but there are a number of online sites that have posted the full scale for free if you’re interested in taking it on your own.

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Photographic Affect Meter

Just another quick and dirty but still interesting assessment tool is the photographic affect meter developed by J.P. Pollak. You typically get a text message telling you to check your mood. When you click on the app or the link, you’ll see an array of pictures. You simply picture one picture that represents your mood. The pictures were selected to represent all four quadrants of the circumplex model, positive and negative affect, high and low arousal. The PAM, the Photographic Affect Meter, has shown good correlations with the PANAS, suggesting it might be a quick, cheap, and valid way to assess your mood.

Common Questions About Universal Emotions

Q: Are there any universal emotions?

Yes. There are considered to be seven universal emotions: sadness, happiness, fear, anger, disgust, contempt and surprise.

Q: How are emotions triggered?

Emotions are thought to be triggered when person or a situation threatens to remove one of our many core needs such as control, acceptance, safety, or freedom.

Q: Is there a difference between emotions and feelings?

Emotions are hardwired and generally produced to our advantage. Feelings can be triggered by an emotion and are largely unique to the person based on biases.

Q: Does feeling or emotion describe love?

Love is a complex blend of many emotions as well as feelings unique to the person’s biases and the situation.

This article was updated on 9/5/2019

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